Call me crazy, but I have always dreamed of owning a milk cow. I imagine her tromping about my imaginary pasture, a cowbell tied around her neck. She would have soft, friendly eyes. Sometimes she would get out of the fence, and we’d find her munching grass in the front yard. We would laugh and guide her back to the pasture, and she would follow without any fuss because that would just be the way she was. Every day, I would pull on my muck boots in the early morning and trudge out to the (also imaginary) barn to milk her. It would be a quiet, peaceful time for soul-searching while I milked the cow to provide basic sustenance for my growing children.
Okay, I may be a little bit of an idealist. (Or a big bit of one. It’s hard to say.) The reality is, most folks do not have the time, resources, or knowledge to keep their own milk cow. Instead, our milk is shipped in from other parts of the country. It has to be pasteurized at very high heat to ensure that it can safely survive cross-country travel and still have a long shelf-life. This ensures that the milk we buy in stores has lost much of its flavor (and arguably, nutrient value).
The question is why? We should have the opportunity to buy milk that was grown, collected, and processed near where we live, or at the very least in our state. For food security reasons. For environmental reasons. For peace-of-mind reasons.
Just the Milk Facts, Ma’am
Are Kentucky dairies sustainable as businesses? Let’s count the numbers:
Ten years ago, Kentucky was home to nearly 2,000 dairies.
Now, in 2011?
Eight hundred and ninety-two farms, which is 58 less than last year. I know this is from a variety of factors—our slumping economy, as well as an excessive amount of government regulation and interference. Never mind that Kentucky has not gotten on board with more progressive states who are allowing the sale of raw milk, rather than treating it like a drug on the black market.
A Dairy In Transition
This week, I took my children to see part of the remnant of dairy farms left in the Bluegrass State. We visited Chaney’s Dairy Barn in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Still a working dairy, albeit with a small herd of around fifty cows, Chaney’s now makes homemade ice cream to supplement the dairy’s income. This family-owned business also offers milking demonstrations to school groups, as well as families on certain days through the summer. While no cow was available for a milking demo on the day we visited, we did see their star cow Glimmer, whose image appears on their milk cartons. As the owner explained to us the history of the farm, it was obvious that the ice cream had saved the day and the farm.
I’ll be honest. While the folks at Chaney’s work hard to make visiting their place a fun time for everyone, I felt a sense of loss and sadness during the visit. It was a little disheartening that I was taking my kids to a dairy, as if it might as well have been a zoo. I should have told them, “Kids, this is how folks used to live.” I also could have added, “Enjoy this, because we may see a total dairy loss in Kentucky in your life time.” Maybe one day some factory somewhere will manufacture a “milk-like product” sort of like Velveeta is a “pasteurized cheese food product.”
A Post-Dairy Landscape
As if to prove my point, on the way home, we stopped at Pelly’s Farm Fresh Market. As it turns out, this lovely garden nursery, antique store, and roadside produce stand was only a few short years ago a working dairy farm. The barn has been converted to an antique shop and host to a wide assortment of Kentucky Proud products. They also have a lovely assortment of farm animals, which they operate as a sort of petting zoo, free of charge. My kids were ecstatic, especially when Mr. Pelly kindly gave them a chance to feed the goats.
Mr. Pelly, who owns the property with his wife, explained to us that selling out the dairy operation was the only logical choice. He was getting up in age, and the farm could not support him and other families to do the work as well. His milking equipment was getting old, so it only made sense to sell out and convert the barn space into something more useful.
I have to applaud the Pelly family for creating a really beautiful destination that was very busy when we dropped by to visit. Still, from a sustainable point of view, it doesn’t make sense if every dairy barn in Kentucky becomes an antique store or flea market, does it? In the event of a military, bioterrorism, or economic calamity, where will our milk come from? If it can’t be shipped in from somewhere in the Midwest? If the cost of fuel continues to skyrocket, will we be able to afford milk that has been transported from California? If we allow our local, small dairy farms to be sucked up into huge corporate, centralized mega-farms, will we lose the incredible knowledge of the old-time dairy farmers? The trade secrets that are passed from father to son over generations of farm experience? Not to mention, it only makes sense that a small-scale family farmer is going to treat the cows with more respect and appreciation than a faceless, completely mechanized giant dairy operation.
If we continue to lose 58 dairies a year, we would lose all Kentucky dairies in just over 15 years.
Perhaps I should be looking into getting a milk cow after all.