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Butters: A healthier dairy culture is one thing to kowtow to

By MaryJane Butters | The Salt Lake Tribune

A family milk cow can be a pet that helps put food on the table. (Courtesy MaryJane Butters)

Tucked away on my Idaho farm with my own milk cow (a gorgeous miniature Jersey named Chocolate), I don't have to worry about buying my milk, butter and cheese from the store. Every morning, I gather a couple of gallons of fresh, raw milk from my little gal, satisfying my daily dairy needs.

But when I began hearing whispers of a mounting dairy crisis in the United States, my ears perked up, and I've listened as those whispers have escalated into a full-scale roar. The trouble is this: dairy farmers across the country are suffering a historic drop in milk prices -- the most significant since the Great Depression. They are earning less than half of what it costs to produce their milk while their operating costs are on the rise as a result of increasing feed and fuel prices. And it's the small-scale farmer who is being hit the hardest. Banks have begun restricting these farmers' access to financing and are seizing herds from those who can't pay. In many cases, a farmer's only option is to sell what cows he can and face a future that is uncertain at best.

Is it really organic? » To make matters worse for the organic dairy industry, the crippling economic crunch is coupled with recent talk of a scandal that's confounding consumers. A few giant dairies that claim USDA Organic status have reportedly been producing milk that hasn't passed muster. They've been able to offer lower prices because at least a portion of their milk "comes from factory farm feedlots where the animals have been brought in from conventional farms and are kept in intensive confinement, with little or no access to pasture," reports the Organic Consumers Association (organicconsumers.org).

The trouble is, when a dairy crowds cows in by the thousands, it's virtually impossible to foster the healthy herds and pastures requisite to the core values of organic agriculture. But we have to realize that these conditions are a direct response to market demand. In order to supply nationwide stores with a constant supply of milk, suppliers end up cutting corners. It's our right as consumers to find out where our products come from so that we can make conscious choices to pay for quality rather than quantity.

Dare to compare » So how can you tell whether a product's organic label is real or faux? Thanks to the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit, small-farm advocacy group, it's easy. Cornucopia offers an online organic "scorecard" ranking over 100 brand names and private-label marketers of milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream. It not only reveals which brands are produced using the highest organic-farming standards, it also helps you track down the best dairy resources in your region of the country so that you can opt to buy local.

The organic dairy products scorecard is available at www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/index.html.

Consider a cow-share » If you'd like to ditch the whole dairy-from-a-distance idea but don't have the acreage or time to tend your own cow, you might consider sharing one. In a cow-share or herd-share agreement, you pay a farmer a fee for boarding and milking a cow that you own or own a share of. You don't buy the milk from the farmer, which is illegal in several states. Rather, you pick up your milk from your cow that you pay to be kept and cared for on someone else's property. Depending on the specifics of your cow-share agreement, your fee might also include milk processing into value-added products such as butter, cheese, etc.

Learn more and locate a cow- or goat-share opportunity near you by visiting A Campaign for Real Milk (www.realmilk.com) and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (www.farmtoconsumer.org/cow-shares.html).

Do-it-yourself dairy » Let's say, though, that you're hankering to start making your own dairy products. If you have a little bit of green space, your answer to the dairy dilemma just might be to buckle down and buy that cow. I highly recommend it!

Here are some helpful resources to get you started:

» Real-Food (www.real-food.com) includes an online discussion forum full of tips and tales related to family cow ownership.

» Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman is a practical and inspirational manual covering every aspect of cow keeping.

» The Family Cow by Dirk Van Loon is chock full of essential details about owning a milk cow -- from buying and boarding, to milking and manure.

MaryJane Butters is the editor of MaryJanesFarm magazine. E-mail her at everyday organic@maryjanesfarm.

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