Monday, June 16, 2008

Local Farms

by Elizabeth Royte

Bobolink Dairy is about 50 miles northwest of New York City in rural Vernon, New Jersey. Owned by Jonathan and Nina White, it produces artisanal grass-fed cheese and wood-fired bread, plus whey-fed pork and suckled veal -- terms of art that make foodies drool. The Whites sell their products at their farm, through a Web site, and at greenmarkets. But like many savvy farmers these days, they also invite the public to visit the dairy. Agritourists can take an hour-long tour for $5, a five-hour cheese-making workshop for $50, or they can just stop by to pick up a few things for dinner. To my husband and me, cheese-making sounded like an excellent family outing. To our 8-year-old daughter, wary of anything that smells of lessons, it sounded like another sort of opportunity: "I want to milk a cow," Lucy said.

That we were visiting a farm for any reason was evidence of the growing movement to support local agriculture. Local is the new organic, goes the current dogma; buying local will save the family farm and benefit the environment too. But there are wrinkles in this movement. Recent studies show that how much energy is spent on the farm (heating greenhouses, for example), and how food travels (by truck or ship or train), can be just as important as how far it travels. And the pressures on small farmers are now so acute that simply buying their products may not be enough to keep them afloat.

Lucy didn't care about any of this, of course. She just liked scratching the poll of Brunhilda, a big brown Ayrshire, while three dirt-streaked women milked cows with vacuum hoses nearby. I looked around the dilapidated barn, and the lack of trim and polish seemed like a good sign. The Whites were too busy caring for cows to paint windowsills, or to get children set up to help with the milking. If they spent their time fussing over aesthetics, there might not be much to sell: Making cheese from grass is hard work. So far, Lucy seemed to be taking everything in stride.

In his tall rubber boots, Jonathan White leaned against a stanchion and offered a primer on the natural history of Bos taurus . The farm, he said, was breeding a short-legged black bull from Kerry, Ireland, with Guernseys, Jerseys, and Ayrshires to produce the Bobolink Black Grazer, "a new breed of cattle for the post-petroleum age." Tough and calm, the cows eat grass and, in the winter, hay. They live outside, which cuts down on illness; they don't know from growth hormone and antibiotics; and, most important, they've never tasted corn.

Cows didn't evolve to digest corn. The grain ferments in their gut, allowing dangerous strains of E. coli to thrive and causing illness that needs to be treated with drugs. Grass-fed cows are happier, and cutting corn from the equation means the Whites don't have to buy something grown and delivered using fossil fuel.

White himself is representative of a new breed, crossing the natural conservatism of those who work the land with the political ideals of a progressive activist. Except that White, 50, wasn't born to either bloodline. His father was a math teacher, his mother an editor. "I was an electrical and mechanical engineer," he said. Food was a hobby until 1993, when the children on a friend's farm decided they didn't like to drink goat's milk; suddenly there was a surplus. "I took the milk and started making cheese," he said. That same year, he gave up his day job. In 2001, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, White formed the Grasslands Cheese Consortium to share his experiences with other small dairy farmers. In 2002 he and his wife began leasing the Bobolink property.

After milking, the cows ambled outside to a creekside pasture, and Lucy and 11 adults -- the sort of people you'd expect to see on a wine tour -- stepped into the creamery. White donned a cap and let the morning's milk flow into a stainless steel vat. "Guess how much this cost?" he asked, referring to the white plastic shovel he was using to stir the milk. "A hundred and fifty dollars," he answered himself. Even Lucy knew that wasn't right, but this shovel was what the health department required. While he stirred, White talked.

Making cheese takes a lot of time, time that can be used to educate visitors about federal farm policy, which has historically subsidized commodity growers but done little for operations like his; about "nouvelle conventional" (White's term for watered-down organic standards); and about the avarice of middlemen who steal from producers and consumers alike. I can't say I didn't expect, or appreciate, this. Thanks to rising environmental awareness, eating has never been more political than it is now. A farmer without an opinion on government regulations and the power of the agricultural lobby is a farmer without a pulse.

After giving us a taste of the raw milk, White stirred in two quarts of whey, the watery stuff that had been separated from the curds during yesterday's cheese-making, raised the heat in the vat, and salted the rinds of four cheeses he'd formed the previous day. He turned a crank to tighten a valve ("that's an $1,800 valve") and stirred in rennet to start the curdling process. "Time to feed the pigs," White said, closing the vat and noting the time and temperature in a logbook. Everyone perked up considerably.

We followed a tractor toting three metal cans of today's whey to a small pasture. Dumping the thin yellow liquid into troughs, White said, "I'm growing prosciutto," and smiled at the jousting of the pink and black piglets.

It was a bucolic scene -- the lowing cows, the slurping pigs, a handful of chickens on the loose. But it had some latent tension. Producing food this way is expensive. At the farmers market, Bobolink's cheeses cost $20 a pound. After watching for more than an hour while White cut curds ("curd knife: $800"), strained them, and poured the slippery cubes into cylindrical molds, I could understand the labor intensity of artisanal cheese making. "But I don't want to feed only the hedge-fund manager," he said. "I want to bring the price down."

Even so, White contends that the cost is an illusion. "In the long run our cheese is cheaper," he said. A full accounting of externalities, White maintained, will eventually make his cheeses more economical for both consumers and the planet, relative to cheeses made from the milk of corn-fed cows: "The price of those cheeses will come up and ours will stay the same." Why? Because only 1.2 cents of each Bobolink dollar is spent on fuel, while 35 cents of the industrial-cheese dollar goes to fuel. Most dairy cows eat corn grown using petroleum-based fertilizers and harvested by diesel-burning machines. The Whites don't buy corn, and they fertilize their hay fields with manure. Most cheese-makers don't produce their own milk: They buy it and haul it from afar, burning even more fossil fuel. They refrigerate their cheese at 35 degrees, while the Whites keep theirs in an underground cave at its natural 55-degree temperature. When White brings his cheese to market, a round trip of 100 miles, he chills it with 12 reusable ice packs.

"After Hurricane Katrina," White said, "I overheard a greenmarket customer asking a farmer if the rising price of fuel would keep him from bringing his produce to market. 'If the price of fuel goes up,' said the farmer, 'I won't have any produce to sell.' "

At lunchtime, we sat under a maple, sampled cheeses, and devoured local strawberries and hot focaccia -- the dough, cheese, and prosciutto had been produced within a hundred feet of where we sat. Then White mentioned, almost in passing, that he was on the hunt for new land: His landlord had decided to sell the farm to a developer. This property would soon sprout McMansions.

But because today's group had put $550 in the Whites' pocket, as did groups nearly every summer weekend, and because we bought cheese in his farm store, White was feeling okay about finding new land. Educational programs like today's, plus a menu of other programs the Whites offer year-round, contribute significantly to the farm's income. "Add in the extended word-of-mouth sales growth, and our education programs are extremely profitable for the whole farm enterprise," he said. "And of course, environmental education is the ultimate political act. If you want to make paradigm-shifting foods, you have to be willing to be an educator."

Certainly the best way to support a local farm is to buy its products. But, White said, "if you bring your children to the farm and enlighten them, the support goes on." He paused, but only for a second. "You vote three times a day. You can vote at the drive-through window or you can vote at the farmers market."

After lunch, a few of us walked through the fields, waded the creek, and went looking for the farm's latest attraction, a two-day-old baby cow. But the mother wasn't in the mood to show off her calf, hidden in the cedars by the stream. That was okay with Lucy, who switched her attention to more gregarious baby cows. She hadn't milked a cow, but stroking the heads of appreciative calves, standing knee-deep in clover, may have been even better.

Get Thee to a Farm!
There are more than 380,000 family-owned farms in the United States, and they're competing with some 70,000 industrial-scale corporate farms. To support family farms, the group LocalHarvest has created the nation's most comprehensive directory of local and organic food growers and vendors. Go to, type in your zip code, and get yourself to a family farm this fall.

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