Real food doesn’t scale quickly

(or, why you can’t have all the milk you want)

You are literally beating down our doors for milk. In the past week, it seems that we have done little else at our humble farm store on highway 87 except answer your increasingly desperate requests for us to save you milk. I’m not exaggerating. The entire work week of two people has been filled with calls, emails and visits trying to procure raw pet milk. What is going on? I suspect it has something to do with word getting out that the lactoferrin in milk has been shown to be an effective immuno-stimulant and perhaps people think it could prevent Fido from getting Covid-19.

This isn’t news. The idea that pasteurizing milk denatures proteins, degrades vitamins and destroys immunoglobulins has been around for quite a while. Fear of pathogens caused raw milk to live in the shadows for a long time, something I started writing about in 2007. Now, greater fears of a virus are causing fears of pathogens to pale in comparison. Everyone wants raw milk. (And just to be clear, we will NOT sell it to you for you to consume. It is illegal in the state of North Carolina to sell raw milk for human consumption, and says so in quite big letters on our bottles.)

Nothing about raw milk’s health properties have changed. Nothing about our generalized state of ill-health in this country has changed, except maybe gotten worse. Yet now, everyone it seems, is waking up all at once. Or at least that how it feels at the farm store. I’m here to tell you that we can’t possibly sell all of you pet milk. And we are actively trying to figure out the best way for us, and the fairest way for you, to distribute it. Please bear with us.

For those who have been buying our milk and meat for years, we recognize and appreciate you. And for those new to the table, welcome. One of my favorite parables in the Bible is about the workers in the vineyard, and the vineyard owner chooses to give the workers who came late in the day the same wages as those who came early. When the workers who came early grumbled, the landlord said, you agreed to work the day for a denarius, and that is what I gave you, adding: “Why should my generosity make you jealous of them?” I understand that the parable doesn’t translate fully here, because now that so many are coming to get pet milk, those who have faithfully been making the trek for this milk for years are finding themselves in a pinch. We understand. And we are doing our best, and we will have the fairest solution we can as soon as we can. But I think some context is important here.

When I first started farming, I was an evangelist. Disinterested parties were forced out of social convention or literally by being trapped with me at a table at a dinner party to hear endless monologues on how Cows Save the Planet, and other tales… “two chickens in every yard reduces landfill waste by 25 percent and ends factory egg production tomorrow; the byproduct of bacon should be restored landscapes; real food is our first medicine and what passes as food in our culture is actually killing us; we are literally consuming the story of everything we eat, spiritually, physically and aesthetically” … All true, all irrelevant in a country awash in its own prosperity, convenience and entitlement.

About a decade ago, I realized that certain individuals may be ready for the gospel of soil, but the world certainly wasn’t, and I had sufficiently distilled complex concepts into my own consciousness to no longer need to discuss them. Living it was so much more peaceful. And it was peace that I fervently sought, and still find in cows using their tongues en masse to rip grass a perfect 4″ from the ground. I was content to quietly toil away at my vision for how we could instead live in abundance with the simple decision to eat well. So I built fences, moved cows, ate like a queen, collapsed in bed, repeat.

The notion of blood, sweat and tears shed for a dream has been bantered about many times more than I suspect than they’ve actually been poured out. I’ve had the distinct privilege to see them pour on the earth, more often than not from my own flesh, sometimes all at the same time. A worthy sacrifice.

Real food belongs to everyday people. It’s not for special people, or rich people or enlightened people or the culinary elite.

One day, I thought. One blessed day, my rag-tag band of other people’s worn-out bovines, through selective breeding and a heaping measure of grace, would have milking daughters capable of eating only forage and be able to feed their calves, put milk in the bucket and have sufficient energy left to breed back and do it all again. (If you want to learn about service, talk to a cow, who spends her entire adult life either pregnant or milking, and 80 percent of the time doing both concurrently.)

Of course, the worn-out land — tired from a century and a half of cotton, tobacco and continuous grazing by cattle — would need to be improved too, and it was, by the hard work of those cows, constantly just getting by with minerals and energy from a bag instead of from the plants that should have been getting it from the soil. (In that time, the farm moved twice, once by expansion, once by force. Repeat work of regeneration, times three.)

Their daughters did better in part because they were bred to be better equipped for a life outside — more anatomically able to eat a high-fiber, low-starch diet of grass — instead of having ground-up candy, stale bread and pig blood fed to them in a bunk feeder in confinement (true story, this is what milk in the grocery store is made of), which is what their grandmothers were bred to do. (My energy source to keep these cows alive while we together pursued the dream was beet pulp [almost certainly GMO], organic flax oil [which I bought in 50-gal drums and stored in a friend’s walk-in cooler 10 miles away] poured on alfalfa pellets, and for cows that really needed it, organic grain. I was not willing to sacrifice my cow’s ability to survive on the alter of a religious conviction that cows weren’t meant to eat corn — which they aren’t — but those cows had been bred to do just that, and they had to get energy from somewhere.)

The land was actually improving with the daily labor of these cattle, and my daily labor of moving them with portable electric fencing to imitate the herd effect of roaming bison on the prairie. The land was starting to provide more than just the bulk of their diets, but now also the living nutrition they needed to thrive.

My dream was that by the time I had a herd of cows who could do what they were created to do — turn sunshine into butter — enough people would emerge who were willing to go out of their way for it and pay what it was worth.

I didn’t even really care at that time if my original investment was paid back, or the innovation rewarded, or anything that our economic model does to recognize entrepreneurs was given its due recompense. (Cows have a long return on investment: 5-8 years, and every year you expand the herd — read: every year since we’ve been farming — the ROI is kicked down the road.) I just wanted to make enough money to keep doing it, because it was the only thing I knew how to do to make the world more beautiful. And it’s how I wanted to live.

Real food belongs to everyday people. It’s not for special people, or rich people or enlightened people or the culinary elite. So much does my family believe in this principle, we dedicated a restaurant to it. We closed after three years when we realized that we couldn’t prepare food at a price people in our community can afford without compromising our food values or exploiting our workforce, or some combination of both. Unwilling to do either, we opted instead to focus with laser-like intensity on our unique ability: producing A2A2, 100% grass-fed milk from Jersey cows without compromise, and tending to the ecologically compatible enterprises that surround them: laying hens to scratch through the cow pies, pigs to dig in the dirt and massage the land back to health, and sheep to mow the grass that isn’t as tender as the cows prefer.

If you want to buy milk, we need you to also buy beef. And pork, and eggs and stew hens and lamb. It’s all part of it. They are all part of the ecological symphony that allows us to produce milk without compromise.

Without compromise means that means every calf born on our farm gets a mama — her, or even his, own. (Bull calves are dispensed with quickly in the commercial dairy industry and even on the vast majority of small, pastured dairies because they take the precious milk that is rightfully theirs, and our culture’s treatment of milk as a commodity doesn’t allow farmers to make an honest living.) Following that biological and moral imperative that milk belongs first to baby calves means that we collect a lot less milk out of every cow. Combined with the fact that our cows aren’t pushed with starch, it means even less milk.

Baby Dub (a first calf heifer out of our cow, Dub) and her son, James Bond (007 will be his number, as he’s the seventh calf born in a year ending in a zero).

We get, on average, about 1.5 gallons per cow per day over the course of their lactations, and the rest goes to their calves, who get their mamas 24/7 for the first six weeks (and they are small enough to leave some milk for us for the first four), and then from 9a to 5p every day until weaning, which for the heifers is at 10 months, and the bull calves at 6 months. (At that age, the young bulls can start breeding their sisters and need to graduate to the bull herd.) Commercial calves are usually fed milk replacer and weaned at eight weeks.

The milking herd on pasture with the calves, yearling heifers and 2-yo “springing” heifers.

We are milking about 20 cows right now, and getting about 17 gallons per day, because most of the milk herd are in the tail ends of their lactations. In August we will dry off about 2/3 of those 20, and in late September and October, we will calve in about 20 cows and be milking 30. So, maybe 25 gallons of milk a day in October and November. Keep in mind, it’ll dry up to almost nothing in August, as the hot weather makes cows not want to eat much and 2/3 of the milking herd will be resting from the parlor while they finish growing the calves in their bellies.

Seventeen gallons a day. That’s with the work of, on average, about three highly skilled people per day. Granted, the work of those three people (some days it’s four or five) also covers the bull and Devon steer herd, the dry cow and Devon heifer herd. And granted, the work of those people, and the equipment, feed and supplies involved, is also spread out among 40 one-to-two-year-old heifers that will join the milk herd in the next couple of years. They shine like new pennies, and represent 4-5 generations into the dream. (Remember about that 5-8 year return on investment on cows. These 40 heifers will finish repaying our investment in them and start making money for the farm starting in about 2025.)

We also have other enterprises that spread out those costs. Which is kind of the point of this article:

If you want to buy milk, we need you to also buy beef. And pork, and eggs and stew hens and lamb. It’s all part of it. Those enterprises pay the bills while we are growing the next generation of milk cows.

More importantly, they are all part of the ecological symphony that allows us to produce milk without compromise. Even veal is part of it. Yes, the beef from a young dairy animal, still drinking milk. I know that may offend some, but the alternative is that those bull calves are sold down the proverbial river in a supply chain that cares nothing for their bellowing for their mamas, nor their mamas’ even more heart-wrenching bellowing for them.

Why can’t the boys just be allowed grow up to maturity, you say? Some are, and they sold to other dairies as breeding bulls. The rest would be steers, and dairy steers take an additional 1-1.5 YEARS to get fat compared to a beef steer, and produce 30 percent less ground beef. (Translated: beef at least 30% more expensive.) Their mama’s were bred to make milk and not put flesh on their bones, and their sons come with the same genetic ability, albeit without udders. Their calories don’t just magically appear on their ribs when their mother’s have been bred to put it in the tank.

Can’t afford our meat, you say? Understandable. The predicament we find ourselves in is both wide and deep. For the past half century we have collectively sent almost all of our dollars outside of our communities via entertainment, convenience foods, and disposable goods and unwittingly filled the silk-lined pockets of people and corporations that have no vested interest in the welfare of the communities where we live. This isn’t a political statement. This is a a fact. Half of the world’s total wealth is now in the hands of 1% of the population. In ten more years, it’s predicted to be 2/3. In the context of exactly zero political philosophies does this situation lead to a free and just society. It’s why Thomas Jefferson wanted us to be a little d, little r, democratic republic of agrarian farmers.

The path from partial to total annihilation of our ability to feed ourselves well is paved with exploitation — of people, of land, of animals and ecosystems — but we line that path ourselves with the stones of convenience, irreverence, disconnectedness and food taken out of its ecological context. I will not ever condone violence, but it is quite logically and the historically confirmed reaction to disenfranchisement and an inability of individuals to be heard, and the nearly inevitable conclusion of lack of agency in one’s own life. Our primary agency in our own life is how we, and whether we can, feed ourselves.

The way we eat has the capability to sequester carbon, end droughts, reverse desertification, prevent floods and give our children a living future, connected to place, in harmony with their neighbors, free of degenerative diseases and ready to transform our destruction into regeneration. Nothing less is on the table.

It’s going to take all of us, working across socio-economic, political, class, rural/urban and every other “otherness” we can contrive, to turn this thing around. And for our farm, it starts by not separating milk from its biological context. If you are going to buy our raw pet milk, we are going to ask you, in some way or another, to economically participate in the wholeness which goes into producing it.

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