When I was a little redneck kid, the milk man used to deliver weekly rounds. Then that stopped, and we went to the dairy to pick up milk. Now almost everyone buys their milk in the grocery store. Milk and dairy products can be mysterious to urbanites - how does milk get from a cow to a bottle? I was fortunate enough to have organic farmers Dean Sparks and Dan France of nymilk demystify the process for me. These extremely thoughtful men gave me a Milk 101, explained organic and raw milk, and shared some of the amazing work they are doing.
Dean and Dan are supercool, and their passion and deep knowledge of food issues is inspiring - as is their mission: to build the organic nymilk brand so they can save hundreds of family farms and bring wholesome local food to the New York and Northern New Jersey market. But before we get into that, let's start with the basics.
Dean and his family jumped into farming in 1998 (with no background), and they now have a 50 acre organic farm that raises poultry, pigs and seasonal foods. He authors one of my favorite blogs that provides real insight into food production. Dan is an 8th generation dairy farmer in Cobleskill, NY. He has a 70 cow dairy, and he's the spitting image of the hale, apple-cheeked farmer that is portrayed in children's books. Charming and smart, they were very patient with my simple questions.
MindulEats burning question: "Um, are cows pregnant all the time?" Turns out that the way it works is that after a cow gives birth, she produces milk for 10 months then has a dry period. The normal cycle is 13-14 months. Cows are bred while they are milking, then the cycle starts all over again. The normal lifespan for a cow is 7-8 years, and she calves 4 times during her lifetime. After she gets old, she becomes a hamburger at a fast food restaurant. I'd always thought the burgers in fast food restaurants came from beef cattle like Black Angus - but it's actually old dairy cows! Industrial dairies keep their cows in extremely stressful situations - thousands can be penned in dirt lots, standing in their waste, with little room to move. Disease spreads quickly so they are given antibiotics. They get hormone shots to increase milk production and lengthen their milking period. Cows in these Confined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have shorter life spans.
"What happens to the calves?" Female calves are raised until they are two, then they get impregnated and are a dairy cow. Male calves are sold and become veal. (Carla, there's your question answered).
"Is all organic milk from family farms?" Most of us think that organic milk comes from happy, pasture-fed cows. After all, I don't want to consume food or items based on another creature's misery. Well, some organic milk is actually coming from CAFOs out west. These CAFOs get to call their milk organic since they feed the cows organic grain (but they're still standing in cramped dirt lots). A lot of the cheap organic milk you get from Target and WalMart are from these operations. However, this should all change on June 11, 2010. The USDA's National Organic Program is being amended with the New Pasture Rules, which state that cattle have to be pastured for the full local season (at least 120 days), and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during the season. Dean and Dan are delighted by the ruling - Dan points out that any farm with 300+ cows is a CAFO. This means the price of organic milk will increase to reflect a truly quality product.
"What's the deal with raw milk?" There is a growing trend for drinking raw milk (unpasteurized). Fans say that is full of nutrients that get killed during pasteurization, and that it is far more delicious than pasteurized milk. People claim that even the lactose intolerant can drink it since it still has the enzymes to help you digest it. Dean's stance on raw milk is absolute. "Don't ever ask a farmer to risk his family and farm. If you want raw milk, go buy a cow - asking someone else to do it is putting them at too high a risk." They personally know multi-generation farms that have been put out of business over raw milk. Dean observed that a consumer can take a gallon of milk during the summer, stop at the library for 30 minutes and leave the milk in the car (allowing the bacteria to fester) before going home and putting it in the refrigerator. If someone then gets ill or dies from the milk, the farmer is blamed. Dan's drunk raw milk for 60 years. But then again, he has his own cows.
"OK, no raw milk without owning a cow. What about pasteurization?" Pasteurization means heating milk to kill bad bacteria. Low heat pasteurization (140 degrees) kills less bacteria but has better nutrition (more calcium and vitamins). High heat sterilizes milk and gives it a longer shelf life. It's up to you, but we prefer the more nutritious version. Many local brands like nymilk, MilkThistle and SkyTop Farms do low heat pasteurization. Homogenized milk is personal preference. I like unhomogenized milk since that's what I grew up on.
These amazing guys are all about education and saving farms. They are growing nymilk to be a powerhouse local brand - they currently have a 20 farm dairy coop and an 8 farm coop. In addition to milk and nycheese, they are planning nyogurt and nyeggs. Their mission is to convert as many farms to organic as possible, provide fair wages for the work involved, and bring the food to local markets. As a coop, they share marketing resources, then they share in any profits above the typical pay price. MindfulEats, for one, is happy to pay a fair price for quality goods. If you live in the NY area, look for the cloud in the shape of NY state. These guys are the real deal, and I walked away from them feeling inspired and hopeful.
What to do - Support Local Dairies
- If you've decided to consume dairy products, think about the kind of agribusiness you're supporting. Organic products may be more expensive, but they don't have unnecessary chemicals like hormones and antibiotics. And you are paying the farmers a livable wage.
- Consider buying local. Shipping may take less of an environmental toll, and your dollars stay in the area. If you buy from the farmer's market you meet the farmer who is accountable for his food. If you're in NY and buy nymilk, you can ask Dean any questions directly on his blog or on twitter @OrganicNYmilk1.
- Save money. You can learn more about Organic Valley and get some coupons.
Fore more posts on sustainable, organic, local and ethical food, go to Food Renegade.
What I ate: Oikos vanilla yogurt + ground flax seeds, strawberry kefir, latte, (full day of eating out): 2 little chicken sandwich bits, turkey/brie sandwich, salad, apple, spaghettini + cherry tomatoes + clam sauce, 2 oz. popchips, cheddar cheese, hot chocolate, 50 oz. water