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The farm up the road from my friend's house in Vermont didn't have milk I could buy , but they did have information that"s helping me make more educated dairy decisions in my supermarket -- and even at my farmer's market.

A tall lanky college boy danced from foot to foot behind us on the check out line at Earth Fare. He wasn’t exactly impatient, just burning up a little extra energy. But he would have had a right to be impatient — we had two carts loaded with a weeks worth of food for 8 people. He was pushing one of those mini shopping carts with a few spare items: 2 half gallons of chocolate milk in glass bottles and a bag of blue corn tortilla chips.
“Is that chocolate milk grass-fed?” I asked.
“Yeah” he said,  “I mean. I’m not sure. It’s here so it’s got to be good. I mean I’m pretty sure it’s organic.
I’d eyed that old-fashioned bottle of milk in the dairy aisle. It’s nostalgic shape gave me that warm, feel-good feeling that my $14/gallon farmer’s market milk does. But before I’d grabbed it, I’d asked the dairy man who was stocking the refrigerated shelves that same question a few minutes earlier. He’d also looked confused.
“It’s good stuff,” he said, “but I’m not sure if it’s grass fed.”
“More than 70% pastured?” I asked, “Like Organic Valley?”
He looked relieved, happy that I’d given him a question he could answer.
“Our brand of milk supplied by Organic Valley,” he said. “ That I know for sure.”
I picked up a gallon of the Earth Fare brand of milk and loaded it into our cart. Here’s why.

About two weeks ago I went up to visit my friend Chantal in Vermont. On Sunday morning I woke up at about 8 am. She’d said there was a farm up the road and I wanted to buy grass-fed milk. Sure, there was a 7-11 down the road but we were in the country. If I couldn’t get grass-fed milk from a Vermont farm than where could I? Don’t they have cows on their license plates?

The sun sparkled on the morning as I approached the farm. I drove past grazing dairy cows and a pick your own flower garden bursting with rows of Zinnias. Birds sang brightly and there was whirling noise is coming from the milking barn that sounded like a buzz saw but softer.

As I pulled in to park, a blond boy ran over to his father who was driving a red pickup truck with empty crates in the back. It was everything you’d expect from a dairy farm in Vermont. What surprised me was the big Organic Valley crest on their traditional red cow barn.

The farmer, who’s name my friend Chantal told me later was Amanda, was busy setting up her stand. Vermonters have a very distinct energy. I can’t think of anything to describe it besides “Chill.” Although Amanda couldn’t sell me any milk, (she tried but there was no milk in the vats on certain days) she did give me a quick overview of Organic Valley milk – more or less what I could have learned from the website, but it sunk in much more coming from Amanda in her farm stand.

She said that Organic Valley is a milk cooperative that supports small farmers. They have a higher standards than the US for certified organic milk and that all animals have to be on a primarily pastured diet. Also that there philosophy is based on regionalism – so the coops only collect milk within a region.

She sells her milk to individuals for about $5 a gallon on milk days. When I told her about how much I was paying for my grass-fed milk in New York City, she said “That’s highway robbery.”

She also said that Organic Valley supplies the milk for Whole Foods organic milk and that they also supplied Stonybrook Farms milk and yogurt, too. She pointed to this chart which I had downloaded from the Cornocupia Institute a while ago and had planned on posting:

This chart shows the Organic Industry July 2007 Structure: Private Label Brands Phil Howard, Assistant Professor Dept. of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies Michigan State University. Via the Cornucopia Institute

:

When I asked Amanda why Organic Valley didn’t advertise their milk as grass-fed, she thought for a moment. Then she scribbled something in her notebook and said that she would talk to them.

Even though I left without any milk, I was excited. If Organic Valley was grass-fed milk, it was going to make my life much easier. And if Whole Food Organic Milk was defacto grass-fed – well, that was too good to be true. Maybe all this strum and drang to get $14/gallon milk from the farmer’s market was overkill.

Back home, I did some research. I went to the Stonyfield Farm website and called a number on the site to ask for more information. A man from Organic Valley answered. He was very forthcoming and gave me a lot of no-nonsense information. (And, as someone who works in marketing knows, it helped that he sounded a lot like a farmer.)

He said that in the winter if the cows eat hay, or put up grass, there’s not as much nutrition as the live grass in a pasture. I’ve now heard that from several farmers – that in the winter they sometimes need to supplement the cow’s diet in order for the cows to get their proteins and vitamins in the winter.

He also said that philosophically Organic Valley tries to sell milk as local as they can. But if there’s a high demand, they do what they can to meet that demand. So for example, if you buy Organic Valley in New York City the milk could come from as far away as North Carolina or even Indiana. Growing grass-fed milk was difficult he said and directed me realmilk.com or eatwild.com to find out where to buy milk or meat from 100% grass-fed animals good resources.

He also said that the average herd size of an Organic Valley farms is 70 cows. And they’ve tightened the standards so that cows have to be on pasture every day. Basically, the cows have to be out-of-doors weather permitting.

But in terms of Whole Foods, it’s not exactly true that Organic Valley supplies their organic milk. He said that Whole Foods has slapped a confidentiality agreement on their organic milk so nobody knows exactly who is supplying their milk. However, according to the Cornucopia Institute Dairy Report Card:

“The milk is produced and distributed regionally throughout the United States as close as possible to the communities in which it is sold. It comes from a cooperative of organic family farmers dedicated to pasture-based dairy production and to preserving and expanding family farming as a way of life and a viable system of production.”

But if that cooperative of organic family farmers is Organic Valley, I can’t be sure.

How much grass-fed is good enough? That’s a good question.

For me, the reason I want my kids to drink grass-fed milk is because milk from pastured cows also contains an ideal ratio of essential fatty acids or EFAs —omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

According to Jo Robinson in an essay on Super Healthy Milk grass-fed milk has the best balance of these two EFAs. She explains:

“Studies suggest that if your diet contains roughly equal amounts of these two fats, you will have a lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, allergies, obesity, diabetes, dementia, and various other mental disorders”.[2]

The more grass the cow eats, the better the balance between the two types of fatty acid.

Then is a  70/30 ratio terrible? And how much better is 100 percent grass-fed? I can’t be sure. Neither Jo’s article or the man from Organic Valley could tell me for sure.

“They haven’t done enough studies,” he said.

So back to the college student in Tennessee. I searched around for the Homestead Creamery and found that they are also in that grey zone of mostly grass-fed.

I found this video on You Tube via Whole Foods.com.

Apparently Homestead Creamery milk is not 100 percent grass-fed, but according to the video they pasture their animals and feed them grain they grow themselves. How much of each they don’t say. However since their dairy is in Virginia the growing season, and therefore pasture time, should be longer.

Homestead Creamery claims that they bottle their milk quickly so if can go from cow to store in a day. I presume the idea is that it’s fresher. And they also say that milk in the glass bottles taste better because there’s no plastic taste. I think that’s subjective.

But more important is that they claim that studies have shown one glass bottle takes the place of about 40 milk jugs from going into the landfill. That seems pretty significant.

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