Raw Milk Road Trip
by Guest Blogger Joseph Heckman, PhD
In the spirit of “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” my family and a few friends set out on a road trip to take a tour of a farm that produces raw milk. The Family Cow is one of several Pennsylvania farms where many of us New Jersey raw milk drinkers are sourcing food. Sure we would prefer eating local, but ironically eating local is not always legal in the Garden State! This farm in south central Pennsylvania maintains several distribution sites within the Keystone State. This service helps to make access to raw milk more convenient for outsiders.
As a result of my publicly stated personal preference for raw milk, I have fielded numerous inquiries about how to find a good farmer. Raw milk drinkers are naturally discriminating about source and farmer reputation for cleanliness. After food safety, other questions may concern preferred animal breed, pasture, A2 milk, organic certification, etc. The price for high quality raw milk is generally the least concern. I typically explain that when it comes to farm fresh foods, there is much useful information to be gained from meeting ones farmer and touring the farm.
So on July 27th, we packed coolers in the van and set our GPS on target for The Family Cow to meet the farmer behind the attractive label on the milk jug. After the 200 mile drive, we arrived at the barn store, nearing the end of the evening milking, just as the cows were about ready to head back out to pasture. We were warmly greeted by Edwin Shank, members of his family, their farm dog Dingo, and a swarm cats and kittens.
Our first tour stop was to see the cows in the “Maternity Ward Pasture” near the barn where they are kept for close observation as they are about to calve. Next we visited the calves that were still being bottle fed. My six year old daughter was just thrilled to hold a bottle being sucked by a very cute Jersey calf. From this point we jumped on the four wheeled gators and headed out to see the heifers on pasture. Dingo ran beside us like a very happy dog enjoying her role on the farm.
It is always a pleasure to see cows on pasture doing what normal cows do – eat grass. Edwin seemed self-conscious for the conditions of his pastures, which he described as “looking more like a savanna than a lush grazing ground.” Edwin, no apology necessary; when we are standing out there in the field to see where our food really comes from, we naturally sympathize with our farmer, the crops, and cows in times of drought. As a soil scientist, I saw the pastures as surprisingly green given the recent stress from triple-digit temperatures and drought conditions in the Mid-Atlantic region. Maybe the organic management practices were conferring some drought resistance to the pasture soils.
Our next stop took us to the far pasture to see where the chickens were grazing and scratching. As a farmer, Edwin Shank is in many ways a student of Joel Salatin. He uses movable pens to rotate the meat birds to fresh pasture several times per day. The egg-layers are given a larger area to graze and are moved less frequently, but the idea is to have the hens graze a few days after the cows have been moved over to a new pasture. The chickens provide a valuable service by feeding on larva in cow pies. This system prevents the fly from completing its lifecycle and pestering cows.
On our last stop we moved over the hill to see the milk cows and a few bulls grazing on new pasture. The Family Cow is actually plural in the sense that it refers to a heard of 240 cows; mostly of Jersey and a few Holsteins. The bulls are all Jersey and are serving to move the future heard in the direction of the Jersey breed. (As a connoisseur full-fat unprocessed milk, I really appreciate the creaminess provided by Jersey.) An electric fence directs the cows to a fresh area available for grazing, approximately two acres. Edwin explained to us that in a normal year, the cows would get plenty of summer feed from pasture, but with the current drought slowing grass regrowth, the feeding of some supplemental hay was necessary.
The tour by Edwin and his son Rodrick was excellent. They were very gracious with their time and answered numerous questions to our satisfaction. Although only certified organic for about five years, the ecological and philosophical vision for The Family Cow is moving Edwin’s farming system well beyond minimum standards set by the USDA-NOP. The farm is very clearly pastured based both for the dairy and the poultry. The farming system is well-integrated, biodiverse, and builds upon complimentary relationships for pest control. The raw milk is reportedly tested for quality more frequently than that required by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Before we left The Family Cow, we stuffed our coolers with wonderful products from the Family Cow store. At the checkout I happened to notice a shelf well-stocked with the books that are the cannon for the organic and raw milk movements. Nourishing Traditions, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, The Untold Story of Milk, and The Raw Milk Revolution were just some of the titles on display. But they were more than just for display; Edwin has read them all. Like me, he is also an avid follower of raw milk news and of The Complete Patient blog.
As we drove back home, I thought about how taking children on a day trip to a farm such as The Family Cow, is perhaps more genuinely entertaining and valuable than an ordinary day at some theme park. Clearly my daughter was thoroughly entertained by the animals as evidenced by her wide smile. She was educated in the ways of a real farm.
As a professor responsible for teaching college courses in Soil Fertility, Agroecology, and Organic Crop Production, I plan to use the numerous photos I took for educational purposes. The Family Cow provides a nice illustration of the alternative to the typical concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). The material will also be useful for a presentation (Title: Anonymous Commodity Farmer or Artisan Farmer with a Face, Who is Your Farmer and Why?) I am invited to deliver for a Symposium on Local Food Systems at the American Society Agronomy meeting in Longbeach, CA, Nov 1, 2010.
Arriving home just past midnight, a good day was had by all. While occasional travel to the farm to know the source of our food is a valuable experience, such distance is not practical to procure ones weekly need for fresh food. That’s where food buying clubs and shared pickup arrangements serve to lift the burden. We are thankful that The Family Cow helps to foster such relationships with their website and buying arrangements.
Photo credit: Joseph Heckman, photo of Edwin Shank, Hannah Duchscherer
Dr. Joseph Heckman is a soil scientist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station. He grew up on an organic dairy farm, and has helped to organize the Rutgers Raw Milk Seminars. Heckman has written a number of articles on organic farming for Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal published by the Weston A. Price Foundation. See his recent blog post about his trip to India and Raw Milk Access Helps Family Choose Vacation Destination.
Another article by Joseph Heckman is In Defense of Living Organic, published in That Natural Farmer.