Today we took a family field trip to a nearby dairy. We drove down a dirt road off a small highway into the “country” and were immediately greeted by a dozen Jersey and Holstein cows. One twin was afraid the cows would want to eat his pizza, so we headed off to a remote corner to finish lunch.
Nearby three baby Holsteins were being swarmed by little girls. A friend wondered aloud why the majority of kids in attendance were female. “Maybe girls like cows better than boys,” I replied. The twins, who are boys, definitely liked the old red tractor better than the cows. But we went to say hello to the three calves anyway. Only one was willing to be social, and she was being tended to by a girl around 10 years old who informed us that not only does her family own the dairy, but cows have four stomachs.
The dairy was having a customer appreciation day, and workers were offering samples of locally-grown foods and on-site made milk and ice cream. We obliged. There is something about this creamery that may change the way I drink milk from now on, sort of the way that the beer served at the Guinness brewery changed the way I drink beer. When we leave Iowa I may not be able to drink milk that doesn’t come from grass-fed cows, not ridden with hormones and antibiotics.
We made the switch to organic milk when the twins graduated from breast milk and formula to cow’s milk. It was an expensive transition, but it was time to say enough to the white liquid that passes for milk packaged and sold by big agribusiness. Soon I discovered that buying organic was more than avoiding conventional milk. It was a statement.
The friend mentioned above turned me on to this dairy in central Iowa. She raved about the milk, saying she and her roommate drank a glass of whole milk a day. I nearly gagged. Whole milk! I couldn’t imagine drinking anything above 2%. She said, go to the grocery store on Tuesdays when they get their shipment in and get this milk. You will be transformed.
So I did. And I was. Not just for the organic factor (their milk isn’t certified organic, but is just as good), but for the taste. It tasted like…well, like what milk is supposed to taste like. The added benefit came with this milk originating from a local farm. This farm sets its cows out to pasture, feeds them grass and hay, and takes good care of them. When we saw the cows today they looked healthy and happy. Not crammed into feedlots or hooked up to machines in a sterile room. It all seemed so real. So natural. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Isn’t this how we are supposed to live and generate food?
I think about this a lot. In fact, when I was traveling back from southern Minnesota earlier this week, I thought about it even more. I passed a sign somewhere around Winnebago about cattle ranching. But I saw no cattle in the fields. They were filled with corn. I imagined the cows to be confined to a feed lot, something along the lines of the ill-placed lot along I-5 somewhere in the middle of California that you can smell for miles as you speed through at 70 mph. Why has the industrialization of cattle become so inhumane? Isn’t it healthier for the humans who eat beef and drink milk and for the cows who are raised for this purpose and in the long-term more sustainable (which I am told is a hippie word) to let the cows graze on actual grass in actual pastures?
I feel great about supporting local dairies that treat their animals with dignity and their customers with enough respect to give them quality, healthy products. It’s a shame that, according to the New York Times, organic dairies are struggling through this economy. Buying organic products and supporting local farmers should not be contingent upon the health of the economy. It should be a community effort that enhances our health, humane treatment of animals and the environment. Some things are worth a little extra, even if it means cutting back on another.
It was great to see the dairy’s parking lot overflowing and families so enthusiastic about participating in this local venture. It’s funny when being progressive seems like returning to our roots.