By CINDY STAUFFER
Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
ANCASTER (AP) - Let's get the obvious questions about camel's milk out of the way first.
It tastes like skim milk, just a wee bit saltier.
And with regard to how you milk a camel: Very carefully, it turns out.
Camel's milk has arrived in Lancaster County, courtesy of Little Bit, Twila and their herd, who can be seen grazing placidly in a pasture on an Amish farm in Upper Leacock Township.
A local Amish organic cooperative is operating a camel dairy here, milking the long-legged, one-humped animals twice a day.
Miller's Organic Farm ships the milk all over the United States and even into Canada, for $10 a pint. It has about 100 customers who regularly buy camel's milk.
Miller's is one of about a half a dozen camel dairies in the nation, operating in states including Missouri, Michigan and Indiana. Like Miller's, many of the dairies are operated by Plain Sect farmers.
The local co-op also offers other camel's milk products, including camel's milk yogurt; camel's milk kefir, which is a fermented milk drink; and camel's milk soap, which is made by a local company.
The co-op also sells cheese, butter and other items it makes in its own dairy using milk from more conventional sources, such as cows, along with other natural products, including grass-fed beef, pickled beets, organic potato chips, coconut oil and raw honey.
In the past two years, the farm has built up a six-camel milking herd, along with a bull camel to propagate the group.
The dairy camels are milked twice a day, with a conventional milking machine.
The animals can be a bit choosy and a bit stingy with their milk, says a Miller's employee, Ben Stoltzfus.
Camels only can be milked while they are nursing a baby and they only will give up so much of their milk in a session, he says.
"A camel will allow milk to be withdrawn from their udder for only 90 seconds," he says. "They have like a spigot on their udder, and if they choose not to give milk there is really not much we can do."
Camels also tend to be a "one-man animal," Stoltzfus says, functioning best with one caregiver who is used to their personalities and temperaments.
If their local caretaker has to go away, the camels get a bit funny and won't give much milk for a milking or two, until they get used to his stand-in, Stoltzfus says.
It was Stoltzfus, 35, who brought the camel's milk to the co-op after he became interested in it due to one of his sons who has an auto-immune disease and diabetes.
A few years ago, a friend at the Bird-in-Hand Fire Company told Stoltzfus that he had a cousin in Turbotville, in Northumberland County, who had a camel herd and was selling the milk, which some people believe is helpful for children with autism or people with diabetes.
Stoltzfus was looking for natural remedies for his son.
He got in touch with Noah Peachey, who was operating the state's only camel dairy at the time, and purchased some of the milk. He and his wife felt that the milk improved their son's temperament.
The Stoltzfuses decided to buy their own camel, purchasing Little Bit, a one-hump dromedary, in April 2011.
Sold on camel's milk, Stoltzfus talked to his boss, Amos Miller, who contracted with Peachey to provide camel's milk to Miller's customers.
But Peachey's sales took off so much that he no longer could supply Miller's Organics with the milk.
Miller's decided to develop its own herd to supply camel's milk to customers, Stoltzfus says.
The co-op refrigerates and ships the milk, which is dated and marked with the first initial of the camel who gave the milk, in insulated boxes.
Most of the customers who buy camel's milk are parents of children with autism. Miller's has sent the milk to a school for autistic children in Vancouver, Canada, as well as parents in California and other states.
Customers have told Stoltzfus they have noticed an improvement in their autistic child's vocabulary due to the milk, and others have said the milk has helped with diabetes.
But he is hesitant to say the milk has curative properties.
"I'm not a doctor," Stoltzfus says. "I don't want to make any false claims."
His own son's doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia "think we're out of our heads with the camel's milk. They don't acknowledge it would make a difference.
"My wife and I are convinced that it makes enough of a difference that we want to keep using it, without a doubt."
Other parents who share Stoltzfus's feelings, or who want to know more, congregate on several Facebook pages, including Camel Milk for Health and Healing With Camel Milk.
Jacqui Zimmerman, a registered dietitian with Lancaster General Health, says camel's milk still is a relatively new product in the United States and there are not many studies examining its effects.
She says many parents believe diet can impact autism; others are not convinced.
Talk to your doctor first, she urges. If you decide to use it, start by giving a child a small amount.
Don't substitute the milk for any medications. And don't expect miracles, she says.
Also be aware that camel's milk is sold raw, unlike milk in the grocery store that is pasteurized, or processed at a high heat to kill bacteria.
She believes it's fine to try it and see what happens, as long as it's not going to be harmful in any way.
Zimmerman encountered Miller's camels while jogging near the farm, before she knew their purpose.
"I thought I was hallucinating," she says, laughing. "I saw these three camels. I even took a picture.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh. Is that a camel?' "