I have a long enduring passion for family farms. The story behind food – how it gets from farm to table – is absolutely fascinating to me. Dairy especially. I remember growing up next to Farmer Rich, eating fresh hand-picked vegetables from the field and looking out to see good old Fred the cow waving his fuzzy ears at us.
“Why can't we milk Fred?” I'd ask my mom insistently.
“You don't want to milk THAT cow, sweetie. Trust me.”
The California Milk Advisory Board recently invited a group of bloggers out to California farm country, and I was excited to be involved in seeing the roots of the dairy industry in our state. Because dairy is such an important business for us (we produce more milk than any other state in the country!), the California dairy farmers fund the board to promote California milk through advertising, research and food service programs.
California dairies operate under the strictest air and water regulations in the nation. Every drop of water on the farm is used four times through collection and recycling. Daily challenges include feeding and health management of the cows, measurement and testing of milk and crops, water use, greenhouse gases, disposal of manure and cow disposal, feed management, equipment, breeding and genetic studying. Global food requirements are rising at an astronomical level and producers are struggling to keep up with multi-faceted sustainability issues: human health, protecting natural resources and providing proper animal care. All while staying within budget. It's truly an incredible sight to see in action.
The Cows behind California Milk
I'm sure you all have a basic idea of how the milk goes from cow to factory. I got a first-hand look at one of the more modern cow-milking contraptions: a giant circular conveyor belt where cows walk up, get strapped in and milked for a full rotation, and then get a quick spray with a hose to shoo them out into the fields. They like the ride so much, they don't want to get off! I envisioned some long chain of stalls where the cows could barely move all day, but they spent much of their time roaming happily around large spaces.
What really blew me away was the level of care the cows received at the farm I got to visit. The average cow doesn't usually milk beyond two lactations, but at this farm they milk an extra year and a half due to good care and impressive genetics. One of the cows went into labor while we were touring, and the owner hopped up to deliver! He called for a volunteer to assist and you know me…I dove right in. Seeing that big, fringed calf eye blinking up at me was like nothing else I've ever experienced.
From Farm to Factory
What really makes this industry special (besides how delicious it is) are the incredible faces who stand behind their products. We had an expert fly in from Columbia to show us around his high-volume factory. He used to work as a financial analyst for World Bank in DC, and now produces dairy products like Don Francisco cheese and Evo yogurt with his brother. It takes serious business savvy coupled with a passion for the product to survive in the California milk business.
I was shocked at the sheer size and volume of production. This storage tank on-site at Rizo Lopez holds 150,000 gallons, and California as a whole produces 2.25 BILLION pounds of cheese annually.
Dig In and Enjoy
So next time you're at the cheese counter, stop to read the packaging and think about the families behind your product. Think through the joys and the hurdles that it takes to get that little block into your hand. And while you're feeling fancy with your dairy in-hand, might I suggest some creative pairings? Bust out of your grilled cheese rut and try some ricotta, dark chocolate and dried cherries or a blue cheese ginger snap cookie.