New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand broke the news yesterday that New York State lost a whopping 23 percent of its dairy farms between 2002 (when there were 7,400 operating dairy farms) and 2007 (when there were just 5,700).
Gillibrand says: “Our dairy farmers are facing a real crisis, and we simply cannot wait until the Farm Bill to find solutions. We need to address this crisis now. New York is home to the hardest working farm families and the finest dairy products in the world, but outdated regulations, broken pricing structures and a bad economy are hurting our dairy farmers, and farming communities across the state. We need to act now to support New York’s dairy farms.”
While Ms. Gillibrand is acting at the policy level, you can help by buying milk from small-scale local farmers. And why wouldn’t you? Milk produced locally by small-scale dairy farmers who are focused on quality over quantity is likely to be a lot fresher and more flavorful than stuff produced on industrialized farms and processed in huge batches factories far, far away.
When it comes to good milk, freshness matters. So do some other things. A few other factors that affect the milk are whether or not the cows producing the milk are pasture fed, how (or if) the milk is pasteurized, whether it’s homogenized, and how it’s bottled.
Pastured vs. non-pastured: This one is pretty simple. The flavor of milk from pasture-fed cows changes with the seasons. As the seasons change, so do the grasses and plants that the cows graze. Dairy farmers looking for a consistent year-round flavor in their milk need to control what their cows eat, ruling out pasture grazing.
Pasteurization: Pasteurization of all milk products is required by law in most states, including New York. For those who were passing notes instead of paying attention in high school biology, pasteurization is the process by which liquids are heated then cooled in a precise way to destroy potentially harmful microbes.
Most milk, including most mass-produced organic milks, are pasteurized at high temperatures, which creates a longer shelf life but burns off both nutrients and flavor. Several regional artisanal-minded dairy farmers use gentler pasteurization techniques, allowing those natural nutrients and those grassy, creamy flavors to shine through.
Homogenization: Homogenization is a mechanical process used to alter the structure of milk in order to prevent the cream from rising to the top. Homogenization became standard when dairy manufacturers switched from glass bottles to cardboard containers after World War Two, and we all apparently forgot how to shake. Just about all of the milk on supermarket shelves has been homogenized since then.
Homogenization basically breaks the naturally large butterfat molecules in milk into tiny pieces. This causes the milkfat bits to be absorbed by the body much more quickly (which is not good), it may destroy some of the natural healthy enzymes in the milk, and it affects the flavor.
Many artisanal-minded small daily farms are skipping homogenization in some or all of their milks today, to keep the structure and flavors of the milk as natural as possible.
Packaging: Ahh…the beauty of an old-fashioned thick glass milk bottle. Milk looks beautiful in those glass bottles, and I’d swear it tastes better too. It’s also the greenest way to package milk – those glass beauties can simply be washed out and reused over and over again.
Most mass-produced milk comes in plastic or cardboard packaging, but happily, many of the small-scale quality-focused dairies are reviving the practice of packaging some or all of their milk in those gorgeous glass bottles.
Wondering where you can get your hands on some super-fresh, tasty, and nutritious gently-pasteurized local milk? Here’s a rundown on some of the farmers and producers bringing the good stuff to Brooklyn.
Ronnybrook Farms – The Osofsky family of Ronnybrook Farms in Ancramdale, New York have been producing all-natural milk with their pasture-raised Holsteins for over seventy years. They keep it fresh – by bottling their own milk and by limiting distribution to the Northeast, they’re able to get their milk from the cow to you in a little more than a day.
The freshness combined with their use of low-temperature pasteurization techniques, no homogenization and old-school thick glass milk bottles result in milk that’s super creamy and flavorful. As they’ve grown, they’ve started bottling in plastic as well as glass – go glass if you can find it. They’re not certified organic, but they are totally committed to all-natural production.
In the past decade their milk has made it onto the shelves of about 25 shops throughout the borough, so it may be the easiest one listed here to find in a store near you. But to ensure that you’re getting the freshest Ronnybrook, you might want to stop by their weekly stands at our local Greenmarkets. They’re at the Grand Army Plaza, Greenpoint, and Fort Greene Greenmarkets on Saturdays.
Summary: pastured cows, low-temp pasteurization, non-homogenized, glass and plastic bottles. Not certified organic, but might as well be.
Milk Thistle Farm – Dante Hesse’s Milk Thistle Farm in Ghent, NY is a smaller operation than Ronnybrook, although a recent substantial investment in the farm by a NY-based private equity group will surely lead to growth. Like Ronnybrook, their cows are pastured, they minimally pasteurize, don’t homogenize and bottle their own milk – only in glass – preserving all those good flavors and nutrients. Unlike Ronnybrook, their milk is officially certified organic.
Of the milk from their Jerseys, food critic Adam Platt of New York Magazine wrote “This is a real monster milk: sweet and nice, syrupy and smooth. It’s got a real complex smell, too: bold and fruity and rich. This is cereal milk for the gods.”
Want more expert endorsement? Chef David Chang is a fan – he exclusively uses Milk Thistle Farm’s milk at Momofuku Milk Bar.
You can find Milk Thistle Farm’s milk at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturdays and at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket on Sundays. They’re not yet available on shop shelves in Brooklyn.
Summary – pastured cows, low-temp pasteurization, non-homogenized, glass-only bottles, certified organic
Evans Farmhouse Organic Creamery
Dave and Sue Evans of Evans Farmhouse Organic Creamery went organic in the late 90s, dedicating themselves to producing the highest-quality milk as naturally as is legally possible. Their Jersey cows roam the farm’s pastures in milder weather, and their feed is supplemented in the colder months with certified organic grains and hays.
Like Ronnybrook and Milk Thistle, they pasteurize at low temperatures, and don’t homogenize. They are certified organic. They don’t do glass bottles – only plastic, but we can’t hold that against them because their milk is sooo good.
You can find Evans Farmhouse Organic Creamery Milk at Brooklyn Victory Garden in Clinton Hill.
Summary: Pastured cows, low-temp pasteurization, non-homogenized, plastic-only bottles, certified organic
Battenkill Valley Creamery – The McEachron family of Salem, NY has been farming for over a century, and the current generation is carrying the torch forward by making some seriously good milk (theirs was voted the highest quality milk in New York State by the Cornell University Department of Food Science in 2010).
If you want to find local, naturally-produced milk made on a small family farm, but you’re skittish about the seasonal changes in the flavor of the milk that you tend to get with pastured cows, or if the whole rising-cream thing that comes with non-homogenized milk freaks you out for some reason, you might want to look for Battenkill.
Battenkill goes for a consistent flavor, which appeals to many. In order to maintain that consistent flavor in their milk throughout the year, they do not pasture their milking cows – they keep them indoors to ensure that they’re fed a consistent diet of certified organic feed. All their milk with the exception of their ‘cream top’ variety is homogenized, so no shaking is required.
Battenkill bottles their own milk at the farm in glass and plastic, and take the low and slow approach to pasteurization. They’re not certified organic, but are committed to an all-natural approach to management of their herd. They claim that their milk makes it from the cow into the bottle in less than eight hours.
Summary: Grass-fed (but not pastured) cows, low-temp pasteurization, homogenized and non-homogenized varieties, glass and plastic bottles. Not certified organic, but committed to an all-natural approach.
Five Acre Farms – Five Acre Farms is a newcomer to the local milk scene. They acquire milk from farmers within a 275 mile radius of the city, and process and package it under their own brand name. We weren’t able to get any details on the production, pasteurization or homogenization practices used by their network of farmers, but it’s clearly locally produced and that’s a good thing. You can find them at Union Market’s locations in Park Slope and Cobble Hill.
Summary: All we know is that it’s new and it’s local.
Do you love the old-fashioned freshness, flavor and creaminess of these local, gently-pasteurized milks? Want to take it to the next level? You might want to try to score some raw milk. Be warned: raw milk’s legal status in New York will require you to do some shady black market dealing to get your hands on some. New York Magazine broke down the raw milk underworld last spring.
Know of any other good local milk available in the BK? What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments. We’ll update the story to include anyone we missed.