The Increasing Cost of Food
We’ve probably all had a similar experience getting groceries when we anxiously look around for what must be a missing bag. There is no way the couple bags in my hands could have added up that much. Surely there’s another bag somewhere?
No, there’s not. Food prices have risen 7.4% in the last year according to one news story I recently heard. And I see some of that on the local food front too. Twenty cents here, fifty cents there. The increased cost of containers, ingredients and labor are big causes.
We ordered sugar and chocolate (for ice cream) the other week and the prices were noticeably more than when we'd previously ordered. I asked the rep why. She said “Many prices have increased due in part to rising freight and port fees, supply chain issues due to labor (and covid) – many items are out of stock or markets are tight pushing prices up. In short, the supply chain is a mess.” I asked her if there was any good news or an end in sight. She replied “None.”
Swell. But on the bright side, the weather is moderating, we are halfway through February and veggie growers are busy finishing their seeding charts and eagerly awaiting sowing seeds in another week or two. So take heart! The upcoming vegetable and farm season is about to begin!
As I wrote several weeks ago, Danone, who owns the Horizon Organic brand, dropped 89 organic farms across New England and NY state last summer. (24 of these are Vermont farms). They did it because it’s cheaper for them to get milk from mega-dairies in the Midwest. The bottom line: this decision was about increasing profits.
The announcement caused shockwaves throughout the dairy industry. Numerous political bodies and organizations have been working to not only find a solution to keep these farms in business, but also stabilize organic dairy in New England. Lots of ideas have been generated, letters of inquiry as well as complaint sent, petitions signed, and meetings attended.
To date, Danone has granted another 6 months to their original 12 month contracts. This gives the farmers and policy makers more time to craft possible solutions. This is a win but doesn’t change the underlying issues.
Stonyfield, though, is trying to change the playing field. They recently announced a new partnership whereby consumers pledge to purchase one-fourth of their dairy products from 35 brands that have committed to increase their purchases of organic family farmer’s milk. This increase in demand will help keep organic family farms going.
Go to https://www.saveorganicfamilyfarms.org if you’d like to pledge your support for this project or learn more. (By the way, Kiss the Cow is one of the 35 partners). The bottom line on what you can do: buy local from farmers you trust.
Can I Get Your Milk in Belize?
We routinely receive requests from people looking to get our milk or ice cream. They ask to get info about their closest retailer or whether we ship directly. We try to nicely tell them that we do not feed Texas, Colorado, California, etc. Recently, we got an email from a woman in Illinois wanting to get our milk. In case you weren’t sure, there are over 100,000 dairy cows in Illinois. (Plus over 1.2 million beef cattle, but that’s another topic). You’d think someone would have raw milk for sale -which is legal in Illinois as long as it’s sold from the farm.
I’ll admit that all these people wanting to get our products is good for the ego, but occasionally the request falls into the surreal. This past week a woman wanted us to deliver milk to West Sussex. “Is this possible?” she asked. Sadly, I had to inform her that we’re in the US not the UK. Then a few days later we received another inquiry asking if shipping to Belize is possible and which credit cards do we accept?
It’s kind of funny, but how does this stuff happen? Let’s face it: we’re just a very small farm tucked in the hillsides of Vermont. Although we are now milking 13 cows (OMG!) we're not quite ready to go international. And nor do we want to.
I send them what I hope is a cheery reply thanking them for their interest but explaining that we’re focused on feeding our local community. However, if they’re ever in Vermont please stop by and say hi!
Disconnected From Our Food
Today, I was thinking about something that happened at the Norwich Farmers’ Market a couple years ago.
A woman was holding one of our freshly processed chickens. I could see the struggle on her face as she stood there. Finally, she put the chicken back in the cooler.
I asked her if perhaps a different size bird would be better, but she shook her head. I mentioned that we had non-GMO chickens available as well as the organic one she had been looking at, thinking that it was the price that was causing her hesitation. (Non-GMO chickens are cheaper to raise since the cost of grain is 40% less, and therefore we can sell them for less.)
But no. It wasn’t the price. The problem was that it was a whole chicken. She didn’t know how to cook a whole chicken.
Then last week, I was talking with Danielle, one of the owners of Root 5 Farm, an organic vegetable farm up in Fairlee. They included our pasteurized milk in their summer CSA, and in turn, we sourced some of our vegetables from them for our CSA customers.
I asked her what feedback she had gotten about the milk from her CSA members. She mentioned that a few people had expressed concern that the milk was curdling when they received it. She had to explain to them that the “strange gunk” at the top of the jug was not a sign that the milk was bad. It was, in fact, the cream.
It’s so easy to shake our heads at stories like this, to wonder with dismay how someone could not know how to cook a chicken or that cream rises to the top of the milk. But people today simply do not have the experience of fresh food.
Chicken comes in Styrofoam, ready to toss in the skillet. The meat doesn’t even look like something that once was alive because that might offend people’s sensibilities. And store-bought milk is homogenized to break up the fat globules so they cannot rise.
So many of us are completely disconnected from our food. We have no idea where it comes from, how it was grown, how it was processed. We have no idea how far it traveled to get to our plate (on average 1800 miles, by the way). We simply have no experience with what real food looks or tastes like.
But if you do want to learn about real food, I recommend a bite of one of Danielle’s late summer tomatoes or a tall glass of our whole milk. You will instantly understand what real food is, and why people like us work so hard to produce it. (Just don't forget to shake the milk jug first!)
Making a Difference
The best boss I ever had once told me that "We influence people every day in ways we will never know." I am occasionally reminded of this truth. During this season of giving and thanking I'd share how our CSA members influence a couple people who are extremely grateful to them. These are people you've probably never met, although they are our neighbors.
Members can optionally make a donation when signing up for a CSA share. The idea is that these funds go to help others who could not otherwise afford to get good, local food each week. Thanks to their generosity, we’ve been able to assist a few families over the past couple years we’ve offered sponsorships. But none of them have touched my heart like a local grandmother raising her granddaughter. Whenever we are in funds, I keep signing them up! In her own words, this is how your kindness affects them:
“I can’t begin to tell you how much this gift means to us. I mean it when I say that [my granddaughter] has grown several inches and no longer looks tired and stressed! I really think the fresh raw milk and good food has contributed in a big way! Until COVID, I was working four 10 hours days, commuting each way. We were up at 4 and not getting home until after 6. It was really hard for a kindergartener as well as this old grandma. Even though financially times are tough, we are so happy to spend this time together. She now loves toast and butter along with the milk. We’re excited for the veggies too. As vegetarians we enjoy all of the awesome local veggies. I can’t possibly thank you enough for this. I am humbled by the generosity. We promise to pay it forward.”
And more recently, she wrote: “Thank you so very, very much. I think the delicious milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt and veggies make all the difference in our health. It is deeply appreciated. [My granddaughter] is back in school. I had surgery again in March but hope to be able to work a couple days per week soon. I also hope that one day we will be able to visit the farm so she can see where her delicious milk comes from. Again, thank you with all of our hearts.
So as you go about this holiday season, remember that you're influencing people, touching their lives. And remember the spirit of the season, because you can so easily make a meaningful difference -just open your heart.
One of Our Cow Families
The matriarch of our herd is Charisma, a stubby, black-faced Jersey who is bigger around than tall. At ten and a half years, she is the oldest cow in our herd. No one messes with her, even though most weigh more. She’s not usually bossy but this is a cow with a mission. When the girls go out to fresh pasture she is the first one in line. No one -bovine or human- stands between her and her food! She's such a good cow!
One of her daughters, Yoohoo, was born eight years ago last week. I was in the milkhouse putting the milkers together for the afternoon milking while Lisa went to bring the cows in. They were still on pasture, but we’d gotten some snow earlier in the day. Suddenly, I heard yelling and raced outside. Lisa was stumbling down the hill towards the barn carrying a very wet, floppy calf in her winter jacket and hollering “Yoohoo!” to get my attention. We eventually got the calf, momma, and numerous ever-so-curious cows in the barn. She's always been a special cow.
Another one of Charisma’s daughters is Lil Hef, which is short for Little Heifer. She was an itty bitty thing, but is now a Hef(ty) 1050 pounds and looks exactly like her mom. So much so that I confuse them occasionally. She’s still just as friendly, loves to get hugs and rub her neck up and down you. The other day I went out to the barnyard and stopped to give Hef some pets (one of my favorite things to do). I then moved closer to the water tank to watch it fill. Quietly, Hef walked over and stopped, just barely touching me. She got some time with her human; I got some time with my cow. Life is good. Lil Hef just had her first calf, Emo, and has now joined the milking herd. She's my favorite cow.
Charisma is a grandmother a few times over. One of her granddaughters wore a cow bell when she was younger since she would not stay where she was supposed to! Ella has always been an independent gal. Never rowdy or troublesome, but she has never cared about arbitrary rules and does her own thing. If the grass was greener two paddocks over that was where she would be. Electric fences meant nothing to her. The bell helped us find her. I admire her independent streak. She’s my favorite cow.
No, We Were Not Ready for Winter!
Last week I waxed poetic about being ready for winter. Ha! It’s so easy to delude yourself. And even quicker to discover the truth. The snow and cold weather that arrived a couple days ago reminded us that we’d forgotten to do a few things. So we’ve been busy.
Lisa used her tractor to remove the pile of manure from under the ramp. We should now have enough space for all the manure coming out of the barn this winter. I dug a shallow drainage ditch to divert water, which bubbles out of a small spring every winter, from flooding the driveway. It seems to be working so maybe this winter we won’t have a sheet of ice covering the parking area. I also put the barn windows back in, which will keep the snow and blustery wind out of the barn (next time). And we hooked up the small heater in the walk-in cooler. This time of year, the challenge is not to keep products cool, but to keep them from freezing. The walk-in was 32 degrees one morning when I went to fetch some broccoli, which is too cold. And while not really a get-ready-for-winter task, we also finished remodeling a section of stanchions in the barn. We now have room for an additional six cows -which we need.
So I’m not going to say that we’re now ready for winter, only that we are more ready.
The cows are off pasture. They are back in the barnyard eating hay. Inhaling the stuff it seems. Slow down girls! Ya’ll got another 191 days before you go back out on fresh grass. (That’s just over six long, dark, cold months, btw).
The summer toys are put away. Last year’s plastic bale wrap has left the farm. The automatic waterers have been replaced with water heaters so the water tanks don’t freeze. The temporary fencing has been taken down. The posts are in little piles on the floor of the old Horse Barn. The reels on their pitchforks are lined up against a wall. I even remembered to take in the forgotten reel and posts from the large pasture way out back.
Chains are on the tractor. One chain took over an hour to get hooked on. The other one took six minutes. No, I don’t know why. There are a lot of things I don’t understand. Sometimes it’s best not to disturb the equilibrium of the universe. Better to accept your ignorance and get on with the day.
We are now in that late autumn period when summer has departed, fall is almost behind us, and winter looms ever closer. The fallen leaves crunch as you walk. The hills are blurry gray with splashes of evergreen. Frost awaits in the morning. Sun and warmth seem sluggish as they struggle to rise, cresting briefly mid-afternoon before falling swiftly in the shade of the ever-encroaching dusk.
You can hear the quiet. There is a stillness as if life can sense the coming darkness and cold. A few birds still play. Do they not understand what is coming after this short transition period? Or are they determined to live to the fullest while they can?
The cows know: their winter coats are starting to grow. Although still grazing, they seem to understand the grass isn’t as fresh, or nutritious or plentiful. Do they look around each new paddock with resignation, as I do, noting the yellowed grass, the shorter length, the lack of new growth? Do they know that this is the last time they will be in these pastures for several months? Not until the sun is again high in the sky, the west breeze is refreshing, and all the birds sing and play will they see these fields again.
Be like the birds. Enjoy each day as much as you can.
New Raw Milk Bottles
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.
Randy Robar, co-owner of Kiss the Cow Farm