the local food challenge – let’s talk dairy

Today, as your local food challenge, I’m asking you to look at your dairy habits through a different lens.  I’d like to ask you to consider your dairy purchase in the context of how it bolsters or undermines the health of your local dairy farms.

The amount of dueling data about what to buy and what to eat is overwhelming. Obviously we consider our dairy choice from the standpoint of our own experience – as purchasers and eaters.

Do we want it low-fat? Which yogurt do we think tastes best? Do we think activia regularis has special digestive properties not shared by the live culture in any other yogurt brand?  Which is the least expensive? Which lasts longest in my refrigerator, what brand is most convenient for me to purchase and the big Organic or non-organic decision.

Talk and debate are important, but just as important are the actions we can take as individuals. Actions that are like a vote yay or nay for practices and products we want to support or not.

I guarantee the only reason corporations spend millions lobbying to restrict labelling, journalistic opposition, environmental restrictions and federally mandated milk prices is because it is profitable for them to operate without challenge.  And most of the time, all it takes for us to comply  with the corporate program is for them to obscure information.

The behind the scenes reality of the complicated business relationship between the government, dairy processors and dairy farmers is something most suburbanites & urbanites have not the slightest understanding of. On the consumer end, you worry when you hear about milk prices going up because that means food prices may be following. But what if milk prices don’t go up when they need to?

At the moment, the government set price for milk is actually lower than the farmer’s costs to produce the milk and it’s been hovering at a painful level for a very long time.  Dairy farms that have been in business for generations are being lost at an alarming rate.

And while large processors are not prohibited from  voluntarily raising the prices they pay to farmers to share in weathering a crises, national processors like Dean Foods and Dairy Farmers of America instead press to keep the federal price limit as low as possible regardless of the economic climate affecting their farmer suppliers.

Instead of using their profit to support their farmer/suppliers, they instead have invested in building their own competing mega dairies instead. Dairies that have not been solid investments and have only further undermined the income stability for existing farmers.

And, they spend tons of money on lobbyists to make labelling of bovine growth hormones on dairy products illegal. And to muscle federal milk prices down or up. And to downgrade organic standards so they can use decidedly non-organic ingredients like carrageenan and eliminate pasture requirements for cows.

That’s good business you say? Maybe from the standpoint of a shareholder. But when it comes to the availability of healthy food, we need to think more like investors.

We need to plan longer term than just the current season.  Remember the old Aesop’s fable of the goose and the golden eggs?  If I’m a dairy processor, and my milk suppliers are squeezed out of business, where am I going to get my milk?

I’m going to have to look to foreign countries, create my own supply, or substitute another material.  I don’t know about you, but none of those options is very encouraging to me. The first, importing milk? Well, many of the commercial foods you’re eating today are already using imported milk protein concentrate from China.

And processors forming their own dairies sounds like a win-win doesn’t it?   Not so fast, this has already been happening and the type of dairy created is a mega-dairy housing thousands of cows on not enough land, polluting communities with massive manure lagoons and pounding alternatives out of the dairy business.

National corporations syphon their money out of communities unlike smaller local dairy businesses whose taxes and spending dollars are spread mostly throughout their local home economy.

Of course this is my opinion, and yours may differ, but I am not a fan of consolidating many businesses into one, just as I’m not a fan of single massive monoculture crops of any type.

Diversity cultivates alternatives which prepare us with multiple strategies for weathering challenges of weather and economy. And if the last few years haven’t convinced us of the importance of viable strategies for adapting to economic and weather change, we’re definitely not paying attention.

Sure, dealing with many quirky suppliers is less convenient for big processors to coordinate in the best of times. But times are always changing – it’s short sighted to believe that any business will enjoy an unchallenged run of perfect prosperity.

When you realize that farming is especially vulnerable to uncontrollable circumstances, it’s clear that provisions for handling uncertainty need to be part of the business model.

How’s it going to serve us when there is no competition for the mega dairies and their powerful lobbyists turn their efforts toward increasing the federal milk prices and lowering production standards?

Never mind the number of amazing dairy products that will become so rare you’ll be more likely to see the Loch Ness monster than a bottle of cream-line milk.

In a nutshell, supporting local dairies has never been more important.  The Local Food challenge is an awesome opportunity for us to muddle our way through home dairy-ing together.

My challenge to you is this:

  1.  Expand your thinking about milk. Trust me, you’ll be surprised to learn how much you don’t know when you begin to consider milk from the farmer’s perspective.  Get to know the folks at New England Cheesemaking Supply – they’re an excellent resource for learning more about dairy & cheese starting with this excellent article about milk choices. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  2.  Find yourself some cream line milk made by a Pittsburgh area farmer.  Trust me, it’s out there. And it’s not that hard to find. You’ll have to step out of your usual big grocery store and look for smaller alternatives like your local farmer’s market, the Pittsburgh Public Market, a farm store like Harvest Valley or Soergel’s, or McGuiness Sisters.  The Buy Fresh Buy Local site is an excellent place to begin.  xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  3. Better yet, go directly to a farm like Pasture Maid Creamery where on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays you can get cream line milk straight from the cows, pasteurized at low temperatures and sealed into glass bottles.  xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  4. Share your milk buying experience with us here and you’ll be entered to win a special prize – a copy of Shannon Hayes’ great book, The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook. What do we want to know about your quest?  Did you find an awesome and unexpected source? Did you go direct to a farm and what did you think/learn? Tell us what you think about cream line milk.  xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

What to buy for the next part of the local dairy challenge?  You’ll need a gallon of milk and a small container of cultured buttermilk.

Come back Wednesday when we’ll be using your milk to make a soft European style cheese.  I promise you won’t need any special equipment or ingredients and you’ll be amazed at how easy and udderly delicious it is.

Okay, what are you waiting for? Get out there and find that milk.. ready, set, GO!

8 thoughts on “the local food challenge – let’s talk dairy

  1. Buying local milk has changed my life – literally. I realized 10 years ago how important it is to purchase milk directly from small independent farmers and we have never looked back. The quality of the milk, the connection with the farmer and all the hard work and dedication they put into producing their milk, and the ability to see exactly how they care for their animals, is priceless. And speaking of price, I pay 30% less for cream line milk from pasture fed cows which are basically raised organically, than the Ultra-Pasteurized, homogenized, organic milk at the local grocery store. Ultra-Pasteurized milk, by the way, does not even need to be refrigerated (until after opening). It’s completely lifeless; no good bacteria and none of the important enzymes our bodies require. Try finding any commercial brand that is not Ultra-Pasteurized; they just don’t exist.

    Anyone who comes to our house and tries our milk raves about how incredibly awesome it is. Every Tuesday I drive to Pasture Made Creamery and bring milk back for my family and 14 other families as well. I don’t charge for this service; it is my philanthropy and my pleasure to help provide this outstanding milk for my friends and my community.

    Thanks for this awesome post. No book entry required….I already have a copy. ;)

  2. Very pleased to see that this year, there are three! small family run dairys in ontario that are now starting to bottle and sell their own milk in glass bottles, all three offer different kinds of milk, low fat, regular or full fat, two of them are offering local home delivery, with the third offering on farm pickup, and at a number of local health stores X times a week pickup.

    The cloest one is about four hours away, but the next time I head that way, I am so stopping an supporting them, I am waiting for one to come to our own area, I am sure it i will happen, of course ,my own cow is just over four months in the expecting stage, so I will have a spring freshened girl for my own milk and milk products.

    Great Post! Always look forward to seeing your posts arrive in my mailbox!

  3. After trying milk from all of the available local dairies, I settled on raw milk from a local organic, diversified dairy farm. This delicious milk changes flavor (and color!) with the seasons and comes with a layer of cream on top. I’ve cut back considerably on my dairy consumption recently for health reasons, but I love it this farm’s milk (or cream, yogurt, kefir, cheese…) when I have it. The difference in flavor and body between farm-fresh organic raw milk and grocery store commodity milk is, in my opinion, huge. I will never go back!

  4. I have recently come to purchase a locally produced whole milk and my family loves the flavor and creamy texture of our milk. I also love how the cows are treated who produce this milk. They live in pastures and eat grass, the food they are designed to digest. No antibiotics are needed because they are healthy cows. No growth hormones or other additives are used and yes the expiration date is not two months ahead, but when I see that time frame on other “organic” milk labels I have to think that it has been so sterilized that it no longer has much of the health benefits that it had before that purifying process. I’m glad to have found this local resource and have also found local supplies of chickens, beef and pork to feed my family. My eyes were opened after watching two movies, Food Inc., and Fresh. Not to mention the recent publicity of “pink slime” in ground beef and the issues these big commercial producers have in labeling their products that contain this ingredient. I want to know what I am eating and what I am feeding my children. Great Blog!

    1. Thank you Mary, both for the compliment and the extra effort you’ve invested into finding better food sources for your family.

      It is amazing how much different real milk tastes than ultra pasteurized…

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