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Bobolink Dairy: The Future Is in the Pasture
When it comes to cows, we keep hearing that grass-fed is better than grain-fed. Better for us, better for the cows, better for the environment. Farmers have grazed their cows on grass for centuries, with no need for bovine growth hormones, and no outbreaks of mad cow disease or E. coli.
But the factory farms most of our beef comes from these days aren't really farms at all; they're industrial indoor feedlots called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO's.
A CAFO is a kind of concentration camp for cows, if you will, except that instead of starving the cows, the goal is to fatten them for slaughter as fast as possible by pumping them full of grains. Antibiotics are used preemptively to prevent the inevitable illnesses caused by crowding the cows and feeding these herbivores a diet their digestive systems aren't equipped to handle.
To raise your cows on grass, in the open air, these days, is nothing short of revolutionary. But until I paid a visit to the almost unbearably bucolic Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, New Jersey, and talked with its founders, Nina and Jonathan White, I couldn't fully grasp the profound differences between pasture-raised cows and the feedlot-confined cattle that provide the bulk of our beef and dairy products.
Bobolink Dairy is famous for its artisanal raw milk cheeses and wood-fired rustic breads. So famous, in fact, that Michael Pollan chose Bobolink's cheeses to serve at a party hosted by House and Garden in Manhattan on Tuesday to celebrate the publication of his latest epicurean epic, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book which has the potential to ignite a grassroots movement for grass-fed beef and dairy.
We toured Bobolink on a rainy Saturday that saw the cows grazing on the first fresh grass of the season, after a winter spent eating hay. Two-week old calves literally gamboled and frolicked in the field, a sight so adorable I nearly went into sugar shock. Jonathan placed a five-day old calf in my arms that was as soft and fluffy as a kitten (and only a bit heavier than my own overfed cat).
Bobolink's mission is twofold: to make the finest raw milk cheeses and wood-fired breads, and to promote pasture-based dairy farming as a humane and sustainable alternative to the CAFO's. They sell a bit of grass-fed beef, as well. Nina and Jonathan are a perfect example of a phenomenon you might call the Pastoral Progressives, or Alternative Agrarians. They came to farming somewhat late in life, and from an unlikely background; Jonathan was into computers, while Nina trained as a dancer.
They bring a passion for great food and faith in the future of sustainable farming to this ambitious, idealistic enterprise, which is only a few years old. Nina sums up their vision with the motto "Farming as it used to be; farming as it should be again."
Bobolink's small herd (about 80 head, altogether, when you add up the cows, bulls, and calves) is a combination of rare heirloom breeds and modern cows selected for the attributes that make them ideal for grass-fed farming. Jonathan and Nina introduced us to some of the cows by name, extolling the virtues of Bernie, a 5-year old Ayrshire cow, and Sarah, one of the grand dames of the herd at age 15 (factory farm cows, by comparison, live an average of about 4 years). "Isn't she pretty?" Jonathan asked, sincerely. These people genuinely love their cows, and gladly shared their enthusiasm in response to my questions.
Q. The factory farms are so entrenched. Are we crazy to hope that more people will turn to this way of doing things?
JONATHAN: Nina and I got into farming through cheesemaking. We were cheesemakers, and we wanted 100% grass-fed milk...we tried for two years to convince other farmers that they should switch to grazing. Finally, Nina said, ‘You know what? Let's just find some cows.'
Q. The Hudson Valley is prime farmland, but it's being squeezed out by all the development. We've been losing dairy farms for decades. Are we holding steady, at least? Are there ever going to be more?
JONATHAN: You know, three years ago, I called the State Department of Agriculture in Trenton, New Jersey. I said, ‘Hi, I'm Jonathan White. I'm a new dairy farmer in New Jersey.' There was a very long pause. And then the guy said, ‘Mister, you're either the smartest, or the stupidest, guy on earth!" and I said ‘I'll have to get back to you on that.'
We'd like to think that this is the right way to do it, and a lot of other farmers are coming and seeing what we're doing. At first, they rolled their eyes and said, 'It won't last a year,' and now, three and a half years later...
NINA: We realized that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that if we were going to convince other people this was going to work, we had to do it ourselves, and make it work.
Q. Is there anything the factory farms are doing right?
JONATHAN: You know what they do right? They create a really good market for corn. That's what the American agricultural economy is based on, is finding a home for corn. That's why, when you go to the fast food outlet, you get corn syrup in the soda, corn oil in the French fries...
Q. With grass-fed beef, there's a noticeable difference in texture from grain-fed. Is there a similar difference in cheeses made from grass-fed cows?
JONATHAN: There's a huge difference in flavor, and actually, our cheese varies and the milk ferments very differently, and more rapidly...
Grass-fed beef has a bad reputation for being tough and stringy, and the reason for that is that...feed-lot beef raised on grain, they feed them for eighteen months and then they ship them to slaughter, because they've stopped growing. Grass-fed animals should be grazed for three years before they're slaughtered, because they'll continue to put on weight and what they're putting on is marbled weight.
The problem is that most of the people producing grass-fed beef right now are conventional farmers who've changed their feeding program, but they haven't made the systemic changes, including the financial change, that now they have to own it longer - you have to go with no income for a year and a half...and only new farmers can afford to do that.
The other big thing with grass-fed beef, is...you need to slaughter it in a stress-free way. Humane slaughter, up until a few years ago, was ‘avoid causing pain to the cows,' but then Temple Grandin, who's really the expert in this subject, said, ‘You know what? It's not really about pain, it's about fear'...don't make the animals waiting their turn watch. All you have to do is put a 90 degree turn in the chute, so that the ones who are waiting don't see what's happening.
Q. What do you say about the school of thought that dairy is bad for people?
JONATHAN: You know what? That flies in the face of ten thousand years of human co-evolution with cattle, and if they want to think that, you know, they can step to the next booth at the farmers’ market.
FOOTNOTE: After we toured the farm, Nina and Jonathan invited us into their kitchen and shared their own homemade roast beef and prosciutto, as well as a batch of the deepest golden yellow egg salad I've ever seen, served with an assortment of amazing breads.
We came away from our field trip to Bobolink full of hope about the future of sustainable farming. And just plain full.