It took 8 months, but the new raw milk bottles are finally here. The ubiquitous half gallon Mason jar has been unavailable due to COVID. We’ve slowly been using up our surplus pallet of jars. Numerous notices and, to be honest, unabashed begging to return jars has kept us in milk. The last couple months have been nip-and-tuck, though. Sometimes we had a small surplus; other times there are not enough. Early last week we ran out entirely.
It takes time to source the jars, get specifics, pricing, and to verify that are actually available. Then there is the back-and-forth with the graphic designer to get everything just the way we want it. The design then must get approved by the Vermont Agency of Ag. Next on the approval checklist are the folks at Vermont Organic Farmers, who certify our farm. Now we need to incorporate those changes and get the design to the manufacturer, who promptly tells us they don’t have the specific ink colors we use on all our labeling. More delay as we explore options. Finally, we are good to go -or will be as soon as they receive our check. We can do that: what’s the total? You want HOW MUCH for shipping? You’re out of your minds! I don’t care if there is a truck driver shortage and rising fuel costs. Take a deep breath. Just let it go and write the damn check. We’re now on the manufacturing schedule! It will only take another 4-5 weeks before they actually make the jars. Aarrrgghhh!
Finally, after months, they arrived last week. Serendipitous timing since we didn’t have even a single Mason jar.
Same Cost, New Jar
Raw milk is the same price as it has been. There is still a $2.00 deposit on the bottle even though they cost us more than twice that. Please, please wash and return. Feel free to keep the plastic snap-on top as a souvenir as it’s one-use only.
Last week I reported that Danone, a multinational who owns Horizon Organic, announced it will terminate the contracts of all their organic dairy farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (plus a few in New York) so they can focus on cheaper milk from western CAFOs.
Can we as consumers and community members do anything to help? Should we, for instance, boycott Danone? I think it's a tough call. Hitting these multinationals in their bottom line is probably the only way to get their attention. However, if everyone stopped buying Horizon Organic milk then the company could drop yet more small farms. It's insidious, isn't it?
You could send a letter to Danone. You could sign online petitions that probably exist. Politicians in the affected states are forming commissions to figure out what they can do to help these farmers. There is a lot of appropriate outrage and strong words of support right now, but I'm not convinced even the politicians have much influence or options in this. This decision is not personal. It’s simply the never-ending drive to procure raw products at ever cheaper costs. That a few dozen farm families will pay for this decision is perhaps regrettable, but irrelevant.
I fear that local, family dairies will continue to be squeezed out of business until a handful of mega corporations own a handful of mega dairies. This has been going on for over 50 years. We just happen to be reaching a critical stage when there simply are not many dairies left. The only chance I can see for family dairies is to sell local and to brand themselves as better quality than "factory milk." But even that has limitations as communities can absorb only so much milk. Even if the more than two dozen small- to medium-sized Vermont farms who received notices of termination were to process and distribute their own milk and dairy products our state couldn't handle that much influx in supply. They could perhaps join forces to create a regional processing and distribution operation to get products more efficiently to bigger markets such as Boston and New York. But then they would be up against the big players -although without the cash and marketing clout. Aaggghhhh!
It may be an imperfect model, but I still believe small farms should feed their communities and let other farms feed theirs. That means staying fairly small. That means the community needs to support their farms (and other local businesses). That's all Lisa and I have tried to do: feed people within a one hour radius. We're not interested in making and selling products to the rest of the world. We're not interested in shipping milk or ice cream to Texas, California, Washington DC, etc. although we are asked to frequently.
One of my favorite quotes posits that “It may be useless to try, but it would be cowardly not to.” So please, send your letters to Danone and our elected officials. And buy locally. Opt out of the multinational, share-price-is-everything, screw-everyone-who-gets-in-our-way, default consumer model. They clearly don’t care about you, only your money. So make sure they don’t get it.
Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, just cancelled the contracts of 89 organic dairies in Maine, Vermont and New York. Why are they doing this? Because bigger farms out west, many flaunting the National Organic Standards, produce cheaper milk. Driving trucks around all our dirt roads is not as cost effective as pulling up to a few mega-dairies.
So what will happen to these farms? They are being given a 12 month notice so the impact may not be immediate, but it could be dire. The few other organic processors like Organic Valley and Stoneyfield are not bringing on more producers. Maple Hill is letting producers go and Upstate Niagara is slowly reducing volume and pay price. Other options seem…. elusive.
Does this affect Kiss the Cow Farm -or you? Not directly, but yes, this does affect all of us who live in small, rural communities -communities that have been based on agriculture for over 200 years.
The Walk-In Cooler
If you think of farm equipment, what comes comes first to mind is probably a tractor or pickup truck. Yet most equipment, even tractors, are specialized for particular jobs and generally not used that often, sometimes not for months. The walk-in cooler, though, is used every day of the year.
A walk-in cooler is standard equipment on most farms, although no one ever thinks about them. But it’s there, a few steps from the farm store, or in the processing shed, or tucked around back. Even farmers don’t think about the walk-in much. Hearing the condenser run is just part of the constant background noise.
There are two options for getting a walk-in cooler. You can buy a one with insulated panels for the walls, floor and ceiling. These are powered by large condenser units. There are many manufacturers and models. Even found used on Craigslist, for example, they cost a few thousand dollars. Worth it, but a lot of money for a small farm.
The other option is a D.I.Y project. The farmer builds the box from plywood and foam insulation. (The more insulation the better). Instead of an expensive refrigeration unit, a cheap electrical component (called a CoolBot) and an air conditioner keep the walk-in cool. The electrical gadget tricks the air conditioner into running longer than normal so it cools the temperature down to 35-40 degrees. It works well, is a much cheaper option, and is easier to repair.
This came in handy this past week when our walk-in cooler stopped cooling. Of course it is was a 90 degree day, because that’s just how these things go. Thankfully we had a spare (and more powerful) air conditioner we got last year at a yard sale -just in case. It took a bit to install the larger unit and wire it up, but this morning the temperature in the walk-in is a chilly 37 degrees. Aahhhh.
It must be August.
Huge barn spiders sit dormant in their webs waiting for the carless trespass of another. The goldenrod is tall and yellow, the milkweed purple. Little round knobs fill the apple trees. The blueberries are plump from all the rain. The orchard and timothy seed heads sway slowly on top of their long, spindly stems.
The air is hot, humid. Still. There is an earthy, dirt smell. Clouds fill the pale blue sky, yet they are harmless today: no ominously dark towers rise on the horizon this afternoon.
Leaves are turning yellow, though surely it’s too early? A lone bird chirps his song but receives no reply. A chipmunk stutters in the shade behind the shed. A far-off crow caws.
The lazy days of summer. All that’s needed is a hammock…
The sun was shining, and the grass was ready. In our area, farmers start haying the last week of May and hope to finish by mid-June. Why such a short window? Because this is when the grass is the most nutritious. Once it starts to "head" it loses nutritional value. If you cut it later, say July, you’ll have more yield, more bales, but they are not as good. They will keep the animal alive the following winter but will not make much milk (or for beef animals, add much weight).
Lisa and I have been working long days (and evenings) getting the grass cut, dried, raked into rows, baled, hauled off the fields, wrapped and stacked. We just finished the home fields yesterday evening, hours before the rain today. 227 round bales or about 165,000 pounds of hay. Looking back at our historical records, this is a good year for hay crops, up 27% from last year. This is due to weather: lots of sunny days and just the right amount of rain. Each cow will eat about 19 round bales, so we now have enough for 12 cows this coming winter.
We still need another 130 or so bales. A couple remote fields will provide some more bales. Then late July, when the grass has grown back, we do it all again! This is called “second cut.” Second cut will only yield about one third as much as first cut. However, it is even more nutritious. (Very leafy; almost no stems). Added all together, we should have enough to feed the cows this winter -and it will be quality feed.
The cows like that.
The 95 million cattle in the U.S. spend their days eating, chewing cud and belching out planet-warming methane. Unlike humans, cow don't digest their food in their intestines but rather in their stomachs. The bacteria that help them digest their food also makes methane. In our era of growing awareness and concern about greenhouse gasses, this is an issue.
We hear frequent calls in marketing and social media to reduce red meat consumption and switch to plant or nut juices. Cows are blamed as a major contributor of the world’s environmental problems. We need to, so the reasoning goes, reduce the global cattle population to combat climate change. In fact, methane production from livestock has been decreasing for decades as cattle numbers have declined by millions of animals. But despite the 1.4 billion cows on our planet, most methane comes from humans. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., and half of those (that’s 5%) come from belching cows as they digest forages.
Cows are a contributor, but are not the villeins they are frequently portrayed in the press. They are easy targets because cows don’t have deep-pocket lobbying groups. So where do most greenhouse gasses come from? Fossil fuels are the top culprit, producing one-third of all methane. This is another example of diverting people from the real issue and blaming the little guy. For unlike dairy, the gas and oil industry yields lots of cash and influence. Nor does it help that most people are so cut off from their food that they believe the marketing hype that drinking aquafer-draining almond “milk” is better for the planet than the real thing.
So let’s talk about cow burbs. Here’s the 411. Methane is 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, however its lifespan is one decade, while CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000 years. After ten years, methane is broken down (by a process called hydroxyl oxidation, if you’re interested in this sort of thing) into CO2. And as you may know, farmland plays a big role in sequestering carbon. According to one study, farms capture and store the same amount of greenhouse gasses that the cows burp. Net neutral is still not good enough, but neither are cow burps the calamity we're regularly told.
And cow emissions can be easily reduced. A recent study at the University of California, Davis shows that a little seaweed in cattle feed reduces methane emissions from cattle by 80%. The seaweed inhibits an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that contributes to methane production. The seaweed has no impact on the taste of milk or beef, and helps strengthen the animal’s immune system. (BTW, Kiss the Cow Farm has always offered free-choice kelp to our cows; they like it).
Cattle actually have a vital role in saving our planet and feeding people, but that’s a story for another week...
Lisa chides me every year about this time. I spend part of many days walking around the perimeter of the pastures and hay fields picking up fallen sticks. No, I don’t know any other farmer who does this, but somehow it seems important. Most of the fields are surrounded by mature maple and ash trees. Each tall, majestic tree seems to have an endless supply of dead branches to shed. The farm is also high up (1400’) and open to the ever-howling west wind.
I have this strange sense that fields should grow grass, not sticks. The branches get in the way of the tractor, end up incorporated in hay bales and puncturing the plastic wrap, are underfoot and an eyesore. So, I take the time before the grass grows too high to remove them from the fields. After all, just because I cannot see something doesn’t mean it's not there! After several years now, there are little mounds of branches and limbs scattered around the edges of the fields. They make perfect habitats for smaller animals. Almost like Hobbit houses.
I’ve finished picking up the sticks from this past winter, but will continue to check throughout the summer season. New-fallen branches also cause no end of problems with the electric fence. Our biggest cow breakout happened a few years ago when a giant limb smashed the wire fence into the ground. Naturally, this happened to be the paddock where the cow were. We eventually found them in the neighbor’s vegetable garden. They were quite happy; the owner was not. Whoops! So we run stick patrol often.
As you may know, dairy is a precarious business. The number of dairies in the country has been trending down for decades. Vermont lost another 19 dairies in January alone. We now have less than 600 commercial dairies in the state. This includes conventional and organic. (Although the VT Agency of Ag proudly touts that we still have the same number of dairy cows! Think about that for a moment....)
Even value-add dairies have taken a serious hit with COVID. There are about 45 cheesemakers in Vermont. This is a hefty number for such a small state, but we’ve recently lost four local cheesemakers (that I know of). The folks at Blythdale Cheese are retiring. Diane and her husband at Landaff Creamery (in NH) have also retired. (Her father, Dr. Erb, was our vet growing up). Janine Putnam and her husband at Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, who have been making their famous Tarentaise cheese for many years have ceased production and sold the cows. “We just can't make any money without a solid cheese and organic milk market here in VT,” Janine told me. “Cheese sales have crashed without restaurants and smaller gourmet shops.” She was also shipping excess milk to Horizon, but this national organic processor keeps paying farmers less and less for their milk while now forcing them to pay for trucking. And Spring Brook down in Reading just let go all their cheesemakers. Oy!
I was walking through the Hay Barn the other day when something caught my eye. I looked up and discovered that one of the girts, a vital, long horizonal beam was bending dangerously and had sprung from its connecting vertical beam. My first reaction was “Oh, that’s not good.”
This 3-story barn is comprised of repurposed, hand-hewn beams. As far as I can tell it was built about 100 years ago, probably reusing the beams from a different barn that was taken down around that time. We have a 1920’s photograph showing the farmhouse and a corner of this previous barn.
The Hay Barn has always reminded me of a Gothic cathedral with its delicate tracery as the sun shines through the upper slats in the peak, and thin columns stretch up into the high rafters, home to myriad pigeons and other birds. The lofty structure is kept together with steel cables.
Now a critical section has detached, is bowing under stress and a third of the roof is very close to collapsing. Did I mention this was a couple days before high winds were forecast? Winds that would slam into this old, exposed building. Oh, this is not good.
So I called in a neighbor, who has lots of experience dealing with old barns. After putting up staging so we could reach the girt, we used large straps and come-alongs, a hand-operated ratchet, to winch the girt back in line to the vertical post. It was nip and tuck for a while as we kept ratcheting the come-along, but the beam refused to move. A few more clicks. Then another click….click. Was it enough to move the beam? No. Suddenly, we heard loud cracks as the tension released somewhere in this rickety barn. It was nerve wracking as we had to work inside the building. Finally, we were able to get the beam mostly back in place. We then fastened 2x8 planks on either side of the vertical beam to hold the girt in place. And we left one of the straps to prevent the beam from bowing again.
The wind howled across the farm all the next day. But the Hay Barn is still standing.