Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cows, Milk, and Agri-biz


Heads up, folks. You can buy and consume foods with all the high fructose corn syrup and chemical additives you want but you don’t dare buy unpasteurized milk from a friend!  My thoughts on this topic were sparked by the most recent Virginia Farm Bureau newsletter that has an article on the vanishing Virginia dairy farm.  The tone is one of sad resignation and the causes named are – boo hoo - the reduction in milk drinking and those troublesome environmental restrictions on pastures and manure relating to the impact on the Chesapeake Bay.  Oh yeah, and the current prices paid to farmers for milk. 
There’s not a hint of the way processed milk has lost its flavor as more and more it has been routinely pasteurized to ultra high levels; this omission may possibly be because the author has never tasted real milk.  There’s no mention of the way the true ‘small’ dairies have been pushed out of business.  By small I mean families that milked 8, 20, 50 cows not the big boys milking 250, 500, or 1000 cows.  It has become the smug assumtion that the small guys just needed to get the hell out if they couldn’t compete with the big boys.  The idea that the small operator might be best situated to sell to their local market never seems to have occurred to anyone (but the small guys themselves, I suppose).  And certainly there was nothing even hinting at people who milk one or two cows, sharing the milk with family and friends.  From the agri-biz perspective no one (sane) milks their own family cow, no one can make any useful income from making cheese or selling milk from an 8-to-50-cow herd. 
For eight years in South Dakota I hand milked two Jersey and one magnificent Guernsey cow.  The way the rules work in South Dakota is that anyone can sell anything from their farm if the customer comes to them.  Over the years I sold pigs, lambs, chickens, eggs, butter, yogurt, and milk to friends, neighbors, and customers as far away as Sioux Falls 47 miles to the south.  And of course my family also ate all those homegrown foods we raised. 
Did I feel ‘safe’ eating and selling those items; yes.  For a relatively small cost my cows were tested for brucellosis annually.  With only four dairy cows I was not concerned with staphiccosis or any of the bacteria issues often mentioned when large operations and vast collections of manure are discussed; I felt the same comfort with our 50 laying hens and the annual 500 free-range fryers.  We raised 10 sows, four stock cows, and twelve sheep for meat and wool.  There was grass pasture, room for the animals to roam, and easy composting of all the manure for application to garden and field.  At any given time I knew no fewer than ten families who milked anywhere from two to 30 cows, sold milk in the neighborhood or to the cheese company.  No harm, no foul. 
When we moved to Virginia one of the first things I did was to buy another milk cow, a sweet small Jersey.  I made friends with a local man who was milking four cows and had been selling milk to his friends for years.  I was made welcome into a community of milkers, gardeners, and family food producers.  But when I told them of my South Dakota experience they were astounded.  Almost as astounded as I was to discover that without acres of stainless steel and regiments of inspectors I could not sell any thing except eggs or honey here in Virginia! 
How did all these good old boy, proud Virginia ‘small farmers’ let the oligarchs in the General Assembly ram that down their throats?  The big boys have red herringed the issue by convincing the politicians that somehow it is the small guys who are the threat.  Oh, no we don’t pollute the Bay with our multi-1000 cows in hip-deep mud loafing pens!  Representative Blah, why don’t you spend your time legislating the beady-eyed policing of farmer’s markets.  What?  Joel Saladin butchers chickens in front of the actual customer?  OH MY GOD!  Git ‘em’!  Don’t worry about Tyson’s or Perdue or the Hispanic workers working those nauseating assembly lines in the chicken slaughterhouses.  That’s the part that pisses me off – all the smug economic agendas by the big boys and the equally smug capitulation by the agri-biz media. 
So my response to the Virginia Farm Bureau point of view is that if you are not wiling to support the real small guys you can’t complain when the larger guys are under the gun.  You can’t falsely accuse home milkers of potentially spreading milk-borne diseases while ignoring or downplaying the bacterial results of huge muddy feedlots, or hundreds of cows who have never seen a green pasture being milked in multi shifts a day. 
The result; I use as little ‘store’ milk as I can, and probably lots of people make that same choice.  Or we are willing to pay a premium for milk from dairies we feel are more humane, or smaller, or Mom and Pop, or organic or whatever values make us feel good.  My decision is that I fully intend to raise another milk cow so I can taste the incredible flavor of real milk once again and to share it with my grandchildren.
While most people are not ever going to milk their own cow everybody should have the choice to buy whatever milk they want from whom ever they want.  Damn, you can buy and feed to your children every kind of soda pop, or candy; you can buy mass-ground, crappy, cheap (possibly contaminated) hamburger, or Pop Tarts, or hotdogs I wouldn’t feed to my cat, or greasy mass produced cheese, and boxes of salt filled Hamburger Helper, and don’t forget drive-through fast food garbage, crap, crap, crap.  BUT you can’t go to a friend’s barn and buy a quart of fresh real milk!