“WE CAN DO IT!” said Rosie the Riveter, wearing a red and white polka-dot scarf around her shiny black hair and pulling up the sleeve of her blue work shirt to flex a bicep. The iconic poster, first printed in 1942, was part of a larger political campaign to entice American women to join the workforce during World War II. Decades later, Rosie’s image has been appropriated by various waves of North American feminism.
Jane pins up the poster of Rosie to her kitchen wall in the small cabin on Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands that lay in the mist between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia.
I travelled to Salt Spring at the urging of friends who were starting a homestead project there. “Come,” they said. “You’ll find more women farmers than you could have imagined.”
Driving along the single highway that weaves around the island, I marvel at the number of farm stands lining the road. They are small wooden stands packed with farm goods for sale: cartons of eggs, long strands of bulbous garlic hanging like Hawaiian leis, bunches of kale and Swiss chard, bright orange carrots, and deep purple eggplants. Salt Spring Island feels like a mecca for women growing food.
“Milk?” Jane asks casually. I nod. She pours a one-litre mason jar of creamy raw goat’s milk into blue ceramic mugs. Every morning at six o’clock, she milks the goats. “Trust me,” Jane says. “You can’t find anything fresher than this.” She hands me a steaming mug of coffee and goat’s milk and sits down at the kitchen table across from me. She takes off a faded green baseball hat and runs a hand through her cropped brown hair. When she smiles, the skin around her eyes wrinkles into crow’s feet. I take a sip of the caramel coffee and taste the strong, sweet flavour of the goat’s milk.
“My first days on the island,” she recalls, “that’s when I realized how expensive it was to live on Salt Spring. You go to the grocery store, see for yourself. Compare the prices of, say, vegetables or milk here on Salt Spring to a grocery on the mainland. It’s unaffordable for most. That’s why so many people, so many women, keep gardens and get into farming. Honestly, that’s why I got into farming too. I wanted to make it easier on families.”
Only five years earlier, Jane bought Willow and Barley, two dark-honey-coloured Nubian female goats, at a livestock auction. The Nubian breed is known for producing thick, creamy milk with a butterfat content of 5 percent, ideal for making cheese, yogurt and soap products. “As soon as I bred them, I was hooked,” says Jane. “After Willow and Barley gave birth to two healthy kids, I began to milk them everyday. The milk is raw, fresh and full of probiotics. It’s improved my health, I’m sure of that.” Willow and Barley produced more small, bouncy offspring, and, slowly, Jane’s herd of female goats grew in size. Their milk flooded the brims of the metal milking containers. “Eventually, I was milking upwards of twelve litres a day,” Jane says.
Every day, Jane poured the creamy goat’s milk into one-litre mason jars and sold them directly to families at half the cost of the milk they’d find in the grocery stores. She recognized how young families living on the island struggled to afford organic food and produce. Word about Jane’s organic raw milk began to filter across the island and her customer base grew.
“Many people prefer goat’s milk to cow’s milk because it’s healthier,” explains Jane. “Some people on the island even feed the milk to their newborn babies. Last year we had a newborn who couldn’t latch onto her mother’s breast for the first two weeks of her life. Her parents fed her my goat’s milk during that whole first year. For me, it was deeply satisfying.”
“How do you get around the dairy regulations?” I ask her. “Is it not illegal to sell raw milk in Canada?”
“Well, yes,” she says. “Technically, the national and provincial laws require that commercial dairy products undergo pasteurization.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canadian officials and scientists linked outbreaks of E. coli, listeriosis and tuberculosis to consuming unpasteurized dairy products. In 1862, a French scientist by the name of Dr. Louis Pasteur developed the process for killing germs and microorganisms, including the Salmonella typhi bacterium that causes typhoid, by heating raw milk to temperatures upwards of seventy degrees Celsius. Ontario was the first Canadian province to make the sale of raw milk illegal. In 1938, the provincial government passed legislation that required all commercial dairy products to undergo pasteurization. Most other Canadian provinces and territories followed suit, and British Columbia went one step further: in 2009, its Public Health Act officially declared raw milk a “health hazard.” In BC, those caught selling raw milk can face a fine of up to $3 million, or a jail sentence of up to three years.
“Public health officials claim that the bacteria in raw milk is a danger to society,” says Jane. “But the same can be true for pasteurized milk, which is essentially ‘dead milk.’ They heat the substance to a temperature that kills everything, including vitamins A, C and B12, along with healthy kinds of bacteria. A little bacterium in our systems is actually a good thing because it helps us to build a healthy immune system.”
South of the border, the sale of raw milk is legal in thirty US states, although with a variety of restrictions on how it can be sold. Twelve states, including California, Pennsylvania and Utah, even permit raw milk to be sold in grocery stores; consumers have to go directly to the farms to buy unpasteurized milk in Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. But while raw milk activists are lobbying for changes to provincial legislations, it remains illegal to sell raw milk in Canada, in any form, except for unpasteurized cheese.
“Don’t you worry about getting caught?” I ask Jane.
“I would—if my milk was for sale,” she says with a grin. “But in the world of distributing raw milk, there are a few loopholes. Instead of selling my milk, I’ve asked people to ‘goat share.’ For five bucks, someone can own a small portion of Willow, Barley and the ladies, and in return I provide a weekly supply of milk. It’s legal to drink raw milk if it’s from your own goat, or cow. Willow and Barley are community-owned, in that sense. We share ownership and we share the ability to drink raw milk.”
If Jane wanted to pasteurize her milk, she would be forced to ship the milk off-island, across the Georgia Strait, to the nearest dairy-processing centre on the mainland of British Columbia. The additional costs of transportation and processing would render Jane’s goat milk unaffordable to most residents of Salt Spring Island. The steep cost of transportation is, in part, why a litre of pasteurized organic milk can cost upwards of $10 on Salt Spring. Dairy products, including cheese and yogurt, are equally expensive.
“Some grocers and farmers are selling a little chunk of cheese for twenty-five bucks!” Jane scoffs. “That’s too ‘boutique-y’ for me. Maybe tourists can afford to pay, on a one-time basis, for novelty food. But who else can afford that? If I sell my milk at that cost, we’re not going to be able to keep young families on the island.”
Outside, Jane leads me towards the barn. She makes a long, piercing whistle and the velvety ears of the goats perk up as we approach. A few trot eagerly towards the gate to greet us with curious, sniffing noses. They cock their heads at us with expressions of innocence, confusion and inquiry. “They provide me with such comic relief,” laughs Jane, as she bends down and heaves one of the smaller goats into her arms. “This is Willow,” she says, introducing me. She presses her cheek into Willow’s coat and closes her eyes, breathing in Willow’s musky goat scent. Next, Jane leads towards the white barn, into the sterile room where she milks the goats twice a day. Jane sits on a low wooden stool and her hands begin kneading Willow’s full, grayish-pink udder.
“Do you feel supported as a female farmer on the island?” I ask her.
“That’s an understatement!” she exclaims. “Those who are doing it on my scale—that’s to say, small-scale—are mostly all women because they’re trying to feed their families. The babies are strapped to their backs as they’re out weeding in the garden or taking care of the livestock. In such a tightly knit community, we really try to help one another out. It’s men who own the larger operations on the island. Some are like the ‘talking heads’ or the farming gurus that are well known in Canada.” Willow’s milk began to slowly pool at the bottom of the metal milking container. Jane looked up and grinned playfully. “But go to their farms and you’ll see that it’s mostly just women who are doing the work.”
Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World (University of Regina Press).
Trina Moyles is a Canadian-based freelance writer and author. Her writing has been published in the Globe and Mail, Alberta Views, Swerve Magazine, Vela, Modern Farmer, amongst other publications. Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World is her first book. Read more at www.trinamoyles.com.