Bringing the Cows Home to the Hudson Valley

by Ken McCarthy
Published in About Town, Fall 2005

cowsLast summer as I was taking the John J. Harvey up the Hudson River to Albany, the father of one of the owners, a distinguished old gentleman from Ireland, asked a question that gave me pause: “It’s lovely country, but where are all the animals?” Sure enough, we sailed past empty green field after empty green field. Not a sheep. Not a pig. Not a chicken. Perhaps most striking, since this used to be cow country, not a single cow. It was as if someone had dropped an animal-only version of the neutron bomb and vaporized all the farm animals, but left all the people and property, SUVs and McMansions, untouched.

Not long ago, Dutchess and Columbia counties were thick with milk cows. My across-the-street neighbor John worked as a dairy inspector for over fifteen years. My partner Bettina grew up on a dairy farm in Clinton Corners. And within the memory of many not-so-old village residents, a local family kept a cow on the acre lot behind their home on North Road in Tivoli just a five-minute walk from the Santa Fe Restaurant.

There are good reasons why the Hudson Valley was once known as cow country. First, Hudson Valley meadows, along with parts of New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, provide near-perfect pasture thanks to the mineral content of their soils. Folks in other places, including “farm states” like Illinois, Ohio and Indiana, are not nearly as lucky. Second, nothing produces better fertilizer than a healthy, well-cared for cow; also, it’s free. Third, ever heard the phrase “cash cow?” One normal, healthy cow can produce enough milk to supply two or three families. And not with the kind of chalky water that sells at local gas station/convenience stores, but delicious, super-nutritious milk with a full head of rich cream that can be used to make butter, ice cream, and cheese of a quality so high that folks who only know the store-bought versions can scarcely imagine it.

The Cow Confined

Where did all the cows go? In a word, they have been “contained”–penned up on factory farms. Today over 60 percent of all milk cows grow up in containment, the equivalent of a solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. It’s a thoroughly miserable existence. Each cow gets a cramped stall, a bin to eat from, water, and that’s it. No sunlight, no fresh air, no exercise, no socializing. They’re pumped full of hormones to keep them producing and antibiotics to hold the inevitable infections in check. When they die (or collapse), they’re chopped up and used as feed for other factory-produced animals like chickens.

In recent decades the “old school” dairy farmers–the ones who grazed their cows outdoors in the summer and on locally grown hay in the winter–have not been able to compete with factory farms on price. And price became the only thing that mattered; not because dairy farmers suddenly became greedy, but because, thanks to decades of legislation designed to “protect” the consumer, local milk sales, from farmer to customer, were, for all practical purposes, outlawed. The only market for milk became the big milk processors. (An interesting side note: while the “milkman” goes back to the early 1800s and precedes the invention of the automobile, home delivery of milk has declined in this country from a 1963 percentage of 30% of sales to a recent level of _ of one percent!)

Yet real, farm fresh milk is such a nutritious substance that it used to be part of healing protocol for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and heavy metal poisoning. By contrast, the factory-produced version has been implicated in a wide range of health problems. Meanwhile our fields–some of the best on earth–sit empty and weed-covered, the rural version of abandoned lots. We spend billions of dollars each year to provide food and care for animals like cats, dogs, and horses (wonderful creatures all), but somehow cows have come to be generally regarded as too much “bother” to have around or something that only “hicks” involve themselves with.

The Turning Tide

Gasoline is now running around $2.50 a gallon, cheap compared to what’s coming. Yet a University of Iowa study found that the average food item in the US travels slightly more than 1,000 miles before it reaches your plate. This arrangement might have made sense in an age of cheap oil, but it’s simply not going to wash in our not-so-distant future.

Locally grown food, now a delicacy, is going to become more and more of a necessity. But man cannot live on apples, mesclun lettuce, and pumpkins alone. He needs protein and lots of it–as do his growing kids. Where on earth to get it from? Cows and a handful of other animals remain the only method our advanced, high tech civilization has discovered for converting sunshine to protein. Also, agricultural researchers, in their endless search for better artificial feed supplements, have discovered that grass-fed animals produce in their milk exponentially more “conjugated linoleic acid” (CLA), the newly discovered “good’ fat,” than animals fed on any other source. Grass–the product of sun, earth and water–turns out to be a near miraculous substance no laboratory has been able to equal. Studies of CLA show that it helps control both cancer and heart disease in lab animals. (Is it possible that by taking our cows and other farm animals off grass, we set off the 20th century epidemic of these two diseases?)

Some of what I’ve written above I learned in a terrific book, The Untold Story of Milk, by Ron Schmid. Schmid is a naturopathic doctor who had the luck to be living near a source of fresh raw milk during a period when he became seriously ill. After some time of drinking the milk, he found his health completely restored. After more research, he discovered that in the era of pre-industrial farming, fresh farm milk was often used as a cure for many illnesses. One of the heroes of Schmid’s book is Debra Tyler, the founder of Local Farm in nearby Cornwall, Connecticut, and a pioneer in the fresh milk movement. I looked Debra up. When I talked to her I discovered that Local Farm was not just about raising cows and selling milk, but about reinstating the lost connection between farmer and consumer. Debra has set herself up as a regional resource. My own movement, Keep a Cow, was instantly born. The idea: to put anyone who is interested in keeping cows the healthy, old-fashioned way in touch with others who could tell them how to get a cow, keep a cow–even how to have your cow babysat!

Three unexpected socio-economic trends have emerged in the last ten years that should help in this effort to bring cows back to communities all over America:

1. Smart landowners are letting responsible graziers “rent” their vacant fields for free. Some owners are even paying graziers to use their fields. Why? It lets landowners maintain their agricultural assessments (lower taxes), it reduces and even eliminates maintenance costs, and it makes their land look a whole lot better.

 

2. Energetic, informed, entrepreneurial farmers like Debra Tyler are emerging on the local scene everywhere. In Debra’s own Cornwall, two other dairy farms have sprung up that offer milk directly to the farmer, with her encouragement. (Keep a Cow sponsors regular trips to Debra’s farm, where she teaches hands-on workshops about what’s involved in keeping a family cow.) In Columbia county Hawthorne Valley Farm, one of only two dairies in the state set up to sell fresh milk directly to the consumer, is thriving. Through Hudson Valley Fresh–Representative Patrick Manning’s initiative to facilitate the distribution of local farm goods directly to the public–Ancramdale’s Ronnybrook has recently agreed to process the milk from other farms in Columbia and Dutchess counties in a healthful manner (no more bovine stimulants and other harmful “factory farm” practices for these farms). In Valatie, a farmer named Bill Gumaer has successfully returned to the old model of delivering fresh, “cream-line” milk that he produces himself directly to homes. For all these farmers, the modern economic reality is beginning to sink in: that while keeping a large herd and selling wholesale may run them out of business, drastically cutting the number of cows, processing and bottling on-site and selling directly to the consumer may allow them to thrive.

 

3. Cow-sharing. Designed along the proven Community-Sponsored-Agriculture or CSA model, families become a dairy farmer’s partner by co-owning a specific cow in the herd. Cow-share members free the farmer from the factory system by providing him with a reliable source of income and the farmer provides his cow partners with a steady supply of milk of infinitely better quality than anything they could buy at the supermarket.

 

What will we get when we bring the cows back home? Happier cows, healthier people, better looking land, and the security of knowing our food is coming from around the bend — from a neighbor and not from 1,000 miles away and God only knows who.

If you’re a person who’d love to keep a cow, but doesn’t have the land; a land owner who’d like to put his vacant lot to a good social use and save some money; a dairy lover who’d like a source of real, fresh milk; or someone who’s just curious, [contact Local Farm.]

Ken McCarthy, formerly of San Francisco and now of Tivoli, NY, was an early pioneer of the movement to commercialize the Internet. His great-grandfather Patrick McCarthy was a dairy farmer in East Jewett in Greene County, New York. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Andrew Paretti, started his working life delivering milk to Manhattan residents with a horsedrawn wagon. Ken thinks the revival of local milk production in the Hudson Valley is more interesting and important than anything going on in cyberspace.