Milk in the Raw

Thanks to one man’s quest for a better smoothie, Las Vegas’ raw-milk prohibition may at last come to an end

Three years ago, Brett Ottolenghi got his daily fix through an underground operation. His personal hookup would drive across the Nevada-Arizona stateline to procure the contraband. In this case the white stuff is milk. Straight from a dairy. Milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized. Ottolenghi used raw milk every day in his breakfast smoothie, at least until the woman who’d made the regular milk runs for a handful of Las Vegans moved away.

Raw milk drinkers tout its nutritional benefits over the milk commercially available, and note that for centuries it’s how we consumed it. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution brought about large-scale production farms that milk supplies, particularly in cities, became dangerously tainted.

“Basically, pasteurization was used to cover the less-than-sterile practices [that existed] then. But, if you follow modern [sanitation] practices, the risk of getting sick from raw milk just isn’t there,” Ottolenghi says, noting that raw milk is available in every state surrounding Nevada.

Once he researched the issue, Ottolenghi discovered that raw milk is prohibited not by law in Nevada, but by the legal hurdles of setting up a dairy. It must be certified by a county-established raw milk board, which no county has ever bothered to do. In agricultural-rich Northern Nevada, consumers have had a workaround. Small farms such as Stone House Ranch, just north of Reno across the California stateline, offer shares in its dairy cows. So rather than buying the milk, you get it for free by owning your own cow—like a timeshare.

“We offer an alternative to corporate America,” says Tricia Fredrich, who owns the ranch along with her husband, John. “Our customers are wise [consumers]. They don’t just accept that their only choice is what’s available in grocery stores.”

When Ottolenghi couldn’t find a dairy in Southern Nevada willing to do the same, he decided to become a dairy farmer himself. As owner of Artisanal Foods, a supplier to Las Vegas restaurants, he is well versed in small-farm practices. His exhaustive research on raw milk led him to the dairy farms in Amargosa, where he made connections with both farmers and political supporters. Town officials there supported his plans to build a small dairy and asked Nye County to create the state’s first Raw Dairy Board. Then followed a year of commission hearings.

Commissioner Gary Hollis said no one has opposed raw milk: “I grew up on raw milk myself. Anyone who says say we need the government to protect them from raw milk just doesn’t understand the issues here. All we need to do is make sure our dairies follow [State Health Board] regulations and test their milk properly. Then we need to get out of the way, [out from] between them and their customers.”

Actually forming the board turned out to be a bigger hurdle than anticipated. “I’m going to such lengths to make sure this board is legitimate that the county clerk thinks I’m insane,” Ottolenghi declared a week before the board members were officially hired on Dec. 18.

State law required the board to have both a local veterinarian and a medical doctor who belonged to their respective professional societies. No such association existed for Nye County veterinarians, so Ottolenghi successfully lobbied to create the Rural Regional Veterinarians Association. And there are two organizations that could be considered the state’s medical society; no local doctor belonged to both. Ottolenghi persuaded one to join both, just to cover the bases.

The next step is for the board to write the regulations governing raw-milk dairies and gain approval for them from both the State Health Department and the Nevada Dairy Commission. If that goes well, this spring Ottolenghi can, at long last, submit an application to build his 10-cow dairy in Amargosa and will be offering raw milk directly to the consumer by year’s end. Sales of raw milk through grocery stores still will not be allowed under the current law.

Ottolenghi doesn’t expect the dairy to bring huge profits, but he envisions it to be a start in expanding access to quality foods. On a cost-per-calorie basis, raw milk is a bargain over most foods, he says. “The way our food system is now, it’s become harder and harder to consume nutrition-rich calories because so many [processed] foods are void of nutrients. I think this has great potential for becoming a cornerstone in people’s diets again.”