The Diary of Dairy
It's not the cow, it's the how
It was 2004. Tim and Laura Joseph had just bought Stone Creek Farm in upstate New York. New to this world, they were about to discover that farming, and especially conventional dairy farming was all “upside-down”, financially. Input costs were way higher than what they could make by selling their milk to a coop. They had been told to purchase all this expensive equipment for the farm, and corn and grain to feed the cows. Any time the cows got sick, they had to be treated by a veterinarian. There were never enough hands. Tim’s sister Julia drove out 3 hours from New Jersey each weekend to help them, eventually giving up her business and moving upstate with her husband, Pete, to help full-time.
They decided to transition the farm to organic, hoping that it would be better for the cows, and they could charge a higher price for the milk. And then they discovered that organic was all upside-down, too. The cost of converting all the feed to organic, and then their entire pasture to organic, was prohibitive - particularly during the transition when they were still charging conventional milk prices. The cows still got sick. With four children, and a fifth on the way, they were collapsing under the weight of their bills and sinking into a financial abyss. It was time to make a decision - a Do or Die moment.
But wait, they had all this pasture land. Cows were meant to eat grass after all, perhaps they could save on the cost of grain. They stopped buying grain and put their cows out to pasture every single day.
That was when it all turned around. The cows were thriving on a diet of grass. Their output wasn’t affected and if anything, had increased. The land was thriving too. Costs had gone down - they didn’t need the expensive farm equipment, or the grain and corn, or the vet. This was a sustainable business, in more ways than one.
And thus, out of necessity, America’s leading brand of 100% grass-fed organic dairy was born - they called it Maple Hill Creamery.
This is a special Earth Day issue of the v8well newsletter. I had the opportunity to chat with Julia Joseph, the co-founder of Maple Hill Creamery, a dairy brand that has created a category and a movement in America- 100% grass-fed organic. Read on to understand the evolution of dairy farming and why you should make responsible choices if you eat dairy.
Note to readers: This is not a sponsored post - I am simply sharing a brand that I love and is a staple in my fridge, while also creating an opportunity to learn about regenerative farming. The interview with Julia was conducted over Zoom on April 12th, 2022 and I have taken the editorial liberty to present here a combination of a paraphrased version of Julia's answers to my questions, and my own research.
Dairy today is often the subject of polarized debate. On one hand, it is considered an essential food group in the U.S dietary guidelines, which suggest 3 servings per day. On the other hand, opponents argue that the environmental impact of animal agriculture is unsurpassed and the only way to heal the planet is to forgo all animal products, including dairy. To put this argument in context, we must start at the beginning, going back to the Neolithic era.
All mammals are born with the ability to digest milk (with naturally occurring sugars called lactose) from their mothers. However, the gene responsible for this gets ‘switched off’ in most of the world’s population after weaning - leading to digestive issues in most adults if they drink milk.
In the last 10,000 years, a remarkable phenomenon occurred, called lactase persistence. As some populations started to domesticate cows, goats and sheep, they developed a genetic ability to digest milk beyond childhood. This is seen as a special example of gene-culture coevolution, where culture influences biology and vice versa. This mutation spread unusually fast, typically along pastoral migration routes in Central and Northern Europe, and pockets in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Research links the spread to the Darwinian theory of natural selection, where it is often surmised that consuming milk and milk products from other mammals helped humans survive famine scenarios.
History and Culture
Today, roughly a third of the world’s population has evolved to be able to consume milk. There is a larger population that can consume fermented dairy - such as yogurt and aged cheeses, as the lactose has been broken down. In fact, cheesemaking in Europe is thought to have been prevalent even prior to this genetic development, as some populations figured out that they could digest milk by processing it minimally. In Poland, archaeologists have found perforated pottery vessels with traces of milk fats that are thought to have been cheese strainers, about 7000 years ago. Recent research from Cambridge University uncovered that Indians and Europeans shared the same mutation which enabled lactase persistence, suggesting that European migrants carried it to India.
In India, milk is seen as much more than a food. The cow is an important sacred figure in Vedic culture and milk plays a vital role in several Ayurvedic medicinal concoctions, usually taken with spices such as turmeric and ginger. Dairy is all over Hindu mythology - Krishna, the blue-skinned god, grew up as a cowherd and was an especially prolific stealer of freshly-churned butter, frustrating gopis everywhere. Ghee (clarified butter) is used both for cooking and to light sacred lamps. There are regional differences in the use of dairy in cooking as well - for example, North Indian cooking uses more butter and paneer, while several South Indian dishes use yogurt as a base.
I could go on here, but my point is that dairy has been a part of the world’s cultural history for centuries. However, today, dairy is not always the wholesome food we think it to be.
The Impact of Industrialization - from grass to grain
When dairy farming started out (and as it is still practiced in remote villages around the world), cows, sheep and goats were raised in pastures, all year long. They are ruminants, with four-chambered stomachs designed to eat grass.
Sometime after World War II, things changed. With the development of fertilizers, pesticides and other agro-chemicals during the Green Revolution, there developed a new model of farming, which is now often referred to as ‘conventional’ farming. Farms went from being a diverse ecosystem to vast monocultures of corn, soy and wheat, with farmers becoming more and more specialized. Maintaining pastures was expensive, and corn and grain were cheaper given government subsidies. So cows started to be put on a diet of corn and grain, with access to pasture as an afterthought, if that. Locked up in crowded CAFOs for most of their lives, they are usually given growth hormones to increase milk production. Unsurprisingly, this highly processed refined carb diet and unsanitary living condition creates inflammation in their bodies and makes them sick, just as it would for you and me. To prevent and treat sickness, they are often given daily doses of antibiotics, mixed in with their feed.
Industrialized “mega”-dairy farms have been found to produce tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases (methane, typically from cow flatulence), water pollution from chemical loaded-manure that leaks into water bodies, and consume an enormous amount of water.
‘Organic’ - what does the label get you?
Many of us that can afford it consciously choose to pay higher prices in the stores for organic milk and produce. But what does it really mean? While the organic movement in the 80’s originally started out as a rebellion against industrialized agriculture, industry lobbying diluted the standards. Today, it is a complicated and expensive process that most small farmers cannot even afford. In the case of dairy, as the Josephs found out - the standards did not enforce raising cows on pasture, they just need ‘access to pasture’. The cows still got sick on a diet of organic corn and grain. It wasn’t that much better for the cows, and certainly not for the farmer.
Regenerative Agriculture - It’s not the cow, it’s the how
Regenerative farming, while being on trend, it is actually a return to the old days of farming which preserves the symbiotic system of soil, plants and animals that keep each other healthy and create nutrient-dense food for us.
Our health begins with the soil where our food is grown. Where industrial farming over-tills and depletes the soils with monocultures, regenerative agriculture aims to renew the soil by minimizing disturbances and increasing diversity of crops in order to reduce reliance on chemicals. It restores microbial activity in the soil that also help process methane naturally and increases the ability of soil to hold water, that can tide farmers over during drought conditions.
Whether you consume animal products or not, integrating livestock is vital to regenerative farming. As they did centuries ago in the wild, ruminants forage and graze on pastures, in turn fertilizing and aerating the soil naturally and spreading seeds. Chickens forage for pests and contribute to natural pest control. On a managed pasture, when cows finish up the grass from their ‘salad bar’ (as Joel Salatin famously calls it in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma), the cows move on to a different pasture, allowing the original one to replenish naturally. To do this right, you need about an acre of pasture per cow.
Today, the Maple Hill Creamery “milk-shed” has over 140 small dairy farms in upstate New York that contribute to the brand - “farmers that are as crazy as we are”. My package of Maple Hill Creamery Whole Milk says the milk is from the Dharma Lea farm (which was the first farm to come on to the brand) and features a photogenic cow named Willow. Julia, who is also the head of Creative and Branding, says “We want you to know your farmer. Our product is completely traceable from farm to carton. No commingling with other milk pools.” For me, as a city dweller not apt to find fresh milk around the corner, it tells a story that helps me understand where my food came from and creates meaning in this food chain where we can become increasingly disconnected from our food.
Maple Hill pays farmers a higher wage for the costs of transitioning from conventional methods to regenerative. In partnership with Organic Valley, they have created a certification to standardize the concept of 100% grass-fed organic. “Farming is tough, whichever style you practice. Farmers are often working two jobs to make ends meet. Most of the time, doing the right thing is not a choice because the system is not set up to support it. We are here to lift up farmers, and give them an option, to educate them. There is a way to make our food system better and to heal our planet. ”
To me, they are an incredible example of how doing the right thing can be good business.
Having survived multiple scares (including cows walking out onto the street) as a startup going against the norm of the dairy industry, Maple Hill Creamery has come a long way. As ambassadors for the regenerative movement, they are working with other industry leaders on a grass-fed alliance. However, challenges still abound - from customer education (why 100% grass-fed is the gold standard) to government support for struggling farmers wanting to do the right thing.
The new generation of consumers is often more willing to pay premium prices for higher-quality food. Recognizing that there is a market, several brands including Organic Valley and Trader Joes have launched 100% grass-fed milk products. General Mills intends to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. Nestle has plans to source 50% of its key ingredients through regenerative agricultural methods by 2030.
What you can do
If you consume dairy, try to choose 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised products. Demand that your local supermarket (and your local Starbucks) stock 100% grass-fed milk. Try to buy food directly from farmers that practice regenerative techniques (there are many that do but cannot afford to get certified).
We are made of what we eat and what our food eats. The choice to consume animal products is yours, but it’s important to do so in a way that is respectful to the soil, the plants, the animals, the farmers and ultimately, to your health. Regenerative farming is the best way to ensure that our food is healthy, too - nutrients from the sun manifest in the grass, and are transformed by the cow to a form that you can consume. And farmers get a fair wage. As Tim Joseph says, it’s beautiful.
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Maple Hill Creamery products are available at 6,000 retailers across the US, including Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, Natural Grocers/Vitamin Cottage, Amazon Fresh, Walmart, Safeway, Sprouts and Stop and Shop, as well as thousands of independent grocers and specialty retailers. They make milk, yogurt, Greek yogurt, kefir and butter. See their website here.
Recommended resources: these are books or research I have leaned on heavily while learning about this topic.
Brown, Gabe. 2018. Dirt to Soil: One Family’s journey into Regenerative Agriculture. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing
Pollan, Michael. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press.
Daisy A. John and Giridhara R.Babu. 2021. “Lessons From the Aftermaths of Green Revolution on Food System and Health” Front Sustain Food Syst. Feb 2021
Regenerative Agriculture, Ellen Macarthur Foundation
The Role of Animals on a Regenerative Farm, 21acres.org
The Foodprint of Dairy, Foodprint.org