Monday, March 14, 2005

The milky way

Responding to this post, reader and old college friend Mitch Mills asks:
Do you have any idea if there are any Niman Ranch-style operations for dairy farmers (i.e. ones that buy milk from small producers and then market it (and associated products) for them in a coordinated way)?

The short answer is, yes.

But before I answer that question directly, let me lay out a strategy for consumers looking for the best milk products but who also want to support their local economies.

First, think beyond officially certified organic, and look first for a local source of sustainably produced milk. "Organic" is fast becoming a marketing tool leveraged by the industrial giants, who have found organics to be the fastest-growing segment of the food market (hence stuff like Heinz Organic Ketchup; I'm pretty sure those "organic" tomatoes are grown on a vast industrial farm in California). Many small farms, Maverick Farms included, have decided that the organic label is more trouble than it's worth; we deal directly with our customers, who know we don't use artificial pesticides and fertilizers and can visit us to check, and thus don't need to submit ourselves to FDA approval.

Mitch lives in New York City. When I lived there, I bought most of my milk from Ronnybrook Farm. Ronnybrook is a true family farm in the Hudson Valley. An article on them a couple of years ago in Gourmet, evidently unavailable on the Internet, described it as a multi-generational business struggling with the brutal economics of small farming and barely staying afloat. They were considering going organic, which would allow them to sell into a Niman Ranch-style cooperative, but decided it was too much paperwork, and were instead amping up production of their value-added products such as drinkable yogurt.

Bottom line: the product is great, the cows feed on pasture in the summer and farm-grown hay in the winter, and they don't use growth hormones and only treat the animals with antibiotics when they're sick. Here is the FDA harassing Ronnybrook in 2003 for putting "hormone-free" on its label. The venerable government agency is here carrying water for Monsanto, sole maker of recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.

One way to find locally made food, milk included, is to check with your local food co-op, if you're lucky enough to have one in your area. (If you're not, try starting one.) Brooklyn has a magnificent one called the Park Slope Food Coop. That co-op sells an excellent, Norteastern-based milk brand called Nautural By Nature. These guys seem pretty serious about the pasture aspect of organic production, and the buyer at the PS Coop told me that many of the farms that sell to NBN are close to NY.
To answer Mitch's question, NBN is a Niman-style operation available in NY.

A good coop, like the one in Brooklyn. is really a buying club supporting local agriculture: It pools consumers' buying dollars into a lot big enough to buy farmers' products in bulk, delivering a fair price to both parties. The PS Coop also has an excellent selection of sustainably raised meats from nearby farmers, and at least one additional brand of milk, also of excellent quality, from an individual NY State farm.

Finally, there's Organic Valley, a nationally available conglomeration of farms that has a much better reputation that Horizon. They seem pretty serious about pasture.

Here at Maverick Farms, we have access through the local health-food store to milk from a Ronnybrook-style dairy called Homestead Creamery, located in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, not far from here. But we'd rather buy direct from the only remaining dairy farm in our area.

There used to be a couple of dozen dairy farms lining the lovely rolling pastures of Bethel; declining prices for bulk milk has left only one standing. The farmer pastures his cows in the summer and feeds them his home-grown corn in the winter. He sells his stuff to Pet (owned by Dean Foods, which processes fully one-third of the fluid milk consumed in the US), the only processor in the area, for whatever price Pet is willing to pay.

Sometimes, however, it's inconvient for us to make the 20-minute trek out to the dairy farm. In that case, we buy Homestead Creamery.


Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Thanks Tom, that's useful information. I'm living in Greenpoint and Ronnybrook comes to the Saturday farmers market in McCarren park, so I buy the bulk of my dairy from them.

I've been to the Park Slope Co-op, and it's great, but at the moment, because from this part of Brooklyn it's really difficult to get to any other part without going into Manhattan first, I'm not able to get by there often. I've seen Natural by Nature for sale somewhere nearby, so I'll have to figure out where for those occasions when I can't get to the farmers market.

3/14/2005 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

And in return for that info, here's a useful tip for you: when you link to a NY Times article, you can do so via here, and that way it won't disappear after a week or so behind the pay-per-view archive wall, i.e. the link will always take you to the full article and not to the short description and pricing information page. I'm not sure if other publications have this feature or not.

Another trick for finding the full text of an article that has disappeared into an archive is to do a google search on some of the text in the short description and see if the article was published elsewhere on the web. For example, here's the full text for a Financial Times article you cited in a previous post. Notice that in the archive there’s a typo in the first sentence, so for a successful search I had to add a space in “anendless”.

3/14/2005 08:32:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Philpott said...

Thanks, Mitch. I'll start doing that. Drop me an e-mail--I'd love to hear about what you've been up to.

3/14/2005 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

I'll drop you an e-mail soon, I'd love to hear more about your set-up down there in NC.

Also, here's a prophetic article, from back in 1993, about organic labelling issues. Your post reminded me of it (not that I read it back in 1993, I ran across it reprinted fairly recently).

3/15/2005 06:14:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Here's an article in today's NYTimes that's also related. I particularly noticed this sentence:

Whole Foods . . . plans to buy up to 20 percent of its produce from farmers in the tristate region . . .

One of the main selling points of Whole Foods is organic produce. The fact that they only plan to buy 20 percent of it from nearby farms says a lot about what the organic label means these days.

Then again, 20 percent isn't nothing, and I'm sure WF is an important customer for those farms. This ties in with the vexing issues you talk about in the next post up.

3/16/2005 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Oh also, the article quotes Jonathan White, an amiable dairy farmer who makes very nice cheeses and absolutely fantastic woodfired-brick-oven bread, and who has been mentioned previously here in Bitter Greens Journal:

"People who want strawberries and salad greens in January will go to Whole Foods," said Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, N. J., who brings his cheeses to the Greenmarket. "But shoppers at Whole Foods can't talk to a farmer. I think you'll see people shopping in the Greenmarket carrying Whole Foods bags."

3/16/2005 09:41:00 PM  
Blogger Lulu said...

I'm interested to hear that there have been complaints about Horizon's organic integrity. I don't usually buy their stuff - I'm put off by their processing and packaging, but having recently tasted one of their products, my biggest complaint is that it tastes dead and bland. Thanks for pushing me to do some more research on why that is.

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