After reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and seeing the film, Food Inc., I added the task “Visit farms and ranches where my food comes from” to my ongoing, never-ending “To Do” list. And it sat there. And sat there. Until a couple of incidents spurred me to get serious. First, reading about the very sad fate of male chicks to which I have been inadvertently contributing even though I buy Certified Humane eggs and second, seeing how much fun Colin Beavan had visiting a local farm in the film No Impact Man.
How many of us really understand how our food is produced? Labels on meat and dairy products are full of pictures of happy animals in beautiful rustic settings with plenty of space to roam and be free. But is that the truth? And how can we make decisions about what food products are healthy, sustainable, and in line with our values if we don’t have complete information and may not even know what our values are?
So yesterday, I rented a Zip Car and took a trip to Straus Family Creamery and organic dairy farm in Western Marin County to visit the cows that produce my milk and the humans who package and ship it to me.
The Straus family has owned and operated this dairy farm since 1941, and it became the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River in 1994. In that year, Albert Straus opened the creamery, which produces milk, yogurt, butter, and probably the best ice cream EVER. But I had come to see the cows, find out how they are treated and learn how a dairy farm operates.
The first thing I noticed driving up to the farm were groups of cows hanging out and grazing in wide open spaces. What a beautiful place to live, whether you’re a cow or a human, no?
In fact, these cows spend approximately nine months of the year outdoors, grazing and roaming. They eat the local grass, of course, but in this area, the grass is not sufficient year-round to support all the cows, so their diet is supplemented with mixtures of organic grains such as flax, oats, alfalfa, and yes… some corn. Contrary to Pollan’s assertion that corn is no good for cows, Albert Straus believes that in moderation, it can be a healthy component of a balanced diet.
For Straus, the main trouble with corn is the fact that so much of it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And while organic corn and grains of all kinds are not allowed to contain GMO’s, there is actually no mechanism in place to test for them. So our organic foods may not be as GMO-free as we think. That’s why Albert Straus took it upon himself to set up requirements for all his suppliers. They must test and ensure that the feed grains they supply are free of GMOs before they are delivered to Straus.
Straus’s cows are milked three times per day, more often than the industry standard of twice a day. The extra milking allows Straus workers to handle the cows more often and notice any unhealthy signs sooner. Unfortunately, I didn’t happen to arrive for milking time. I would have liked to have seen this operation in progress.
This lady is very, very pregnant. In fact, she’s about 24-hours away from giving birth. And she’s NOT in a good mood.
Across from the pregnant cows were hutches of baby cows. All the cows on Straus’s farm are born and raised here. It is a closed herd… no outside animals are brought in. Sadly, the babies are removed from the mothers at birth and kept in individual pens separate from each other. They are bottle-fed by humans and never have a chance to suckle from their mothers. Why? So that each calf is ensured a standard diet without competition or possible contagion from others. It’s a fact of life of the dairy business. Each of these calves takes nine months to gestate, just like human babies, and the dairy farmer wants to be certain that the investment will pay off and that the cows will be as physically healthy as possible.
What about the male calves? Some of them are kept on the farm for breeding purposes. Most, however, are auctioned off and will become meat. When asked if any of them will become veal, our guide Kristin told us that veal is not raised in this area and it would be very unlikely that a veal rancher would come all the way from the Central Valley to buy calves from Straus. And while many of the boys will will probably be bought by organic meat farmers, that is not guaranteed.
The males who are allowed to remain on the farm will spend their time hanging out with a group of females, called a “string,” or perhaps a better term would be “harem.” They breed the old fashioned way… 70% of the time. Artificial insemination is reserved for situations in which the old fashioned method doesn’t work for some reason. Ideally, each cow will give birth once every 369 days.
The cows rest and find shelter in the barn, spending almost all of their time here during the winter months.
As you can see, they produce a lot of poop. In fact, each animal produces 120 pounds of solid and liquid waste per day! That is a lot of greenhouse gas-producing methane. Waste dropped in the fields is left as organic compost. But waste from the upper barn area has another purpose. Albert Straus has devised a method for capturing the methane from poop, keeping it out of the atmosphere and using it to power his farm. Each day, water is released from a silo, and powered by gravity, washes all that poop into a pond below.
The pond is covered with a tarp, which captures the methane gas and feeds it through a tube into a generator. The farm generates 90% of all it’s electricity needs from cow poop. And the remaining solids are composted.
In fact, Straus seems to be doing everything it can to ensure that its business is environmentally sustainable. So what about the milk products themselves? All that packaging, for example…
As many in the Bay Area know, Straus bottles its milk in returnable glass bottles, charging a deposit which is refunded to the customer when the bottle is returned to the store.
Each bottle, whether new or returned, is run through the bottle washing machine. This machine, which originally used 12 gallons of water per minute, has been engineered so that it now only goes through one half gallon per minute. The cleaning solution is hydrogen peroxide, which breaks back down into water with no chemical by-products.
In fact, all the water at the Straus Creamery is recycled… whether the water for washing bottles or the water removed from the milk solids. Any leftover waste water that can’t be recycled is delivered to the digester at the dairy farm to generate power.
But let’s get back to packaging. The Straus bottle is glass. But the cap is non-recyclable plastic. And since some stores refuse to deal with taking back glass bottles, Straus also bottles some of its milk in plastic jugs. The company is working very hard to find plastic-free alternatives. The focus at the moment is on a compostable container made from recycled cardboard. Unfortunately, it will probably be lined with some kind of plastic, although that component is still in development.
Straus is not willing to line its containers with compostable corn-based plastic for the same reason that it rarely feeds corn to its animals — GMOs. Since there is no guarantee that PLA or other corn-based resins are GMO-free, Straus is not willing to use that product.
The company is looking at a compostable alternative for its yogurt containers as well. For now, they are all plastic because the company does not have the resources or space to put in the facilities for returnable glass yogurt containers.
But here is what makes Straus plastic-packaged yogurt different from other yogurts packaged in plastic. The yogurt is vat set. Most yogurt companies add the hot milk and culture directly to each plastic yogurt container. And as many of us know, heat causes plastics to break down and leach whatever chemicals they might contain into our food. Straus sets its yogurt in a heated stainless steel vat. Once the yogurt reaches the correct PH, the vat is cooled down so that the yogurt is no longer hot when it’s poured into plastic containers. This procedure helps prevent chemical leaching from the plastic, but it doesn’t address the waste issue. So Straus continues to look for alternatives.
Of course, our favorite Straus product of all is the ice cream. Organic. Hormone-free. Delicious. But again, a lot of packaging, which, along with the high calorie content, is one reason I try to limit its presence in my house as much as possible.
So, what did I learn by visiting this farm? I learned that some businesses really are committed to sustainable agriculture and business practices but that we still have a way to go. I also learned that as well as the animals are treated, there will always be a limit to how much quality of life and freedom they can have. Business is business. This baby cow (below) grabbed my hand in its mouth and sucked and sucked. Was this because it craves what it can never have from its mother? I don’t know. But I am glad to understand the reality of a cow’s life on the farm and the true cost of the milk I drink. I will not spill it happily, and I might even cry over it a little bit.
A version of this also appears on BlogHer.com.