Earlier this week I posted a pic on Instagram about a field trip I took with the boys to a dairy farm just south of the Phoenix area. Like most families living in North America, milk is a part of our life: not a big part, especially when I think of the gallons we guzzled growing up, but we still have a good amount in our diet. Cheeses, yogurt, butter, and yup, milk. And not just the 2% gallon jug with a blue, red, or yellow lid.
We do milk raw.
I know, right? Isn’t that illegal? Aren’t you going to die of a horrible disease? Well, no and no. Amidst all the, ahem, “interesting” ideas that come out of our state legislature (guns, under-funded schools…) a great thing about living in the Wild West is they sometimes kinda’ just let you, the consumer, take a risk now and then. And while the lax gun laws sometimes make me cringe, I like the “lax” idea in other areas. Give and take, I guess.
So we have a Milk Man. Not in the 1950’s deliver-to-your-door way, but we actually know the guy that milks the cows. Rick and his herd aren’t part of a giant conglomerate of dairies where millions of gallons of milk are poured into giant vats, mixed all together a poured into attractive jugs depicting a rolling, grassy field of cows which might exist in Switzerland but here look a little more like a mass of cow hide rugs bumping into eachother on a small, flat, brown chunk of land under a tin roof.
We know Rick. And now we know his cows.
There’s Sue, kinda’ the matriarch of Fond du Lac Dairy. There’s Ju-Ju, daughter of the late Jesse who was Rick’s favorite. He seriously knows them all by name. As we watched the 34 brown beauties (the breed is Brown Swiss) line up in anticipation of milking, Rick pointed out a dozen of them, each with their own story. Some he had helped their mama birth them, others he has taken across the country to show at fairs. As he talked, Rick gently stroked Sue’s face, letting her curl a 12-inch sand paper tongue around his arms.
Rick loves his cows.
And this is where quality comes in. Sure, we can argue back and forth on the merits and dangers of raw or pasteurized, we can point fingers at whether corn-fed is demonic, free-range is angelic or whatever. But you can’t beat watching your milk come from a cow while she’s getting an ear-scratch by her farmer. But, considering the title of this post and to pass on some info, I’ll give you an idea of some of the differences I’m talking about.
The “big guys” (of which Rick used to be a part of, FYI) have literally 1000’s of nameless, numbered cows. They have to be medicated (dont’ be fooled by rbST: there’s new stuff, and other stuff… think of the high-fructose corn syrup switch to “fructose”) because they live too close together and often they stand in their own poop all day long. The milk comes out of a cow with brilliant nutrients, but since that cow was standing in poop, there’s a chance that bad bacteria made it into that batch. And since she’s one of a few thousand contributing to your gallon o’ goodness, they need to heat up the milk, now zapping away all the good stuff. But don’t worry, they add synthetic viatamins (D, E) and calcium to “fortify” it.
And I bet that cow on the front of the jug isn’t named Sue…
When we first started on the raw milk journey, it was a bit nostalgic. I have clear memories of filling up a five gallon bucket (think the orange Homer bucket at Home Depot) at a tap sticking out of the wall at a local dairy. Fresh, raw milk for the week. Later, my dad came across a Jersey cow who had half a tail, battled fleas all her life and looked like her hips might pop through her back. But Bess produced the most amazing calves and we had milk straight from our barn for a while.
Nostalgia aside, Lanna and I started hearing of the benefits we were missing out on. The good bacteria (think yogurt and kombucha) we could access, the support of a more local producer, not to mention the taste. Man, that taste! And like I said, we’re lucky. For a while you have to go directly to a dairy or be a part of a co-op to access raw milk. By the time we started buying it, it was sitting on our grocery store shelf.
And it’s $7. For a half gallon.
WHAT?!?! Yeah, we had to shuffle the budget around. We already spend way more than the average family on our groceries, but for us it was a matter of quality over quantity. For instance, if you’re eating food that has good nutrients, you don’t actually have to eat as much. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that eating a pastrami-on-rye is better than a Big Mac, not to mention for more fulfilling even when the burger has twice the calories.
Good nutrients take less to fill you up. For real…
So we pay it. But it’s like a triple win. I mean, maybe even a win-win-win-win: our boys are healthier for it, we’re supporting small business, we know our farmer, he knows us and has watched our boys grow up, and I could go on. That’s a lot of wins.
And the cool thing is, Rick doesn’t really want his operation to get huge. He doesn’t have stock holders to please, no growth charts to reach, no expansion plans. If it happens, if demand goes up, I’m sure he’d love to give the good stuff to more people. But it’s the quality he’s talking about. Rick won’t sacrifice the quality. I hear this buzz around the market when I go. Benny makes, the best tortillas for us and a few restaurants. He makes 800 tortillas a week. 800! When I asked him if he’s looking for help, he says no. He’s good where he is. No need to grow bigger. Why, I ask? “Quality.”
A few weeks after raw milk had been in our grocery rotation, I walked up to a guy sitting on a cooler with a spread of sample cups on the table in front of him. He was sitting under a pop-up tent with a banner that shared the name stuck to my half-gallon of milk in my fridge. He wore a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes, a black t-shirt, blue jeans and work boots. That day I met Rick. He’d been our dairy man for a a while, but that morning we chatted about farming, cattle, and kids. I left the market with two free jugs for being a loyal customer. But the transition had already been set in motion. Friend was a better suited word for this budding relationship.
That’s quality. That’s living the slow, good life.