Cows, Milk, and Agri-biz

Heads up, folks. You can buy and consume foods with all the high fructose corn syrup and chemical additives you want but you don’t dare buy unpasteurized milk from a friend! My thoughts on this topic were sparked by the most recent Virginia Farm Bureau newsletter that has an article on the vanishing Virginia dairy farm. The tone is one of sad resignation and the causes named are – boo hoo – the reduction in milk drinking and those troublesome environmental restrictions on pastures and manure relating to the impact on the Chesapeake Bay. Oh yeah, and the current prices paid to farmers for milk.

There’s not a hint of the way processed milk has lost its flavor as more and more it has been routinely pasteurized to ultra high levels; this omission may possibly be because the author has never tasted real milk. There’s no mention of the way the true ‘small’ dairies have been pushed out of business. By small I mean families that milked 8, 20, 50 cows not the big boys milking 250, 500, or 1000 cows. It has become the smug assumtion that the small guys just needed to get the hell out if they couldn’t compete with the big boys. The idea that the small operator might be best situated to sell to their local market never seems to have occurred to anyone (but the small guys themselves, I suppose). And certainly there was nothing even hinting at people who milk one or two cows, sharing the milk with family and friends. From the agri-biz perspective no one (sane) milks their own family cow, no one can make any useful income from making cheese or selling milk from an 8-to-50-cow herd.

For eight years in South Dakota I hand milked two Jersey and one magnificent Guernsey cow. The way the rules work in South Dakota is that anyone can sell anything from their farm if the customer comes to them. Over the years I sold pigs, lambs, chickens, eggs, butter, yogurt, and milk to friends, neighbors, and customers as far away as Sioux Falls 47 miles to the south. And of course my family also ate all those homegrown foods we raised.

Did I feel ‘safe’ eating and selling those items; yes. For a relatively small cost my cows were tested for brucellosis annually. With only four dairy cows I was not concerned with staphiccosis or any of the bacteria issues often mentioned when large operations and vast collections of manure are discussed; I felt the same comfort with our 50 laying hens and the annual 500 free-range fryers. We raised 10 sows, four stock cows, and twelve sheep for meat and wool. There was grass pasture, room for the animals to roam, and easy composting of all the manure for application to garden and field. At any given time I knew no fewer than ten families who milked anywhere from two to 30 cows, sold milk in the neighborhood or to the cheese company. No harm, no foul.

When we moved to Virginia one of the first things I did was to buy another milk cow, a sweet small Jersey. I made friends with a local man who was milking four cows and had been selling milk to his friends for years. I was made welcome into a community of milkers, gardeners, and family food producers. But when I told them of my South Dakota experience they were astounded. Almost as astounded as I was to discover that without acres of stainless steel and regiments of inspectors I could not sell any thing except eggs or honey here in Virginia!

How did all these good old boy, proud Virginia ‘small farmers’ let the oligarchs in the General Assembly ram that down their throats? The big boys have red herringed the issue by convincing the politicians that somehow it is the small guys who are the threat. Oh, no we don’t pollute the Bay with our multi-1000 cows in hip-deep mud loafing pens! Representative Blah, why don’t you spend your time legislating the beady-eyed policing of farmer’s markets. What? Joel Saladin butchers chickens in front of the actual customer? OH MY GOD! Git ‘em’! Don’t worry about Tyson’s or Perdue or the Hispanic workers working those nauseating assembly lines in the chicken slaughterhouses. That’s the part that pisses me off – all the smug economic agendas by the big boys and the equally smug capitulation by the agri-biz media.

So my response to the Virginia Farm Bureau point of view is that if you are not wiling to support the real small guys you can’t complain when the larger guys are under the gun. You can’t falsely accuse home milkers of potentially spreading milk-borne diseases while ignoring or downplaying the bacterial results of huge muddy feedlots, or hundreds of cows who have never seen a green pasture being milked in multi shifts a day.

The result; I use as little ‘store’ milk as I can, and probably lots of people make that same choice. Or we are willing to pay a premium for milk from dairies we feel are more humane, or smaller, or Mom and Pop, or organic or whatever values make us feel good. My decision is that I fully intend to raise another milk cow so I can taste the incredible flavor of real milk once again and to share it with my grandchildren.

While most people are not ever going to milk their own cow everybody should have the choice to buy whatever milk they want from whom ever they want. Damn, you can buy and feed to your children every kind of soda pop, or candy; you can buy mass-ground, crappy, cheap (possibly contaminated) hamburger, or Pop Tarts, or hotdogs I wouldn’t feed to my cat, or greasy mass produced cheese, and boxes of salt filled Hamburger Helper, and don’t forget drive-through fast food garbage, crap, crap, crap. BUT you can’t go to a friend’s barn and buy a quart of fresh real milk!


  • Colette E. dabney

    Thank you Leni. I loved this story.

    I felt like I was right there and you made me want to taste real milk again. Whenever I smell or taste real butter or milk, to this day it flashes me back to what my paternal grandmother smelled like whenever I gave her a hug. The scent of sweet milk and butter.

    My grandparents lived on a huge farm and with 14 kids, raised their own cows, pigs, chickens, etc and made all their own food. They spent most of their lives raising food on the land in one way or another. I’d often heard stories from my mother, about how even before she married my father, my grandmother was ALWAYS in the kitchen and she always made her own milk and butter. I still remember the glass botttles and the butter mold.

    Every single day grandma made butter biscuits, to be consumed at every meal and always sent us fresh butter wrapped in wax paper. I remember savoring the flavor of hot homecooked oatmeal with grandmothers, milk and butter melting on top with a little bit of sugar. There is absolutely NOTHING in this world like the taste of fresh butter and fresh milk. You’ve got to experience it to know it!

    Another thing that probably made the milk so good was that the cows really “knew” us. I always say, the cows (and the pigs) were halfway related to us anyway since so much time was spent taking care of them so that they, in return, would take care of us. How quickly we forget the power of simple things that mean so much.

    Just this past year I asked the last remaining aunt who in her 90s still lives alone on the farm that was my grandparents home, if I could have my grandmother’s butter churn. I didn’t ask for grandma’s picture (have that) or her jewelry or the family dishes. I just wanted that churn. Somehow it felt like her spirit was there more than in anything else I could hold onto. Because of my humble request, my aunt also gave me my grandfather’s prized coffee mug. She said he really loved his cup of coffee every morning. I can only imagine it had a little bit of grandma’s fresh milk added.

    Thank you for helping me remember how much we were loved through the sacrifice of hard work and the time it took to make wholesome food.

    Also, love the photo of you in pink (my favorite color) and laughing.

    Happy Spring,

  • Leni the cook

    I’m copying a response to the blog by Ralph Hall, editor of The Cultivator, the newsletter of the Piedmont Master Gardeners. The first sentence refers to a talk I gave on March 18th. He wrote this as part of a review of my talk. He adds another view of milk and cows:

    “Leni Sorensen gave us a lot of historic information about the slave gardens at Monticello.

    Leni has a blog site. On, She tells of her pursuits in growing things to sell like her family did in South Dakota. Well, it turns out that Virginia has more rules governing these things. So, she is constantly pedaling the 2.5 gallons/day that her Jersey cow produces. She does it because of her love for fresh milk.

    I grew up on a dairy farm and even helped milk a few cows before we got milking machines that do the teat squeezing and milk collection for you. I liked the milk, but my first taste of store-bought, pasteurized and homogenized milk led me into a lifetime love affair with the store-bought stuff. I would not want to put up with the animal keeping, etc. to get fresh milk that I no longer appreciate. Power to you, Leni.

    I never fell in love with the cows, mainly because there were always at least a couple that really gave us problems. Most of our herd was Holstein. They give more milk than a Jersey, but they can be a lot more temperamental. One cow, whose name has long since escaped me, was a problem. For the sake of this short tale, letís call her Trouble

    Trouble was one of those cows who really didnít want to go to the holding pen. She often found herself with a rock (tossed by yours truly) between the eyes when she turned away from entering the pen. Then she certainly didnít want to go into the milk barn. Once there, after a lot of coaxing, she offered resistance to putting her head into the stanchion. Sheíd even kick when we tried to put the milk machine on her teats. We learned to allow for that by keeping our distance.

    One of my jobs in the milking barn was to keep the cow poop from splattering on the floor. Dad didnít like to use hay as a cushion like some dairy farmers did. So, I had the job of scoop patrol. The cows generally gave some subtle warnings of what they were going to do. You learned to read these (but I always wondered why they made all kinds of contortions to avoid getting wet, but just, uh, pooped at will). Well, of course, Trouble ALWAYS had to go. One day, with scoop in place, she coughed. Since you have probably coughed or sneezed when youíre, uh, going, you know what happens. In my case, it shot straight back all over me. I ran to the house to clean up (did you ever visit a dairy famerís house and wonder why it smelled THAT WAY). Now you know.

    I came back, and Dad was mad as a wet hornet. He just couldnít understand why I had to change my clothes. This was from a man who crawled through mud and muck to take out a German machine gun crew who had eliminated Dadís whole company except for him and his cousin (He never told us this; I found this story among his papers after he died). So, I guess he just couldnít understand my not wanting to deal with a little cow muck.

    Perhaps, you can now understand why I prefer store-bought milk. Jerseys generally are a lot gentler. Iíve a series of DVDs based on James Herriotís book All Creatures Great & Small if you want to borrow them and learn more. Maybe goatís milk might be your style?

    If youíre contemplating keeping a cow or buying some raw milk, take a look at this web site first Wash Post article from FDA The FDA warns against the drinking of fresh milk. Also, some milk cows are better as hamburger.”

  • jim

    Leni –

    There’s a wonderful chapter in “HIdden Kitchens” (one of my favorite food boks) by NPR’s Kitchen Sisters about a Cow Share Association in the Midwest. Basic story of kids who grew up on a farm and went to see the world, and then came home to a failing (traditional, small) farm and decided to try something different, like grass-fed Dutch Belted cows for raw milk. Of course, it’s illegal to sell raw milk, but it’s legal to drink unpasturized milk from a cow you own. Sooo…. you buy 5% of a cow that produces 40 gallons of milk a week, and stop by the farm once a week to pick up your two gallons, and pay the farmer a small stipend for room, board, and milking. Gross oversimplification, but a beautiful story that is worth reading.

    Of course, the health benefits of raw milk apply only if it is from a tiny, family-owned, squaky-clean operation. I don’t think anything like the above Cow Share thing would work on a 200-cow operation, so if “raw” became a market share that would attract the major agricorps the way “organic” has it would become is irrelevant as the “certified organic” label is today.

    We’ve got a couple of lovely young ladies here in Houston (in their 20s) who are both from a very strong gourmet-deli background, and they realized that there were at least dozens of “hobby dairyists” scattered around Texas with small herds of Nubian goats and Dexter cows and fun stuff like that who make small batches (50lbs or so) of some of the best cheeses in the world. Not anything a Whole Foods would be interested in, but to a small but growing band of chefs and chowhounds the Houston Dairymaids have a great niche-market dairy co-op. Wonderful small-batch cheeses.

  • Dave at collinda


    Well, I have another blog to cruise by on my daily internet excursions.

    Having just read your piece on the dairy industry vs. human beings, I can report that I am muy simpatico.

    My introduction to the cozy relationship between the corporate feeding industry came in 1975 or 6 while a student in Norman, OK. I and two buddies decided we would make a few bucks with a road side weekend produce market. One of the guys had worked for a couple of years in the produce department of a local supermarket and was raised in a farming community, so he knew the lay of the land. We would travel to Okla. City, to the large market that primarily featured local producers early on Saturday morning and return to open for businesses at a spot we had arranged to use on a busy thoroughfare. All went great for a few weeks. Word of mouth grew the business for us and we were starting to show a small profit. Then The Man showed up, flashed some sort of symbol of authority and shut us down. We went to the responsible bureaucrat to appeal our case. We were informed that we were placing the public at risk. “How, we asked.” Sternly and with no hint of humor or irony, he replied “sidewalk spittle and road dust.” There began a life time of discovery about the, as you eloquently observe, crap we are supposed to eat.

    Here in my little corner of the Texas Hill Country we have a small but steadily growing local producer movement. Eggs, goat’s milk cheese and vegetables are the primary products so far. A fairly local bison producer, Thunder Heart, has tried to supply our county, but they can’t quite get the supply/demand ratio right. A pity as their operation is, it seems to me, outstanding (you can read about their practices at the web site) and if one is going to eat red meat, for flavor, nutrition and safety, bison is simply impossible to beat.

    Keep up the great work. Best wishes for helping rains and mild temperatures for your garden.

  • jim

    Leni –

    Just wanted to add one of my favorite culinary memories. When I was in high school in the early 70s, my best friend (who was from a dairy family) and I decided to check out some of that marijuana stuff that every one was making such a fuss over. So we would tell his mom that we were going to go hunting, and grab our guns (often leaving the ammo at home) and go out in the woods and get real, real stoned. That summer his folks’ butternut and acorn squash crop had gone nuts, to the point where the floor of their two-car garage was completely covered with hard-shell squash. We would come back to the house with no rabbits but a raving case of the munchies, just as his mom was pulling a fresh acorn squash pie out of the oven. We would cut out big ol’ slabs, and then reach in the fridge for the big glass jar of fresh raw milk and scoop a huge slab of the cream that had floated to the top and formed something that was much more of a solid than a liquid. Oh man, hot squash pie with raw cream…….

  • Leni Sorensen

    Oh, Jim you got it!! I used to make yogurt of pure Guernsey cream! It made Devonshire Cream pale by comparison. And don’t get me started about the butter.

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