Appearing soon in a store near you -- camel milk. Whiter and sweeter than cow's milk, it is thought in some cultures to have health benefits not found in ol' Bessie's milk.
Camel milk? In Minnesota? Who's going to drink that? About 70,000 Somali Minnesotans, for starters.
"It's a little sweet, hard to describe," said 19-year-old Jamilla Mohamed, of Minneapolis, who remembers drinking camel milk in Somali when she was 11. "My grandma said it was healthy to drink."
A traditional drink in much of Africa, the Middle East and points east, camel milk is not available in the United States right now. But Millie Hinkle, a North Carolina homeopathic physician who is leading the camel milk cause in this country, is fielding hundreds of requests -- including regular queries from a potential distributor in Minnesota.
Hinkle, who has successfully lobbied to change federal rules allowing the sale of camel milk and is organizing a camel farm co-op in several states, predicts that camel milk will be on Minnesota shelves within a year, and that camel dairies will follow, depending on demand.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture said it has no problem with camel dairies or the sale of camel milk, as long as it's done according to law. But it's no simple trick getting camel milk from teat to table.
Milk with a killer kick
Camel milking is notoriously difficult. It's done mostly by hand, on large, often uncooperative animals that can deliver a killer kick sideways. Output per camel is about half that of a traditional dairy cow, and what a camel gives has to be shared.
Camels won't give milk unless their young are near them. "The baby has to latch on and start sucking," said Hinkle. With the calf on one teat, milk is taken from the other three.
That's not how milking chores are done in Minnesota -- and who knows how to feed and house a camel?
Hinkle acknowledges a lack of camel husbandry in this country, but doesn't expect it to stop the flow of camel milk. She said plans are underway to bring in experts from the Middle East and Africa to give workshops on the milking and keeping of camels.
At a Middle East dairy, camels march single file into the milking parlor, and out again 10 minutes later, she said. A camel herder leads them caravan-style through the desert to graze, Hinkle said. They march back again in the evening for their second milking.
Some groups across the country apparently aren't waiting for camel tutoring. A group of New Jersey Hasidic Jews is looking to start a dairy to supply their community with milk to treat Crohn's disease, a malady some believe is alleviated by camel milk, Hinkle said. (Camel milk is not kosher, but a rabbi might sanction its use as a medicine, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.)
Hinkle has also advised Amish farmers -- and some others discouraged by current milk prices -- on how to switch from cows to camels. (Step One: Get some bucks together. Camels go for $10,000 to $20,000 a head.)
Dromedary dairies lucrative
For all the trouble it is to get camels and milk them, to do so could be as lucrative as, well, selling oil -- actually, more so. Nobody flinches at a price of $24 to $36 a liter (about a quart), said Hinkle. A liter of camel milk sells for $40 in Israel. Once it catches on, Hinkle predicts there will be no way to keep up with demand.
"We'll import, probably from a large dairy in Dubai, or a German-controlled dairy in Kenya," she said
Minnesota has camels. Two Minnesota Zoo Bactrian camels (they have two humps instead of the one-hump dromedary) recently gave birth and are lactating, but they aren't being milked, said zoo spokeswoman Kelly Lessard. That's probably OK. Bactrian milk isn't as good as dromedary milk anyway, Hinkle said.
Fifty or more Minnesota farms have New World camels, the llama and alpaca. (The dromedary and Bactrian are Old World camels.) They aren't being milked, either.
How do you milk one?
"I can't imagine trying to milk them, " said Julie Chapman, owner of Minnesota Minis, a llama farm near Spring Grove. "They are prey animals and don't like to stand still." Even if one could get llamas and alpacas to agree to it, milking would be by hand -- on nipples that can be as small as raisins -- and they'd need convincing twice a day.
Yet, a hundred or so years ago, waves of Scandinavian and German immigrants embraced the notion of keeping cows -- selling milk, butter, cheese -- and turning Minnesota from wheat farming into a dairy state. It may be that this latest wave of immigrants are simply bringing a different animal and its milk to the table, and birthing a new industry.
Or maybe not.
Jamilla Mohamed, having drunk both, said she probably won't be drinking camel milk, despite grandma's advice.
"I like American milk better," she said.
Karen Youso • 612-673-4407