“Happy cheese comes from happy cows, and happy cows come from California.”
No doubt you’ve heard that slogan if you’re a Californian…and resent that slogan if you’re a Wisconsinite. Being an open-minded Milwaukee girl myself, I was excited to dig into the world of California dairy for our Foods Badge because all dairy dominance discussions aside, let it be known that I LOVE CHEESE.
However, of all the requirements for all of our badges, this one proved the most elusive:
#9. Go through a dairy or milk processing plant to observe the processes through which milk goes. Find out what makes one kind or grade of milk better than other; what causes the difference in selling price.
California has always been a hotbed of dairy production, centered around the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno and the Bay Area, including a magical slice of fog-shrouded real estate given the delicious appellation of The California Cheese Trail (that’s honeymoon material right there). While Southern California had its share of farms back in the day, dairy has never been big business in these parts, so finding a local dairy to visit proved a bit futile…until Mariposa Creamery popped up in my searches.
Yep, that’s not a cow plunked face-first in that pile of hay – Mariposa Creamery is a goat dairy!
More specifically, they’re a micro-dairy, which is defined by – wait for it – AmericanMicroDairies.org – as:
…a dairy farm milking 10 or less cows, or the equivalent number of sheep, goats (approx 25-50) or water buffalo. Generally we say a micro-dairy does not produce more than 50 gallons of milk per day. A successful micro-dairy seeks to sell a steady supply of fresh milk to its community members. Providing a healthy and sustainable alternative to the conventional dairy industry.
Co-owner Gloria Putnam graciously invited me out one recent morning to her urban farming paradise, located on the gorgeous grounds of Altadena’s historic Zane Grey Estate, a private residence which also hosts a farmstay and the Institute of Domestic Technology. As I waited for the morning’s milking to begin, I stood at a fence and marveled that these goats – mostly floppy-eared Nubians – were the healthiest, most beautiful goats I’d ever seen.
Snapped from my dreamy utopian visions of raising beautiful goats on a sun-dappled urban farm with a strapping mountain man, I walked over to the milking barn and tucked myself into a corner to watch as the first pair of goats were led in. Without prompting, each goat popped up on the simple wooden milking stand (“stanchion”) and started grazing on slabs of pineapple and an herby salad that looked far too delicious to my un-breakfasted eyes.
The lactating goats are milked daily, but the output varies depending not only on their lactation cycle, but on the time of year – in fact, winter sees the lowest production. The actual milking process is fairly simple and only takes a few minutes – pinch the teat, draw the milk downwards into the pail or cup with your other fingers, and once finished, dip the udders in grapeseed oil as an antimicrobial. Bing, bang, boom – you’ve milked a goat!
Since Mariposa Creamery is not a commercial dairy, the milk they produce is for personal consumption (raw milk and cheese). The processing is so ridiculously simple that I felt I must have blinked and missed a few steps: As long as the milk hasn’t been “hooved” (when the goat steps in the pail as you’re milking), it’s poured through a thin filter into a stainless steel milk canister, weighed, and recorded in a log book. It’s then tagged with the date and placed in an ice bath (to speed up the cooling process to minimize the chance of any bacterial growth) and stored in the refrigerator. Shazam! Milk processed!
The whole experience was mesmerizing. In contrast to the commercial dairies you see in the middle of the state where cows sit stagnant in muddy, barren fields and crowd around corn-filled feeder troughs, this felt natural and humane. No chemicals, no fillers, no hormones, no machines – just milk, plain and simple. There was also a lot of love – with names like Poet and Ice Cream, these goats serve not just as producers of milk, but also as part of Gloria’s extended family and are treated with extreme tenderness. In fact, the whole Creamery started not because she wanted an urban dairy, but because she loved goats. I left grateful for the experience, even more thoughtful about where my food comes from, and absolutely inspired by this labor of goaty love.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering if I milked a goat – I SURE DID! (Poorly.)
In less exciting news, to fulfill the rest of this Foods badge requirement, I was supposed to “find out what makes one kind or grade of milk better than other; what causes the difference in selling price.” Since Mariposa isn’t a commercial dairy, I did some investimagating on the interwebs.
First up, milk grades – this is actually pretty simple as Grade A is the stuff that is sold for consumption and Grade B is the stuff that is used to make other stuff (i.e. cheese) that is then sold for consumption. You could learn even more about this by reading a really terribly boringly named paper called Effects of Milk Marketing Order Regulation On The Share Of Fluid-Grade Milk In The United States, but then again, you can just take my word here.
Selling price of conventional dairy products is affected by the weather a lot more than I thought – most commercially raised cows eat corn, and if there is high heat or drought, corn production will be lower, which raises the price of feed, which subsequently raises the price of dairy. High heat also causes electricity costs to soar, which dairy producers must offset by raising their selling prices. There are also political factors at play, most recently in December with the dreaded “Dairy Cliff” that makes absolutely no sense to me because dairy is, like most things in the United States, actually about Big Business, and Big Business both confuses and frightens the bejeezus out of me.
I also found a 109-page report about dairy pricing that the USDA submitted to Congress in 2004, but as I’ve discovered about most agricultural literature, IT IS INSANELY DULL, so while I’m sure it contains lots of data , you’ll probably want to pass and once more accept my word that weather and politics have a lot to do with dairy pricing.
But hey – you could skip all that and just find a nice, small dairy to support!