Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sustainable Organic Local Ethical milk

When I decided I wanted to extend my local eating to local dairy, I discovered it wasn't going to be as easy as finding a local source for tomatoes. Most of us buy milk from some anonymous corporation which in turn has bought it from multiple dairy farms -- some of them megafarms -- and put it all into one big vat. It's impossible to know exactly where that glass of milk came from.

It may have come from somewhere not too far away. United Dairy Farmers' milk is local, if you consider the tristate to be our local area. Their 200 stores in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are supplied by a milk co-op that includes approximately 75 dairy farmers located throughout the three states. In the grand scheme of things, that actually seems pretty local to me.

But there's a further issue. When I walk out of a UDF with a half-gallon of skim, I have no idea which of those 75 farmers produced that milk, whether his farming methods are sustainable, or how the cow was treated. I also know that the farmer likely is making around $1.77/gallon for his product, which for a small dairy farmer almost certainly isn't enough to keep his farm going from one generation to the next.

Part of my reason for wanting to eat locally -- a big part of it -- is that I want to know how my food is raised. I want to know my food dollars are going to support local farmers using sustainable, humane methods. When possible, I want to know the person who is feeding me. About the only way you can know who produces your milk and how it was produced is to buy it directly from the dairy farmer -- which means it probably hasn't been processed. It's raw. And here in Ohio, that's illegal. In Ohio, raw milk cannot be sold.

Which is why I bought a herdshare.

Under a herdshare agreement, the milk consumer purchases a portion of a cow, pays a set amount per month for that cow's board and care, and receives milk back as the owner's dividend.

I found a dairy farmer nearby who for $50 sold me 1/25th of one of his eight cows. I pay $22 a month for my portion of the cow's board, and in return each week I drive out to the farm and pick up a gallon of fresh raw milk, which works out to about $5.08 per gallon if you discount the original purchase price which I'll get back if I ever decide to sell my portion of the cow. My farmer* produces only raw milk -- an important distinction, as milk intended for pasteurization is generally handled very differently from that which is consumed raw. On my first visit to his farm, he took me out to his small sweet corn field where 'the girls' were eating the remains of the stand of corn that had been lost to this year's drought. They looked up when we came through the gate and came when he called, Cinnamon and the others, and they clearly expected to get petted for their trouble.

The farmer's wife told me on my last visit that they now had a waiting list. I told her they needed to buy another cow. She threw her hands up. "Don't tell him! That's what he's saying! We don't need another cow!"

* I won't reveal my farmer's name for fear of getting him in trouble. Herdshares take advantage of a loophole in Ohio law which has been treated differently by different administrations. The current administration is looking the other way, for now, but given that Big Dairy is a powerful lobby, that could change at any time. The previous administration had a policy of harrassment of herdshare offerers in what seemed a clear attempt to put them out of business by the simple but very effective strategy of requiring them to run up legal fees until they went broke.


Renee said...

Do you separate the cream that rises to the top? Or shake it up for whole milk? I've read that some folks get around the law by claiming the raw milk is for pets, which is within the rules. $22 for a gallon of milk does seem pretty steep, though... I know dairy farmers under the conventional rules can't make a living, even though they have to work 7 days a week, 365.

valereee said...

Hi, Renee! It's not $22 a gallon -- it's $22 a month, then I pick up a gallon a week which works out to $5.08 a gallon. I should go clarify that right away, LOL!

Yes, I've heard of the folks selling it as pet milk. In fact, in North Carolina right now the Board of Agriculture has just voted to put gray dye into the so-called "pet milk" because they know people are drinking it and Big Dairy is complaining.

I put my whole milk into a refrigerator beverage dispenser -- the kind most folks use for water, with a knob at the bottom that lets you pour a glass. This lets us drink from the bottom, which is skim. Then when I need some cream to make butter or use mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs, I screw open the top and dip it out.

Dairy farmers on a list I'm on (groups.yahoo.com/group/rawdairy) say that if they can run 40 cows and make $5 a gallon, they can make a living.

Renee said...

$5 a gallon sounds a whole lot better! Hmmm... isn't it interesting that locavores are seen as such a threat by some folks, when in fact it's the middlemen who should be more threatened, since the dollars are going fairly straight to the farmer, instead of to the processors. Gray dye? gray butter? that would take some getting used to. 40 cows doesn't sound like a huge herd... although I'd probably feel differently if I was the one who had to milk them all at the same time, twice a day.

Matt Stone said...

I recently got my whole family hooked on raw dairy, which was just fine and dandy when I was milking local cows myself and bringing it to their doorsteps. However, my dad just relocated to Cinci and has been bugging me for some of the goodness. Can you please, please, please send me an email or something if you have any "insider" info. on where to get raw dairy in the Cincinnatti area? Visit my blog to see that I'm not some USDA Nazi on the prowl. Thanks! www.yoursacredself.blogspot.com

-Matt Stone

valereee said...

email coming, Matt!

Eric Wiley said...

Was so happy to read your article - thanks a lot. You are doing exactly what I'm trying to set up for my family - only we are in North East Ohio and will need to find a different supplier.

The tips about the milk dispenser will come in handy, too!

valereee said...

Eric, have you checked on realmilk.com? You can probably find a source near you on there.


Eric Wiley said...

Will check that link, thanks again! (have found one herdshare already)

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I don't know if you are still looking for raw milk, but there are many sources around Canton, OH if you are anywhere near there. The contacts on the realmilk website can help.

Laxmi said...


I was very happy to read your article... this is the exact kind of thing I was looking for in Cincinnati. Can you get in touch with me? I have some more questions on the milk. Thanks a lot :).

valereee said...

Hi, Laxmi! I'd be happy to talk to you, but I can't figure out how -- your blog is by invitation only, and there's no email link on your profile. You can find an email link to me by clicking on my name in the list of contributors in the left-hand column.