House of Cards
I honestly can’t remember the last time I found a moment to write here. It goes without saying that I can’t afford such a self-indulgence these days, what with the trajectory of the dairy being constant, forward movement, always following the milk, always trying to comply with the science of cheese making that has no regard for conventional schedules, always trying to comply with the regulatory agencies that oversee our work, that grant us our right to operate. Sometimes, after a week of production, packaging, marketing, deliveries, and sales, I feel like anything we accomplished only occurred through magic and the inexplicable convening of good luck and fate. But that’s ridiculous. We accomplish things because we work hard. And by “we” I mean the whole team of folks who lend a hand here, now, weekly. Some daily, now that we have a farm intern who lives on the property full time and contributes her time towards milking and general farm chores. The contributions of these people elicit enough gratitude from me to fill a book. They know this, I know this. But gratitude doesn’t keep the ship sailing, so there’s not much time to stop and celebrate. Mostly there’s not much time to celebrate because of one particular aspect of this job that has become the primary work and worry of all that we do. It’s a piece of the hundreds of pages worth of regulation (literally, hundreds of pages. We are governed by the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, a tomme so over-articulated and written for such large dairies, that it manages to dictate how one must handle their own sneeze while in the same room with milk.). The Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) guides the construction of, production within, and animal health requirements for every single licensed dairy in the United States. Regardless of what sort of milk or milk by-product is being produced (raw fluid milk to condensed, sweetened milk, to butter, to cream, to yogurt, to ice cream, to cheese) it regulates every single component of the building, the barn, the milk holding temperatures, etc. Etc. Etc. Given this country’s dark and dirty history with milk production which included tuberculosis epidemics and milk adulterated with chalk – I get it, and I applaud any effort made to further the integrity of public health. Let’s just go ahead and get on the same page about that right now: I believe in the regulation of dairy.
But here’s the truth, and what I’ve debated for months about mentioning for many reasons- namely – because dairy is an esoteric language and only those who are fluent probably want to speak it. But then I remember that the wider audience here, if not dairy producers, are dairy consumers. I am, mostly, talking to you.
Let me clear my throat.
Here at Bee Tree Farm and Dairy, I milk 19 goats. They have free range over approximately 20 acres of forest, and spend their days alternately roaming their wooded acres, snoozing in piles under trees, and ambling up to the barn occasionally where alfalfa and water are always available (along with free choice salts and minerals and other good things). They eat a small amount of grain while being milked twice a day. That’s it. Unfortunately the PMO was generally written to oversee the thousands of enormous dairies in this country that represent a huge percentage of the milk you find in the grocery store: these are places that house tens of thousands of cattle in dry lot pens where they stand in close proximity to each other (and their own excrement), are fed grain three times daily. They are places where grass and free-ranging are pipe dreams. For those dairies, where it’s unlikely that a farmer has daily interactions with each animal to inspect their health and general well-being – FOR THEM – the PMO is an outstanding document. It tells the state health departments exactly what thresholds are allowable when testing the bulk milk samples from those dairies monthly: how many bacteria are allowed to be present in the milk and – very pertinent to people like me – the allowable amount of somatic cells any given monthly milk sample can contain. Somatic cells are essentially white blood cells that are present in all milk and are shed from animals’ bodies via milk for many reasons, some of which may be poor health and mastitis: infection. For industrial scale dairies, where animals have extremely limited interaction or relationships with humans, this is a valuable yardstick against which the general herd health (and, ostensibly, milk quality) can be measured. I get it. My god, do I get it.
Luckily for all of us, this country is experiencing a re-emergence of the small scale dairy operations which were swallowed by post WWII industrial agriculture. At that time it made milk, like all of our food, cheap, cheap, cheap. (And still does today.) The small guys who used to produce enough for their local communities disappeared in the new economy of cheap (arguably lower quality) milk – this is the same story for all of agriculture. But I want you to think about dairy, for the moment. No longer was the majority of milk in this country sourced from a farm that milked fewer than 100 animals, all of which would have been inspected daily by the farmer – or the family that worked collectively to care for, milk, and bring product into the nearby town. It became much cheaper to mechanize the process, packing dairy cattle into small pens where infections were rampant and the overuse of antibiotics became standard. And the only way to measure levels of infection would be to sample milk and determine how many somatic cells these animals were shedding.
We all know that lots of improvements have been made in terms of milk quality: for example – no longer are antibiotics allowed to find their way into the dairy stream, something that is tested for in these monthly samples, and pasteurization does kill many hazardous pathogens, including tuberculosis. Here in Texas and in many states (although not all states!!), a state health inspector arrives unannounced to pull a milk sample from the bulk milk storage (which in our case is a 60 gallon milk tank, a large refrigerator just for milk where it is chilled until we turn it into cheese). Our milk is subjected to the same test as the 10,000 head dairies in the Texas Panhandle. And that’s ok, that’s fine. Except for a few interesting facts: goats are known to shed somatic cells at a higher rate than cattle. This is accounted for by increasing the allowable monthly threshold of somatic cells present in goat milk, although arguably it may not be adjusted quite enough. What is not accounted for in these tests are the unique characteristics of goats that cause them to shed somatic cells for reasons other than infection. Like, say, extreme temperatures. Or, say, hormonal changes that occur when they begin to go into heat. In fact, there is significant anecdotal evidence suggesting that some goats simply shed more somatic cells based on their breed. Nubian goats are notorious for having higher somatic cell counts (SCC) in their milk than other breeds.
So imagine, if you will, a small producer who knows every single detail of every single animal on the farm. She knows when their manure was loose at midday, watched them eat baking soda in the evening and sees that they feel better by morning. She recognizes the 48 hour period within which her animal was in heat, a time period that would cause a spike in her SCC. It looks different than the industrial dairy yards that supply milk to grocery chains across this country. I don’t think many of the cows represented in those plastic jugs have names. In fact, I know they don’t.
What I didn’t understand about this job has all been revealed to me over the course of this year doing the job. On the job training, with so much at stake, is not for the risk averse, the weary, the timid. And I am increasingly frustrated with my inability to control what seems to be uncontrollable: somatic cell counts. Why does this matter? Because, being a part of the tangled regulatory web, producers must fall within these allowable ranges for monthly SCC tests. Any two tests that are out of range, within the last five tests, put the producer on product detention. It means we can’t sell our stuff. It’s a threat that very seriously impacts our ability to conduct business.
Are you still listening?
Why am I taking to a blog to write all this? Because I’m venting, obviously, but also because this is an aspect of dairy production that few consumers understand. The reality of our work extends far beyond the labor we put forth in the barn, in the milk parlor, inside the dairy building itself where we rely on a little magic to convert liquid to cheese, where we toil over such things as social media to be sure you see our farms through perfectly tinted rose-colored glasses. My time these days is spent doing all that (plus, you know, marketing, packaging, cleaning, delivering, attending market) – plus doing an enormous amount of milk testing. Pulling clean samples from every single teat in the herd and sending to labs that measure SCC and then pulling samples from animals with high SCC counts and learning to put the milk onto quad plates and incubate them in my laundry room to see if mastitis bacteria will grow and then pulling samples and sending them to veterinary labs and waiting for results and moving animals around in the milking order so as not to mix milk with high SCC with milk with low SCC.
It’s not romantic, it’s not easy, it’s the singular reason I could bow out of this work entirely. I was blindsided by the impact of SCC and our inability to conduct a milking season without interruption from start to finish. It’s not as simple as just, you know, milking the animals. It’s not even sort of that simple.
I don’t sleep much because of SCC – something that’s not unique to me but something I hear repeated by my other dairy friends. Some states don’t test monthly, they don’t even test quarterly, which is basically a violation of the federal PMO regulations, but if you’re thinking about becoming a licensed dairy the only piece of advice I’ll share is this: move to, say, Washington state. Really. Because this…this…this is a proverbial Mt. Everest: an insurmountable mountain. In terms of challenges, milking during a summer of days that soar above 100* where my herd began coming into heat months ago, and trying to keep the goats’ SCC within allowable range under the physical stress they’re experiencing? All while understanding the milk is completely safe and healthy? Oh, my darlings, it’s tough.
You should care about this information every single time you cast a vote with your food dollars in favor or against small farms. Farmers that produce food in the most highly regulated categories are doing so much more than just scratching their animals’ heads and enjoying bucolic sunsets. Consider that when remarking on the price of things at your farmer’s market or when considering the wedge of cheese that sounds exciting and delicious but is just…so…expensive. Although, truly, this isn’t a diatribe to convince anyone to support their local farmers as much as it’s a cliff’s notes education about the cost of food production. Hopefully it’s a statement about the passion and dedication it takes to do this, a firm underline beneath the sentiment that I hope resonates: those of us doing this are in it for the love of the animals and the lifestyle. We find a way to claw through the bureaucracy we can’t fight because we want to claw out a living from what we love.
After another sleepless night I told Jeremy this morning that I question the sustainability of a business so reliant upon the number of white blood cells the goats shed in any given month, a moving target too elusive to capture and manage. “This business is a house of cards,” I told him, clutching my cup of coffee that would be the fuel to get me out the door for milking. “Life,” he said, before kissing my forehead, “is a house of cards.”
And ain’t that the truth? Cheers to all of you weary dairy farmers clutching your coffee cups each morning, even when your hands tremble slightly, watching the rising sun, knowing it’s hard, fragile work that keeps us resilient.
And makes us so goddamn strong.