I was over at a friends house last week. As we were getting ready to sit down to dinner she asked me what I would like to serve my daughters. “I have water or non-organic milk,” she said. Clearly, my reputation preceded me. My friend, who has two growing boys of her own, told me that she goes through so much milk she doesn’t even consider the possibility of buying organic milk because it is so much more expensive. I could not help think about the shopping carts I see each time I go to Costco, which usually have two or three double-gallon packs of milk in them. Clearly, despite the fact that the dairy industry sites declines in per capita consumption of milk over the past 40 years, someone is still drinking milk, and doing so in quantity.
I have a big problem with the idea that the cost of “non-organic” milk and organic milk can even be compared. It is not purely about organic vs. conventional farming. I oppose the idea that milk is a commodity, and as such, cheaper is better. Milk is not a commodity. It is food. And like many kinds of food it’s production is tied inextricably to many, many issues. The most important of these are the impact the production of milk has on the environment, the ability of those who produce it (Dairymen and Cows) to be able to live good lives, and also the intrinsic, organoleptic quality of the milk itself. The organic milk I have tried from several sources just plain tastes better than the Costco variety.
Over 90% of the milk we consume in this country comes from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Put quite simply, CAFO milk is an absolute environmental and moral disaster. What they do in a CAFO is not farming in any sense that you or I would recognize. It is industrial production. A modern dairy cow – and these are not your grandparents cows, but highly genetically selected, human creations – produces up to 7 gallons of milk each day. At the same time, it generates 18 gallons of poop; over two and a half times more poop than milk. A typical CAFO can have 2000 cows, all under one roof, each generating that much poop. That is over 13 million gallons of poop per year. And here is the kicker: Because they are exempt from regulations regarding the treatment of sewage, they do not have to treat the poop, they just pump it into evaporation lagoons and/or spread it on nearby fields.
Now, having grown up in Coupeville, I am familiar with the smell of manure. The Engle Dairy, which is right down the road from the High School, used to spread manure often. The surrounding farms used the manure on their fields, and that manure was a key source of the amazing fertility that Ebey’s Prairie is famous for. That is the way it is supposed to work: Cows get the majority of their food from fields surrounding the dairy and their poop us used to fertilize those very fields and the fields of neighboring farms. This may sound odd to you, but at low concentration like these I actually like the smell of manure. It smells like fertile farmland and growing crops. It smells sweet and rich.
But at a CAFO there is so much manure, in such concentrations, that it is just plain toxic. CAFO dairies are a leading source of contamination of ground water in many states. Manure in these concentrations also concentrates things like heavy metals and disease causing pathogens at levels that are unhealthy for not only of the water table, but for the employees and cows who have to work around it. A good comparison is to think about how just enough fertilizer on your tomatoes makes them grow faster and bigger, while too much burns the roots and stunts them. If you take a huge amount of that same fertilizer and put it in the back of a Ryder truck, you can level the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Scale matters a lot.
Scale matters too when it comes to making a living farming. Milk at commodity prices has caused farms to consolidate and move to a CAFOs model to generate enough income to survive. This is a viscous cycle: Low prices causes farm sizes to grow, forcing out small producers, lowering commodity prices, causing further consolidation, and so on. Engle Dairy, for example, did not survive this cycle. Today, the only farmers who can make a living with a human- and cow-scale farm are those who sell value-added products like organic milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.
Finally, milk takes on the taste of the farm it comes from and the manner in which it was produced. I noticed this the first time drinking Strauss Family Dairy milk in Northern California. In the winter, when the cow’s diet is supplemented with a lot of hay and feed, the milk tastes more like straw. In the spring, when the vegetation is lush, it just tastes richer and sweeter. If you try the plain old cheddar or jack cheese from Spring Hill Dairy it is so melty, so oozy, so rich, it does not even seem like the same product as other producers. That is because the milk they use comes from their own herd of Jersey cows and is naturally higher in butter fat. Milk is not just milk. It is really like wine, in that it takes on the taste of the cows, the feed and the terrior.
My current favorite milk is from Golden Glen Creamery in Bow, Washington. If you used to drink milk as a kid and have since stopped, I encourage you to try this milk. It tastes, for lack of a better description, like real milk: Rich, sweet, grassy and complex. There is a bit of an iodine flavor too, which I am convinced comes from eons of deposits of bivalve shell deep in the rich soil of the Skagit Valley where the farm is located. (This is blind speculation on my part by the way, but there is definitely a subtle iodine flavor to this milk, which I like.)
Finally, getting back to my friend’s initial complaint about organic milk, how expensive is it really? If you buy it at Whole Foods in the city it runs about $3.00 a half gallon, or 4.7 cents per ounce. At that price, an 8 ounce glass for your kids will set you back 38 cents. It is important to remember that cows suffer by being in CAFOs. They never go out of doors. They are constantly kept in cramped quarters. They never get to be cows. Isn’t there something really grotesque about getting the nourishment for your kids from a creature that you know is perpetually miserable? Bad karma in my book.
Some of us cannot afford to spend any more on food, but most of us can. Spring for the Non-CAFO milk and do your part to make the world a better place by supporting local, small dairies, the local water quality, and local cows. MOOOO!