Milk 1: Why we drink Grass-fed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMilk has been an important part of this journey for my family and our impetus for change.  It began with the birth of my daughter.  She was a very healthy newborn and I was breastfeeding her.  Then she got colicky.  We tried the gas drops.  They worked a little, but she was still colicky.  We tried infant massage, but she was still colicky. We tried spacing out her feedings, but she was still colicky.  We tried feedings that were closer together, but she was still colicky.  If you are getting a “Very Hungry Caterpillar” kind of feeling, you are right on target.  The child seemed to cry, cry, and cry, and that was all.  Sleep? Not much.  My favorite breakfast was a grapefruit, peeled like an orange.  Nothing was a better wake-up for me than the aroma of grapefruit.  One morning, we were out of grapefruits, so I had oatmeal instead.  And she was less colicky.  When I mentioned this to one of my friends, she told me that when she was nursing one of her children, if she ate broccoli, her son would spit up.  I began experimenting.  In the end, I avoided onions, garlic, broccoli, and cabbage, and gave up my precious grapefruits and my beloved chocolate.  The colic improved dramatically.  However, she still never wanted to go to sleep, and ten years later, still wants to stay up for “just a little longer…”

            One mournful, chocolate-less night, after rocking my daughter for what felt like going halfway to the Mississippi River, I had an epiphany.  I ran down the steps to share my revelation with my husband:  if what I eat passes through my milk to my daughter, wouldn’t the same hold true for the cows from whom we get our milk?  If what I ate had such an immediate and detrimental effect on our daughter, would the dairy products we consume have a detrimental effect on us?  And what if, because we had been consuming these tainted products for so long, all of this built up in our systems so that we wouldn’t notice enough to make a connection between the dairy and feeling poorly.  He considered; we discussed, and I began researching.

Commercially-produced milk comes from a number of dairies whose main goal is to make money.  The cows eat feed, which may contain genetically modified corn and/or soy and sometimes chicken waste. They are given antibiotics.  In order to increase production, many dairies injected the cows with rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone.  How much of this genetically modified material passes through the milk?  What effect will it have on me?  On my growing and developing children?  There were no longitudinal studies done to test the safety and long-term effects of this updated version of milk production.

Who cares, right?  I mean if the cow is getting enough to eat what difference does it make?  But that’s just it!  It makes all of the difference! If what and how we eat affects our health, then what a cow eats is going to affect her health.  If the things that I eat affect the quality of the milk I produced for my children, wouldn’t what the cow eats do the same for us?  What is a cow supposed to eat in order to be healthy?  Easy answer: Grass.  Why don’t commercial dairies feed their cows 100% grass to make them 100% healthier?  Because the expense would be too great.  Feeding cows corn and corn by-products, and the by-products of commercial chicken production is far less expensive.

And so ends my first rant about milk: we drink milk from 100% grass-fed cows.  If you look in the grocery store, you can find it.  Read the labels!  If your store doesn’t carry it, ask the dairy manager to get it.  Also, do a little research in your area.  You may be surprised to find a local dairy raising 100% grass-fed dairy.  Some still do home delivery.  I wish I was so lucky!

Felony Milk

Cows on Grass at Freedom Acres Farm

I am a felon.  I’ve not been convicted, nor even charged with anything.  And if I ever was charged, I’d be appalled that the government would waste money prosecuting a case over smuggled milk.

“Milk?” you ask.

Yes.  Milk.  I’m one of those people.  You know, the ones who drink raw milk.

“Raw?” you ask.

Well, not cooked, which is what pasteurization does.  And my argument for raw milk will come in another post.  The good news is that because I can’t buy it in a store because it is illegal to sell raw milk in NJ, I have to go directly to a farm.  In Pennsylvania.  And then bring it home, across state lines (that’s where the felony comes in), with the intention to drink it.

One of the big changes we made in our lives is trying to remove as many links as possible from our commodity chain.  We have a garden and we produce a goodly amount of tomatoes and cucumbers.  We have a thriving “s-berry” patch (an old farming superstition to not say anything good about them by name, or we jinx ’em!), as well as raspberries and young apple trees (so far so good on the apples, but who knows!).  Most of what we don’t grow ourselves, we get from a Community Supported Agriculture Farm (CSA) and local orchards.  And yes, in the winter, we sadly return to the grocery store…

At the moment, we are single-sourcing our meat, from Nature’s Sunlight Farm in Newville, PA.  I’m not going to get into our amazing relationship with the Nolt Family today because they are a post (or 6) in and of themselves.  No feedlot meat for us.  No battery-produced chickens.  No links between.  We pick it up from the farmer.

A beautiful Jersey cow at Freedom Acres Farm

Our raw milk odyssey has taken us up and down the NJ/PA border, finding different dairies, trying their product.  While all of the dairies with whom we dealt have wonderful milk, we felt that we were “trading out” on the various value-added products available, and that prices were kind of steep.

My friend Andrea (her name is changed to protect her from harm due to contraband milk smuggling collusion) called me a couple of weeks ago with a lead on a new farm.  She, as a resident of Pennsylvania, can legally purchase raw milk at a store.  However, she can save $4 a gallon by going directly to a farm.  She went and checked it out (doing nothing illegal, mind you, because her milk was not going to cross state lines).

Because she was so impressed with product, I had to go with her on the next milk run.  One blustery morning, I found myself at Freedom Acres Farm in Honey Brook, PA.  The farm is run by husband and wife team, Samuel and Esther Fisher.  Esther was at the door a minute after we arrived.  We brought in the “empties” and chatted about their products.

Andrea had warned me that the milk was going to be in big jars, but I had to chuckle when I saw the them.  They are institutional-sized pickle jars.  I find that irony really amusing.  Esther brought out a variety of cheeses, cream cheese and yogurt.  Samuel came in a bit later and started to chat with us in what I will call “teacher-mode” (enough people chide me about going into “teacher-mode,” so I do know it when I see it!), about pastured, grass-fed milk.  Andrea held up a hand and said, “Samuel, Natalie is the one who got me started on raw milk.”

I have been back, and plan to continue purchasing milk and dairy products from Freedom Acres.  The milk is creamy and delicious.  The cheeses are truly wonderful.  The cheddar is a house favorite.  The jalepeño cheddar wasn’t hot enough for my husband (but nothing ever is, unless his taste buds get seared off), but my son who has tastes the polar opposite of his father, thought it was delicious.  The Monterey Jack melts beautifully and has a nice silky consistency.

And oh, the butter.  The butter! Spring butter!  And if your head isn’t swimming in a moment of ecstasy thinking about spring butter, then you have never tasted it.  It is rich and has a flavor unlike anything I’ve ever spread on bread.  The color is a bright, deep yellow, and it is full of good nutrients like CLA!

If you are in the area of Honey Brook (or maybe even not so in the area… I’m driving over an hour to get there), I strongly recommend this farm.  The products are outstanding and the farmer and his wife are lovely people.

Freedom Acres Farm     Honey Brook, PA    610-273-2076

Making Your Own Greek-Style Yogurt

We love yogurt.  We especially love the thick, creamy Greek-style yogurt that has become so popular lately.  And just like everything else we have learned to do, making yogurt was a trial and error process.  The recipe that follows is more of a guideline than a hard and fast recipe.  The conditions in your kitchen will not be the same as the conditions in my kitchen.  Because we do not have air-conditioning at our house, the conditions in my kitchen vary drastically throughout the year, and therefore, so does my yogurt making.  I have one blanket for summer yogurt incubation and another for winter!

I have stopped using reserved yogurt as my starter.  I have found much more consistent results from using the whey that was strained from the last week’s yogurt.  However, you cannot strain commercial yogurt and use that whey as a starter.  That series of experiments was an epic fail!

Homemade Greek-Style Yogurt

3 ½ Cups of whole milk (see note below)

½ C plain yogurt (either commercial with LIVE cultures, or reserved from your last batch) OR 1/2 C whey from your last batch  of yogurt

candy thermometer

Heat the milk on the stove slowly.  If you are using pasteurized milk, heat to 180° F, and let cool to 110° F.  If you are using raw milk, heat to 110° F.   Whisk in the ½ C yogurt or whey.  Transfer to a quart size mason jar and place the jar and a heating pad inside a little cooler.  Turn the heating pad onto Medium.   Incubate for 4-8 hours, depending on how tart you like your yogurt.  After the yogurt has incubated, put it in the refrigerator until it is completely cooled (I usually leave it overnight).   The next morning, place a flour sack towel inside a sieve and place the sieve on a bowl.  If you have used raw milk, scrape the “cream” from the top and reserve in a small bowl.  Put the rest of the yogurt in the sieve.  Add the cream back on the top. Put it back in the fridge and let is strain for two or three hours.  Reserve the whey for lacto-fermenting (it will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of months).  Invert the sieve into the bowl and peel the towel off the yogurt and enjoy!  My children LOVE this yogurt salted for dipping vegetables.

NOTE:  I feel that grass-fed raw milk gives the best, most consistent results.  If you cannot get raw milk, try to find grass-fed milk that is not homogenized.  If you can’t find that, then settle for organic milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized.