Back in 2015, My family and I started our farm business Goshen Homestead. We were already producing pasture raised poultry and free ranged eggs, and were implementing a herdshare program in Southwest Virginia as our launching product. For the 8 years prior to that, we had been milking our own jersey cow for our family and enjoying the blessings of our raw milk all to ourselves.
With the start of our new venture, we found ourselves in the market for acquiring new milk cows. Already owning a jersey, which is a breed we love for milking, we wondered if there was another breed we would be more interested in growing our herd with before fully committing to Jerseys.
With zero interest in Holsteins and other cream-less commercial breeds, the short list of options led us to consider Guernsey cows as a replacement breed. With no prior experience at all with the breed, our decision was to just buy 2 cows and see how their production and quality compared to our Jerseys. So we went to the most obvious place to purchase some, on the internet.
Almost immediately, we found what we were looking for. We found an organic dairy in Cleveland Ohio who had a registered Guernsey herd with a cow for sale on a sale site we came across. Before reaching out we went to their website to see what they were doing, and it was beautiful. The cows looked gorgeous, the farm looked gorgeous, and to top it off they displayed many testimonials and awards from the organic industry as a leading farm for quality and production. We immediately reached out to see what they had to offer.
The phone call was amazing. We were looking for a bred cow in milk and potentially a bred heifer due in a few months from the time of purchase, and they had just that for us. The price was pretty steep as the cow was $2,500 and the heifer was $2,800, but in our naivety we just chalked that up as the price of high quality organically certified milk cows. We were a little excited at that time thinking we were going to get the gold standard organic has to offer. Once we expressed our definite intent to purchase these cows, he assumed we wanted to pay right there on the phone and he would just ship them to us since we lived 10 hours away. Our intention thankfully was to go there in person and see his farm, and even help out with a milking to see his accredited operation in action. At that time I had no direct availability to set that in my schedule, so I promised I would call back in a week or two and make the arrangement as soon as I could fit a 15 hour round trip into my schedule.
Fast forward two weeks, and I had given him a call back with a set time to come and pick up the cows and see his operation. The moment our trip was set in stone, he offered us new prices on the animals. The new prices were $1,800 for the bred heifer and $1,400 for the cow. Again in our naivety we were ecstatic. We thought this situation was just getting better and better and what a blessing to have over $2,000 reduced from the cost. It wasn’t until we made the trip that our naivety was forever dispelled on organic dairy.
Within the following week we made our 8 hour trip to Cleveland Ohio to see the farm that apparently the organic industry felt was one of the best it had to offer. Since we had every intention to help milk, we left early the previous evening so we could be there at 5:30 am for his morning milking. We pulled into the farm at 5:20am. Despite it not looking like the picture perfect farm I seen on the website, I was not yet dismayed. All of us are guilty with putting our best pictures out there on our social media and websites so why would I not give the same grace here?
Our shroud of naivety wasn’t violently ripped from its sockets until we went into the milking parlor.
As I entered the milk parlor and turned the corner, the farmer who owned the property gave me the biggest look of disappointment I had ever seen. Turns out, with us wanting to see his operation in action, he started his milking at 4am with hopes he would be done by time we got there. He was bringing in his last run as we got there, and there was where we found the deepest, darkest secrets of organic farming hiding. Out of the 60 cows he was milking that morning, the last 14 he brought in contained some of the unhealthiest cows I had ever seen.
Out of the last 14 cows he was milking, over half a dozen of them had the worst leg infections I had ever seen. For insight to you all reading, I have been working under a retired Veterinarian for the last 11 years and have learned A LOT about animal health, sickness, and disease. In that time I had contended with only one or two limpers, and under the diligence of the man I worked for, we had always dealt with the situations swiftly and without the use of pharmaceuticals. It mostly was as simple as bringing them in and cleaning their feet, maybe putting a bandage on it to keep it clean, and keeping them off their feet for a few days in a stall until they were fine. It’s always been the standard of my mentor that “Prevention is the best medicine”. If however we ever had a situation where something got out of our control, or seriously put the life of the animal in jeopardy, we would have no issue treating with antibiotics, should it ever arise. And if that need ever did arise, I could never entertain eating from or of the animal that was in this state, let alone feeding it to someone else.
But this was not the case here at this accredited organic farm. These leg infections were so bad that most of the cows wouldn’t even step on their atrociously swollen foot. Two of them that did had an infection so bad that pus was squeezing out of the hairline on their hooves. Even though my experience was not lifelong, I had never seen anything like it. It was horrific. The conversation that happened in the next 30 seconds completely changed my view on organic dairy. This is it verbatim:
Me: “Oh WOW! I have never seen anything like this. What kind of treatments do you use for something like this? I imagine you’re using some heavy antibiotics for this.”
Esteemed Dairyman(ED): “We are organic; we are not allowed to use antibiotics”.
Me: “What are you using then?”
ED: “Nothing. If we treat these cows then they can’t be organic anymore.”
Me (astounded): “What do you do with all the milk? Certainly you are not keeping it?”
ED (agitated): “Are you crazy? Organic milk is going for $35 a hundred weight. We can’t afford to throw this out.”
Me: “How do you pass the Somatic cell tests from the state? These cows have to be through the roof.”
ED (proudly): “We milk 60 cows, so these 7 won’t affect that much, DILUTION IS SOLUTION.”
I don’t think I have to use words to explain how my reaction felt. You all are feeling the same thing right now. Needless to say I just turned around and went all the way home empty handed. My mind was blown that anyone could feed that kind of diseased food to people let alone let their animals suffer like that. It’s one thing to see it in a documentary, a whole other to see it in person. My whole trip home was in such deep thought on the matter. Thinking back to all the times we would spend a fortune buying organic milk when our milk cow was dry, and the curiosity I always had as to why organic milk always seemed to be ultra-pasteurized; naively thinking the whole time that “organic means healthy”.
Now it would seem like the place where I would wrap up the points and morals of the story. Recognizing the importance of knowing where your food comes from and physically interacting with your farmers on a “Trust but verify” scale. Yet there is one more element to this story that makes it even worse than it already is, and removed the last shred of naivety I had on the matter.
A year later when we were officially building our own Grade A dairy with an onsite processing plant, and talking with the dairy inspectors regarding the laws and regulations of the build, I retold that story to the agents. I got to the point in the story where he told me he mixed his infectious milk with his good milk and I asked the inspectors to guess what he said next. Without hesitation my inspectors said “Dilution is Solution”. Completely in shock, they continued to explain to me that it’s a normal practice.
“It’s all getting pasteurized anyways”
While you let that sink in, I will conclude with the points and morals of the story.
- Organic does not mean healthy. At All! In fact, with animals it could very well mean quite the opposite as I shared.
- This is Industry standard. It is not a practice hidden from the state, only from consumers. It cannot be stressed that we need to be very proactive in our food choice and know where our food comes from. Every dollar spent outside of that responsibility only reinforces these practices.
- Raw Milk IS bad! When we butt heads in Richmond for raw milk legislation, the lobbyists argument that raw milk is bad is completely a true statement. Our fight should solely lie in the education of the differences between industry milk and fresh healthy milk or that standard of milk production will always be our representation.
- Don’t just trust our social media pictures and website photos. As a farm who uses these means a lot to help bring in customers, I am just as guilty as projecting the best of the best of our farm. It’s still imperative to visit your farmers and food sources and reassure that the day to day practices meet up somewhere in the league of the images cast on the internet.
It’s amazing what hides behind the curtain of the Industry every time we peak behind it. And just for clarity, I am not saying that all organic farming is like this. I still assume that there are great farmers with the best intentions in all walks of the Ag industry. I am simply sharing this experience to reinforce everyone to know your farmer. If they won’t consume their own food, why should you?