Since the fall of 2006, the Spring Brook Township family has been selling unpasteurized, unhomogenized, raw milk straight from the udders of the Holsteins on their 150-acre farm in Lackawanna County .
Currently the only documented producers of raw milk in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Schlittlers are tapping into a continually growing anti-pasteurization subculture. Some raw milk enthusiasts drink it because they believe it's healthier than processed milk, capable of improving one's immune and digestive systems. Some can't get enough of the taste, which tends to be sweeter and creamier than pasteurized. Others see it as a benefit to small farms and the environment.
Some risk: With this mind-set comes some risk, as raw milk has the potential to carry harmful bacteria that pasteurization destroys, including E. coli, listeria and salmonella. Proponents of raw milk, however, claim pasteurization also kills beneficial bacteria, proteins and enzymes.
For years, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the interstate transport of raw milk, and regularly issues warnings to the public on the dangers of its consumption.
Fifteen states, including New Jersey and Maryland, prohibit the sale of raw milk. Pennsylvania, however, has taken a much more open-minded approach.
"We don't think that's a fad," Chirdon said. "We think it's a long-term trend."
Under state law, farms like the Schlittlers' must submit themselves to quarterly inspections by the Department of Agriculture, and, on an annual basis, have their milk tested for four pathogens (salmonella, E.coli 0157H, listeria and campylobacter) and their cows checked for tuberculosis and brucellosis.
In addition, the Schlittlers pay a laboratory to test their milk for bacteria twice a month. They're also required to keep a sign posted in their barn that advises customers on the possible perils of drinking raw milk, stressing pregnant women, children and people with weak immune systems are at risk.
Although these precautionary measures can significantly minimize the risks, a 100 percent clean product can never be guaranteed, Chirdon stressed.
"Unfortunately, cows have very poor personal hygiene," he said with a laugh. "So, you have to be careful."
The Schlittlers' 105-year-old farm is currently being run by the family's fourth generation. About four years ago, Scot Schlittler, his sister, Liz Shenko, and her husband, Chuck, took over day-to-day operations from their parents, Jake and Irene Schlittler.
The Schlittlers made the decision to sell raw milk from a purely economic standpoint, having first learned about the concept at seminars offered by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. By taking out the middleman -- i.e., the dairy companies they used to sell their milk to -- they could better sustain themselves through a direct-marketing approach.
Word-of-mouth: Thus far, their business has operated entirely by word-of-mouth. At the moment, they have about 15 regular customers who pay $5 a gallon. Some are recent raw milk converts, while others are immigrants from Russia, Egypt and Central America who grew up drinking it. Some buy as much as 10 to 15 gallons per trip.
"People are so thankful that we're giving them real food," said Scot Schlittler, who like the Shenkos, works full-time jobs in addition to his duties on the farm.
Among the regulars is South Scranton artist George Strasburger, who typically travels to the farm once a week for a fresh gallon. He said environmental and health concerns played a role in his decision to start drinking raw milk.
"My thinking is, the less processing in any food, the better it is," said Strasburger, noting his disdain for big agribusiness.
Does he ever worry about getting sick?
"No, I don't worry about it," Strasburger said. "I know too many farmers who raise happy, healthy families with raw milk. I have more trust with them than I do with these factory farms."
There are 26 milking cows on the Schlittlers' farm -- pure-bred Holsteins and Holsteins crossed with other breeds like Jersey and Brown Swiss. All of them have names -- Willow, Doo Drop, Sarah, etc. -- and most wear bells around their necks, a common practice on farms in Switzerland, from where Jake Schlittler's grandfather, Samuel Schlittler, emigrated in 1903.
Scot Schlittler said the cows aren't pushed too hard, and don't receive any growth hormones, medications or antibiotics. The family has also begun the process of converting the cows from a grain-heavy to a grass-based diet, which is more friendly to a cow's digestive system.
Overall, the Schlittler cows produce 750 pounds of milk per day, with about 10 pounds going into each gallon container, Chuck Shenko said. Once taken from the cows, the milk is stored in two stainless steel bulk tanks -- one holding 625 gallons, the other 415 -- at 37 or 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Schlittlers were drinking raw milk "from the time they were born," Irene Schlittler said. Back then, she and her husband were selling their milk to companies like Dairylea, which would pasteurize the milk and put it on a supermarket shelf.
For years, the kids watched their parents struggle just to make ends meet. Often, family dinners were made up entirely of food taken from the garden. "One of dad's favorite expressions was the 'all potato' dinner," Scot Schlittler said.
"They stuck it out through thick and thin. I don't know how they did it," Chuck Shenko said.
"We got by and everyone was happy," Irene Schlittler said. That must have been the case, or two of the Schlittlers' five children wouldn't be making a go of the family business today.
"When you got the farming in the blood, it's hard to leave," said Scot Schlittler, who came back to the farm after 20 years away.
He rises everyday around 3:30 a.m., and between the farm and his full-time job as a manager at Burke's Pharmacy in Green Ridge puts in what usually amounts to a 14-hour day.
"It's a hard lifestyle in that you're married to it," he said. "You're really sacrificing a lot of time. Your freedom is essentially nil."
"It's a love-hate relationship," added Liz Shenko, who works as a medical technician at Mid-Valley Hospital.
The three all have certain specialities on the farm. Chuck Shenko is the resident Mr. Fix-It, while Scot Schlittler is known as "the cow whisperer" for his ability to gently coax the cows into production mode.
"Scot has a nice, calm disposition to him, and I think the cows feel it," said Liz Shenko, who has an uncanny knack for detecting when a cow is sick. She also does the farm's books. Right now, Scot Schlittler is the only one taking an income from the farm's operation, pulling in about $300 a month for his sweat equity.
At some point in the future, he, his sister and his brother-in-law would love nothing more than to see the farm become a full-time operation that, in addition to milk, would produce raw milk cheeses and grass-fed meats and poultry.
"We really want to keep the tradition of the family farm alive," Liz Shenko said.