Abbie Fentress Swanson of Harvest Public Media recently reported on the shrinking number of small dairy farms as consolidation in the industry continues apace. As her piece begins,
Donnie Davidson’s family has been producing bottled milk in Holden, Mo., since the 1930s. But the 63-year-old farmer decided to sell his herd of 50 milking cows in November after the roof on one of his barns collapsed from last winter’s snow.
Rebuilding the barn would have cost about $20,000. Then there were the costs of renovating a silo and paying for hired help since Davidson’s children won’t be taking over the business. It made financial sense to close the dairy, and grow crops and build a herd of beef cattle instead.
In the past decade, more than half the nation’s dairy farms have gone out of business, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data [PDF]. About 2,500 dairies closed their doors in Missouri. Thousands more have shut down in Iowa, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Colorado.
For full text and audio versions of the story, head here.
More than 35 years ago, a pair of college sweethearts decided to try to make a living making Cheddar. Today, that same couple, Tony and Julie Hook, are still going strong, crafting more than 50 cheese varieties, including a stunning line-up of award-winning blues and aged Cheddars at their Hook’s Cheese factory in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
Well-known as the enthusiastic duo who sling cheese under the “Hook’s Cheese” tent every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, the Hooks have perfected a sustainable model for making and aging award-winning cheese by buying fresh milk from the same group of small, local dairy farmers for the past three decades.
“The farmers know what kind of milk we want, and we pay them a good price for it,” says Tony Hook. “It’s a system that’s worked for 35 years.”
Find the full article, with photos by Jim Klousia, here.
J recently forwarded a link me for an article in the new magazine Modern Farmer. In it, Justin Elliott considers the ever-growing amounts of industrial by-product resulting from America’s latest dairy dear, Greek yogurt. He writes,
For every three or four ounces of milk, Chobani and other companies can produce only one ounce of creamy Greek yogurt. The rest becomes acid whey. It’s a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply be dumped. Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. That could turn a waterway into what one expert calls a “dead sea,” destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas….
The scale of the problem—or opportunity, depending on who you ask—is daunting. The $2 billion Greek yogurt market has become one of the biggest success stories in food over the past few years and total yogurt production in New York nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013. New plants continue to open all over the country. The Northeast alone, led by New York, produced more than 150 million gallons of acid whey last year, according to one estimate.
And as the nation’s hunger grows for strained yogurt, which produces more byproduct than traditional varieties, the issue of its acid runoff becomes more pressing. Greek yogurt companies, food scientists, and state government officials are scrambling not just to figure out uses for whey, but how to make a profit off of it.
And, if you’ve still got time on your hands and are curious to read a couple interesting pieces on Modern Farmer magazine, check out Rebecca Rothbaum’s post for the Wall Street Journal and Andrea Crawford’s piece for Slate.
Last week I posted about my renewed commitment to pasture-raised meat, eggs, and dairy after attending the open house for the University of Wisconsin’s Dairy Cattle Center.
Coincidentally, just an hour before visiting the UW cows whose lives I didn’t envy, I discovered the delicious, wonderful cheeses of Saxon Homestead Creamery. At the Willy Street Co-op where I did our weekly grocery shopping, a young woman from the Klessig and Heimerl families of dairy farmers was offering samples of their award-winning cheeses, which are made exclusively from the milk produced by their pasture-focused dairy farm. As their website describes,
Rotational Grazing is the cornerstone of our farm, and it is what makes our cheeses so rich and flavorful. We at Saxon Homestead have reduced our reliance on fossil fuels, energy and chemicals, thus drastically lowering our carbon footprint.
Our cows graze on harvest grass in a patch of pasture called a paddock. They are moved every 12 hours to a fresh paddock to graze. We move the cows not only to ensure the health of the paddock, but also the health of the cows. We have developed over 1000 acres of improved pasture, organized into various paddocks ranging in size from 2 to 6 acres. This is truly a “Sea of Grass.”
The family has a long tradition of dairy farming and cheese production. As Bob Galivan writes,
Saxon was founded by Fredrick and Elizabeth Klessig, who emigrated from Germany in , and purchased 160 acres of farmland for $500.00 in 1850. Their initial crops were small grains, like many of the farms in the area, but poor soil management practices depleted the soil and forced many farmers to shift to dairying operations. That move resulted in excess milk, which necessitated more formalized cheese production.
More recently, the family ran a conventional dairy operation until the late 1980s. As described by Jeanne Carpenter (who blogs as the “Cheese Underground Lady”),
The Klessigs and Heimerls converted their conventional dairy to a rotational grazing operation in 1989. That experience became the family’s “a-ha moment” as they turned their herd of Holstein cows out of the barn onto pasture for the first time and said they witnessed “pure pleasure” on the faces of their cows.
After a long process of planning, a cheesemaking venture was established in 2008. As detailed [PDF] in The Cheese Reporter in April, 2008,
Wisconsin’s newest farmstead cheese company has developed two original raw milk, pasture-based specialty cheeses made with old-world character, yet not reminiscent of any cheese currently on the market. Saxon Homestead Creamery, headquartered [in Cleveland,Wisconsin], has been 20 years in the making. It was primarily established to add value to the milk of longtime dairy farmer and company partner Gerald Heimerl. We take considerable pride in our milk production, as most farmers do, Heimerl said. But it bothered him to see milk co-mingled, knowing that “your milk is only as good as the worst milk in the truck.”
For a wonderful recounting of a trip to the Saxon farm, check out dharmagirl’s blog post. As she describes at the end of her piece,
Jerry’s passion for pastured, grass-fed dairy is palpable, and his dedication to this particular farm and its bounty is deep. His message to us was to supprt farms such as his and to support our local communities. Education and knowledge about our food has the power to change all of our lives—producers and consumers.
I don’t feel virtuous or self-righteous as much as I feel committed to truly knowing this place where I now live. And I feel a deep gratitude to the farmers whose labor is invisible in the foods that grace my plate so many times each day. I want to really think about the lives that have contributed to my food—human and non-human alike—and to truly appreciate and support them through the power of my fork.
Amen to that!
So, how ’bout the cheese? As Rufina writes at My Saucy Life,
Saxon Homestead Creamery may be the next frontier for a unique understanding of the terroir of Wisconsin. The combination of location, geology of the soil, average humidity, rainfall, wind, and other climate conditions that can make a wine distinctive, also make the creamery’s namesake cheese, Saxony, distinctive.
“I never really believed it when people talked about the terroir of foods, or recognizing the region of origin of a cheese just by its taste, but now I know it’s true,” Jerry Heimerl admits.
Lyndsey Sharp at the Pastoral blog details just what that Wisconsin terroir tastes like:
Green Fields is the resident washed-rind cheese. Inspired by Trappist cheeses, Green Fields is a raw milk cheese made with cooked curds, and aged for at least 70 days. Green Fields is a solid choice for a full-bodied beer pairing, as it’s pungent aroma and grassy-earth flavor will add a superb but subtle contrast to a beer with deep tones of yeast or spice….
For a meatier choice, Pastures Bandaged-Aged Cheddar is a wonderful way to experience a cheddar. Wrapped in cloth and aged for upwards of 120 days, Pastures is an all-purpose cheddar; it grates well, holds its own as a cubed table cheese amongst toasted nuts, or—for a fantastic twist on an old standby—Pastures is amazing as the center of attention in a grilled cheese sandwich, especially once paired with a crisp and light cider….
Perhaps the most endearing of Saxon’s selection, Big Ed is a farm-style Gouda named after the patriarch of the fourth-generation of Klessig cheesemakers, Ed Klessig. Described as a cheese that “hugs you back,” just like its namesake, Big Ed presents notes of nuts and salt while maintaining a buttery sweetness. A raw milk cheese that is formed into pressed and cooked curds and aged 120 days, Big Ed is also a great companion for an evening spent with some fruity wines and your favorite movie.
If you were reading closely, you noticed that some of these cheeses are made with raw (unpasteurized) milk. But didn’t I just mention on Friday that raw milk sales are illegal in Wisconsin? Yes, but … there’s a loophole. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article I shared last week about raw milk legislation was accompanied by photos of none other than Saxon Creamery. As one photo’s caption explains,
Saxon Creamery in the village of Cleveland in Manitowoc County … makes artisan cheeses, including some from unpasteurized milk. The Food and Drug Administration permits the sale of such cheese if it has been aged at least 60 days.
The cheeses I sampled at the co-op were really lovely, and the family’s commitment to animal well-being, sustainable farming, and the craft of fine cheesemaking are to be admired, encouraged, and savored.
Former Gov. Jim Doyle may have banned raw milk sales in 2010, but that didn’t end the debate over the controversial dairy product in Wisconsin.
Indeed, as the trial against defiant raw milk seller Vernon Hershberger is set to resume Monday in Sauk County Circuit Court, state Sen. Glenn Grothman has revived the issue on the legislative front with his announcement that he will try again to legalize the sale of raw milk.
Grothman, R-West Bend, has been an advocate of legalizing raw milk for years, including speaking out against Doyle after he abruptly vetoed its sale despite earlier signals that he would approve it….
About a month after Doyle’s veto, state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) officials raided Hershberger’s property in Loganville and shut down his on-farm store. The store sold raw dairy and other farm-fresh products.
He was subsequently charged by the state with four misdemeanors: distributing milk from a dairy farm without a milk producer’s license, operating a retail food establishment without a license, operating a dairy plant without a license and selling raw milk.
Find the full story here, which includes a number of informative links.
One of those links is to Rick Barrett’s recent article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Grothman’s efforts. As Barrett describes,
With little exception, state law prohibits the sale of raw milk to the public. Those who want the law changed say that fresh, unprocessed milk contains nutrients that are destroyed by pasteurization – and that consumers should be able to decide for themselves if they want it.
Public health and dairy industry officials say unpasteurized milk may carry pathogens that cause food-borne illnesses. They also worry that any illness outbreak associated with raw milk would tarnish the reputation of Wisconsin’s dairy industry….
Details of Grothman’s new bill aren’t yet available, but it’s expected to be similar to what he proposed in 2011.
Raw-milk advocates say they’re hopeful it will be passed by the Legislature despite opposition that’s likely to come from Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm association, and dairy producer organizations.
Check out Barrett’s full piece here.
This past Saturday I stopped by the grand opening of the newly remodeled Dairy Cattle Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. As I posted about a year ago, the facility was in dire need of updates. As a handout at the grand opening described, “The original dairy barn, which is located just west of the current facility, was built in 1898…. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Dairy Cattle Center was originally built in 1956 to replace the 1898 facility.” As I quoted Wisconsin State Journal reporter Deborah Ziff’s article last year, “In the last 55 years, cows have been genetically bred to be bigger and provide more milk…. [Before the upgrades,] a cow that weighs 1,800 pounds [was] living in a stall built for one that weighed 1,200 pounds in the 1950s, meaning her rear end [hung] over the edge of the stall into a gutter.”
That won’t be the case anymore (or at least not quite so much) as you can see in the photos below. (Check out the links above to my earlier post or Ziff’s article for a pre-renovation comparison photo.) That said, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that although new, more comfortable mats had been installed, life hadn’t really improved all that much for the cows, stuck as they are in their stalls with severely limited mobility and no access to pasture whatsoever. At the open house, there were hundreds of visitors who seemed very happy to see the facility and the cows, and I don’t doubt that the faculty, staff, and students learn a lot at the Center and very much care about the well-being of the animals. Personally, though, seeing the facility had the (surely unintended) consequence of renewing my commitment to support pasture-raised dairy, meat, and egg products.
One more facet of the visit gave me pause, and that was the extensive industry influence that was clearly reflected in promotional materials and bright, highly visible signage, some of it permanent. As the UW press release describes, “The project received strong industry support, notably from Madison-based BouMatic Inc., which contributed equipment and installation of the milking parlor, as well as donations of stall mats by Promat Inc. and parlor mats by Animat.” Nothing like promoting your product to current and future dairy industry professionals with the implied stamp of approval of the prestigious University of Wisconsin, huh? Money well-spent, I am sure. (Of course, the same sort of thing happens extensively, for example, with drug companies in the UW’s pharmacy, medical, and veterinary schools, just without the obvious signage.)
The Christmas Ales from Monday’s post aren’t the only evocative flavors this time of year. For me, one that I’ve come to appreciate the last couple years is eggnog. I haven’t yet gotten all Becky Home-Ecky and made it from scratch. Instead, we’ve been buying Organic Valley’s nog and spiking it with Knob Creek. The folks at OV are proudly linking to this recent piece in Esquire’s 2012 Holiday Survival Guide, which assesses store-bought brands and “by a landslide” declares it winner in their search for “the best eggnog you can buy.” As reviewer Elizabeth Gunnison writes, “The stand-out in the group was Organic Valley, which tasted of nutmeg and fresh cream, and wasn’t nearly so sweet as the other brands. I suspect this is because the company skipped the corn syrup and instead used organic fair-trade cane sugar.”
For another delicious organic option, consider Traders Point Creamery‘s eggnog, which J and I got to sample at Whole Foods on Monday. It was creamy-licious. (We hadn’t had dinner yet and were in a bit of a rush, so unfortunately I can’t provide a more carefully considered review than that.)
As I mentioned recently, I’ve also gotten into stouts as my cold-weather beer. For the holidays, we decided to finally make those stout floats I’ve been dreaming about. As an homage to our trip to Oregon this past fall, we’ll be making floats from Rogue’s Chocolate Stout poured over vanilla ice cream from our local favorite, Sassy Cow. And, since we’ll be with family in Chicago for Christmas, we picked up Goose Island root beer for a non-alcoholic alternative.
Beverage purveyors aren’t the only ones tapping into to our desire for a holiday fix. The big packaged food makers are at it, too, not always with the best results. As Rob Thomas details in his latest “Yeah, I Ate That” piece for 77 Square, you may want to pass on the “limited-time only” White Chocolate Peppermint Pringles. Head here for the full piece, which builds to this gem of a quote: “Pringles seems to have exactly replicated the taste of eating Pringles immediately after brushing your teeth.”
If you can erase that horrible thought from your mind, leave a comment to share the foods or beverages that get you in the holiday spirit!