Tag Archives: milk

Three Times a Day, You Need a Farmer

I was lucky enough to catch some attention with a post that I wrote that tried to simply answer, “What makes farming worth the heartache?”

While I expanded on idyllic images, (which happen to be my reality), I wrote it in response to many other’s lamentation about the hard times and sadness that often comes along with farming (which is also my reality). Farming must be closely related to Mother Nature – who not once, among the many things she has been called, was ever referred to as “fair.”

There’s not much that is more rewarding than nursing a sick cow or calf back to health; and then to have her live a long, healthy and productive life. But just as easily if not more so, that same animal could be gone in a literal heartbeat.

It certainly makes one appreciate life, and the things in it, that much more.

At the end of the day, this way of life, this collection of extreme ups and extreme downs and whatever comes in between is all done in the name of producing of food. Food that is served at the dinner table or grabbed in a rush. Food that is baked or cooked in your kitchen for those closest to you with love. Food that nourishes our bodies so that we may carry out our string of daily tasks that make up our lives.

“My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” –Brenda schoepp

We as dairy farmers take particular pride in producing what’s been described as “nature’s most perfect food.” Milk provides protein, calcium and nine essential vitamins and nutrients in a single serving; ounce for ounce it’s nutrition cannot be matched. So there’s a bit of pride and even more reward had in providing such nourishment for our neighbors, communities and family.

Of course other goodness in dairy products include cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cream, butter, and more.

But our beloved milk has come under attack. Fewer and fewer people are drinking it; fluid milk sales have been trending downward for the past several years. Milk has more competition now from plant-based beverages that have the same look and feel (but not the same nutrition). Various label claims create confusion about everything from hormones, antibiotics, animal care to the environment. All in the name of selling.

The worst part is talking about these issues with dairy farmers who aren’t active on social media and/or who don’t see these claims every day.

The best part is knowing that despite the spin, despite the claims, despite the advertising, there are millions of people – children and adults alike, who depend upon us everyday – even three times a day – for our milk. And we won’t let them down.

At the end of the day, milk is milk, still the nutrient powerhouse and wholesome glass of refreshment produced by farmers who care about taking care or their cows and keeping their farms sustainable for future generations.

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Immobile in the Yogurt Section

The other day I went grocery shopping at a store that is not one of my two usuals. Everything was going fine, uneventful, maybe even a little dull, you know – grocery shopping – until, I was struck immobile in the yogurt section.

I was literally wandering up and down the seven feet of yogurt products while working through an internal struggle. You see, my usual choice for my kids is Chobani Champions in the tube; a Greek yogurt because of the additional protein and a tube because it’s fun. Of course, this particular store did not carry the Champions yogurt, though it did have several choices: regular and lowfat traditional yogurt, greek yogurt, kids-themed yogurt, serious “indulgent” adult yogurts, and of course, Stonyfield organic yogurt and all its offerings including its “YoBaby” and “YoKids” – the only other choice in a tube.

Up until this point, I was very much anti-Stonyfield yogurt. In fact, truth be told, I am anti- most organic products unless it is grown by someone that I know. You see, while I appreciate choice in our food industry, I don’t appreciate misleading marketing efforts that feed into an often irrational fear of our safest food supply in history; particularly when it’s just to make a buck. But on this specific day, I decided to test myself to see if I was willing to make a concession for the sake of the “tube” and the delight of my children, albeit a two minute delight. After a solid five minutes of deliberation, I found that I was not and I am glad that I did not give in.

The very next day, my decision felt further justified as one of the Twitter accounts that I follow shared the top to a Stonyfield yogurt – one I somstonyfieldehow missed during my yogurt examination – with a comment “Marketing at its finest. Come on. #cantweallgetalong.” Amen sister.  (picture at right)

The problem with this label is that organic farms are allowed to and do use “toxic” pesticides. The difference is, they are not allowed to use “synthetic” pesticides. I know this already because of my involvement in farming, but was also happy to read a recent article on slate.com that addresses pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables written by a mommy-blogger. The author, a non-farmer, took task to find the actual numbers behind pesticide residue in produce farmed organically versus conventionally, because like many others, she had been led to believe that harmful residues in conventional produce was not good for her son. What she found was far from her initial belief, no doubt created in part by crafty product marketing. Her conclusion was, though you may have other reasons to purchase organic produce, when it comes to pesticide residue, “Conventional fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy for kids.”

The thing is, this trust-eroding-though-we-think-we’re-building-trust-in-our-BRAND advertising strategy (ala many other big-food companies like Panera and Chipotle as well) is not coming from the organic farmers. It’s coming from a marketing department removed from what’s actually happening on the farm and obviously what the national organic standards are in the U.S. What strikes me ironically is that Stonyfield recently had an initiative to recruit more conventional dairy farms to become organic-certified and sell milk to them directly, all the while their marketing department continues to piss their so-called recruits right off.

I know a lot of organic farmers. Some are even great friends. And while I respect their decision to farm organically, I don’t agree with all of their practices, just as I am sure the pendulum swings both ways. But I do know that we all care for our animals and the land to the best that we can and that alone builds a level of commonality. Trouble comes when the people using labels and other advertising to sell farm products for their food company pit us against each other. And while we do have the safest food supply in history, that in no way means that there isn’t room for improvement, innovation and still more choices.

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Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

I’m excited to share this next post with you. I’ve invited my friend Terri Lawton, dairy farmer from southeast Massachusetts, to write a guest post about her farming operation and her background. Terri sells raw milk and is a technical

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

expert on the subject, raw milk food safety and regulation and has addressed national audiences about the topic. The last two posts I’ve shared have been about why raw milk is a somewhat complicated issue. I’ve said that even though we have decided to not sell it, we are not against other people selling or consuming it. Terri and I spoke about my recent experiences and my posts and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about what she does with a few suggestions regarding raw milk, if you are interested. She can be found on Facebook and has her own blog at terrilawton.wordpress.com and okarealmilk.wordpress.com.

From Terri:

I’m an 11th generation farmer. I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass. I always loved cows, and spent most of my time on the farm as a child, pretending to be a cow, feeding the cows, milking the cows with my parents or gettingmy 4-H calf ready to show.

When I finished high school, I went to college and studied agriculture. I got my associates degree in Production Agriculture, with an emphasis on feedlot management from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Because I felt like I still had a lot to learn about farming, I transferred to Purdue University where I was a double major in Animal Agribusiness and Agricultural Communications. I was also in the crew club, dairy club, and Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. I also did livestock judging for three years of school and dairy judging with Purdue.

Because I had a strong background in dairy and several food science/food safety classes at Purdue, I thought that being a dairy inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be a good way for me to get involved in the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. Several farms I inspected were selling raw milk directly to families. I had been drinking raw milk my whole life. I was amazed when I realized that some people drove more than an hour to get raw milk.

After I finished up as a dairy inspector, I wanted to get closer to farming. I enjoyed being around cows, and owned several which my parents milked for me. I had planned to start making cheese, but needed an income while we were building the cheese room, and developing our cheese recipes, which is why I looked at selling raw milk retail.

I knew that my experience as a dairy inspector could help me harvest and bottle a superior raw milk. After developing a milking and bottling protocol that minimized potential risk, having the farm and retail area inspected by the dairy inspector, and having my milk meet exceptionally high standards, I received my license to sell raw milk in March of 2006. I started selling raw milk from grass fed cows on a pre-order basis so that I could ensure people got the freshest possible milk. Usually it was only a couple hours old when customers picked it up and brought it to their homes.

I decided to put food safety and integrity first from the beginning.

I know that selling and drinking raw milk can be risky. Based my experience as a dairy inspector, education at Purdue, and personal research about food safety and microbiology, I believe it is a risk that can be managed successfully. I also have seen farmers that were not up to the rigorous integrity and obsession with food safety that I think is necessary to do a good job producing raw milk for retail sale. However, for some farmers it is not much of a stretch to produce an exceptionally high quality raw milk.

I am grateful to be able to sell raw milk directly to families. I like having the folks come to the farm to pick up the milk. I enjoy meeting folks that care so much about food and supporting their local farmer. If I could encourage raw milk drinkers in one thing-please get your milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. It is a lot of work to keep raw milk clean. Inspected farms are held accountable, and must adhere to standard good practices. Integrity is very important in selling raw milk. Our customers need assurance that we are working hard to keep the milk safe. Inspections, milk quality testing and licensing are good tools to provide that assurance.

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It’s Okay to Buy Plain ‘Ole Milk

I recently wrote a guest post for ScienceofMom.com. Here it is below:

My husband dairy farmer (DF) and I have a 30-cow dairy farm. That means we milk 30 cows. We also raise our own “youngstock” (young animals not yet in the milking herd) plus a few steers; so we have a total of about 65 head of cattle that we care for, both Holsteins and Jerseys at our farm. The Jerseys go back to a 4-H dairy project that I started with my family when I was a kid. They are all registered with names and unique personalities. Some of them have been with me for a long time with one family going back to the very first calves we owned. The Holsteins are my DF’s and they too have their own personalities but numbers instead of names as they are not registered. We do have pet names for some of them though, typically related to appearance or something that happened – like Pip, Slurpy and Whitey. Regardless, they are all now “our” girls.

 

My guess is that as you approach our place and see our girls grazing our rolling green hills in Northeast Vermont, you would maybe assume we are an organic herd. We are not and I will get into the why not at the end of this post.

 

The Prices of Milk in the Store

The average price of a gallon of “conventional” whole milk was $3.63 in March 2012. Organic milk was $4.02 per half-gallon or $8.04[1] for a full one. I wanted to get those figures out there so we know exactly what we’re talking about – a cost more than double. If you’re a family of five and buying ten gallons a week, those dollars add up fast. It’s been a pretty hot topic lately – given the shape the economy is and has been in, is the added expense worth it? 

 

If you ask me, I’d say no. Of course I would you might say – we produce milk that is not organic. But I know there are some people who choose the certified organic label for other items and extend that preference to milk, which is certainly okay too. But in my opinion, I think it’s irresponsible to make people feel guilty if they don’t want to or can’t shell out the extra cash for the label without an adequate explanation especially when budgets are tight.

 

When companies sell products obviously they’re looking for an edge. This comes in the form of price or quality for example, but ultimately their edge is based on consumer perception. Labels and other retail packaging are often used to convey a claim to alter the perception of the product in order to sell more or to sell at a higher price. This often leaves products without special labels looking inferior somehow with no adequate explanation. It underscores the importance for food and nutrition professionals to communicate science-based facts about food to the general public.

 

So then, what does the certified organic label on milk mean and why is it so much more expensive?

 

Milk is Milk

Firstly, compositionally, there is no significant difference between milk that comes from cows that are raised with organic practices or those that are from conventional farms[2]. The same nutrients and hormones exist in both, both are safe to consume and BOTH are free from antibiotics. Interesting to note, there is no way to test milk to determine whether it was from an organic farm or a conventional farm – either one that uses rBST or one that does not. Bottom line, milk is milk.

 

Because of the combination of nine essential nutrients, milk – organic or otherwise – packs a powerful punch for a healthy diet. The USDA and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences define essential nutrients as a dietary substance required for healthy body functioning. The nine found in milk are: Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Protein, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin and Niacin. Sometimes, there can be a very slight difference in fat and protein levels between organic and conventional milk but this is thought to have more to do with diet than any other factor[3]. You might see this same difference in milk amongst different brands or from a local, seasonally grazed herd that may or may not be organic as well.

 

When it comes to safety, all milk sold in stores is processed to kill harmful bacteria – either through pasteurization or ultra-high temperature processing. However, milk, along with many other food products, is not a sterile product and thus some tolerance is allowed for bacteria counts. In a study examining the composition of milk from organic farms, milk from cows not treated with rBST and milk from conventional farms, the bacteria levels were found to be less in conventionally labeled milk than that of organic and rbST-free[4]. The difference was minimal however and all three were far below the federal limit.

 

Along those same lines, hormones are present in all milk – organic, rBST-free, conventional, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, skim, 2%, etc. The same study found different levels of hormones existing in the different samples of milk, though minor. Alice previously had a post that addressed some of these studies.

 

Finally to be absolutely clear, all milk on the shelf in the grocery store is free of antibiotics. Taking it a step further, organic farmers pledge not to use antibiotics on their cattle, or if they do the cow must exit the herd. On a conventional farm, if a cow is sick the farmer is allowed to use antibiotics to treat her. However, the milk she produces is withheld from comingling with the rest of the herd’s until it is tested and shown to be clear of the antibiotic. Many tests are done on the milk in its journey from farm to store shelf to ensure that there are no antibiotics present. The farmer risks losing his/her license to sell milk if antibiotics are found. This is not an area where farmers like to mess around!

 

Paying for the Farm Practices Promised

It’s really the steps before the milk is on the shelf that you pay for when you buy the organic label. That’s where the difference in price comes from. The USDA has attempted to reign in label claims by creating an official certification program for organic foods. It is more expensive to operate within these standards and organic farms must stay in compliance or they risk losing the ability to use the organic label and the premium that comes with it that helps to cover their higher costs.

 

The list of regulations organic producers must follow is found on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s web site. Generally, organic cows must eat organic feed grown with the use of pesticides approved for organic use[5], use organic medicine, graze organic pastures, etc. In fact, a recently updated regulation is a new pasture requirement that has made many large organic dairy farms reviewing their operations. Organic dairy and beef cattle as well as other ruminant livestock (like goats and sheep) must spend at least 120 days each year in pastures. While there’s no acre-per-cow requirement, the animals must receive at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from the pasture during the grazing season. In hot, arid climates it has meant more costly irrigation to provide more pasture for their herd. This may affect the availability of organic milk in certain areas, let alone organic feed, meaning more truck miles spent shipping these items in and potentially increasing the carbon footprint.

 

While farm practices and philosophies may differ, the concern and care for the animals remain a top priority for dairy farmers. Keeping the cows healthy and comfortable goes a long way in their ability to produce milk. As a wise farmer once said, “Take care of the cows and they will take care of you.”

 

Show Me the Money!

While it’s true that you pay a premium for organic milk at the store and a farmer receives a higher milk price for organic milk, the economics of farming still come into play. Organic farmers pay more for organic grain and other organic inputs which doesn’t necessarily leave them in a better profit position than conventional farmers. This past year in particular inputs are up for all dairy farmers – feed, fuel, crop needs, repairs, supplies, etc. At the same time, the organic milk price on the farm has not gone up as quickly which has put a strain on at the farm making the idea of milking more organic cows not exactly attractive.

 

Another similarity organic and conventional milk share involves pay prices – just because you pay a higher price at the store and it increases from time to time does not mean that the farmer gets that premium. Organic milk has enjoyed huge gains in consumer consumption over the past few years. Recently, there has been a shortage of organic milk which has contributed to a rise in prices at the store. Despite half gallons of organic milk up 14 cents from December 2011 to December 2010, farmers only saw 6 cents of the increase[6]. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight (100 pounds, cwt.) for their milk, so the equivalent is $1.25 of a $3.26 per cwt.

 

Meanwhile, conventional dairy farmers had an increase of nearly $3.00 per cwt. during the same time period[7]. This is an important area where the two styles differ. Organic farms typically contract for a certain level of milk production with a processor thereby getting a fairly predictable price for a certain time period. Conventional dairies are left more to the whim of market forces, which means they would get higher high prices and lower lows. Today, as we get into for planting feed for the 2012 crop, conventional producers are gearing up for lower pay prices with higher costs of production while organic producers can take a little more comfort in their price, although they too will continue to have elevated expenses.

 

We Choose Not to be Certified Organic and Here’s Why

I’ve enjoyed writing this post as it’s offered me an opportunity to review why we do things the way we do them. Our reason is simple – we want to have all management tools available for our use. A good example is the use of antibiotics for medicine. If we have a cow that gets sick, which is not often, we want every option available to us to make her well again. It would not be sustainable on our 30-cow dairy to send every cow we treat with antibiotics away as some organic farms do, never mind that there are generations of cows behind her owned by us or our family members. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye to one of my girls because we were nursing her back to health; it seems counter-intuitive to me.

 

This is not to say that we do not support organic dairy farmers. We respect their choices and are happy to see the land put to productive use. At our farm, we also promote sustainable farming methods in an effort to maximally preserve our operation. We are excited about raising our family here and love the idea that maybe just maybe our son might be interested in taking over. Now I’m getting carried away – he is eight months old  this week.

 

I believe that all dairy farmers strive to produce an equally nutritious and high quality product. In the end, whether it’s organic or not, chocolate or skim, lactose free, the important thing to me is that you drink milk and feel good about it. As the saying goes, “It does a body good.”


[1] Milk Marketing Order Statistics: Retail Milk Prices. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. March 2012.

[2] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

[3] Walker et al. Effects of Nutrition and Management on the Production of Milk Fat and Protein: a Review. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research. 2004.

[4] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

 

[5] A list of substances allowed and prohibited for use in organic crop and animal production can be found on the National Organic Program website. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

[6] Maltby. Organic Pay And Retail Price Update for April 2012. April 5, 2012. http://www.nodpa.com/payprice_update_04_05_2012.shtml

[7] Federal Milk Marketing Order One. Market Administrator’s Bulletin. December 2010 and December 2011. http://fmmone.com/

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