On Saturday Sept. 10th, I visited Fair Oaks Farms about 2 hours outside of Chicago, off I-65 on the way to Indianapolis. I was touted by their website motto; “Sustainable and responsible dairy farming is what we do.”
As I started to talk to some of the employees who directed me to the birthing barn, they used heavily weighted language to personify the cows, more formally known as anthropormorphism. “The soon-to-be moms are going to get a pedi in the dry barn, until they are ready to give birth.” Talking about animals as people but treating them like animals was uncomfortable. Of course, the employees are trying to draw the visitor into the experience and enjoy light conversation. The danger with ego-centric language is in assuming the human care givers know exactly what the dairy cows want. Certainly, experts at the farm know the dietary needs and general behavior of the herd animals, but I imagine if we could somehow know what a dairy cow wants, it would lack human involvement. This presentation of the cows with human emotion encourages the visitors to have a blindness; a complete understanding of a creature not oneself.
The milking process was fascinating. On a sort of cow merry-go-round, the cows would get on in a narrow slot, get hooked up to the milking hoses, spend about 7 minutes going around in the circle. They didn’t seem to mind it and knew when to get on and off, true to heard animal behavior.
My ears perked up when an employee said that the milk leaves this farm in its raw state. It seems whenever topics of raw milk and health come up in public dialog, it becomes a war. As Anne Mendelson articulates,
“It is waged with great eagerness to discuss issues of food and health by slinging around as many claims and counterclaims as possible in the service of preformed agendas, and all too often without elementary caution, fair- mindedness, or patience to entertain any answer that falls between two stools.” (Milk, 54)
Processing techniques that occur from raw milk to bottle: centrifugal separation, recombination to uniform milk-fat grades, homogenization, and pasteurization affect the make up of milk. While I do not have a technical understanding of the these processes and the chemistry behind them, I know that foods grown only with a concern for quantity aren’t going to be as good as something nurtured in a small garden. I was interested in the cost-effective ultra-pasteurization processes that involves shooting the milk through metal pipes, almost instantaneously heating the milk to 275 degrees F. There are more than one or two ways of pasteurizing milk. The quick continuous heating denatures some of the water soluble milk proteins, while a slower process will not be as destructive. The milk-born pathogens that can occur in unclean dairy processes and cause illness can be effectively killed in a slow heating at a comparatively lower temperature. Pathogens can also contaminate pasteurized milk later in the process. I would hope that people who acquire raw milk for drinking slowly heat the milk at home for pasteurization and know the farm/ask questions.
I am not totally sold on the idea that adult humans need the complete enzymes in raw cow milk. Very few other cultures in the world do adults drink as much milk as we do in the United States. I think lobby from the dairy farms has a lot to with that. Anne Mendelson sums it up nicely by stating that our current pasteurization processes do keep pathogens at bay and money in our wallets, “but it is a crude and imperfect solution to a problem that ought to admit of more than one solution,” (Milk, 56).
Many processing plans use the ultra-pasteurization practice with large scale farming. Although Fair Oaks said they did not know explicitly how all their milk is processed, I am certain a good portion of the raw milk from this farm of 30,000 cows gets ultra pasteurized. Fair Oaks Farms said they supply to Dean Foods, Kroger along with their farm brand. I asked if we follow the milk and tour a processing plant and was met with a resounding, “No.”
I know the process to become an organic certified anything is long, complicated and varies. Fair Oaks Farm is not labeled as an organic farm; they do not allow the cows to graze. They do not use growth hormones.
Would I call this farm sustainable based on their practices I saw that day? No. Would I call this farm responsible for letting people come and visit, an attempt at greater transparency? Yes.
Photo-tour via Flickr (thank you to Jesse Kadjo for taking photos that day)