The tradition of dairying has been around for thousands of years. Today, in the United States, the number of small dairy farms continues to decline. The desire for the fresh and nutritious commodity we call milk remains steady and is mostly fulfilled by gigantic mega-dairies. As with anything else, the bigger it gets, the cheaper it gets. But the other side of the coin is that the bigger it gets, the less concerned the producer is with the nutrition and health of the livestock. They simply need to meet their goals for the bottom line as cheaply as possible. In the United States, have become consumers of cheap goods. Quality that was valued above cheap in the 50’s and 60’s seems to be nearly extinct in this country.
- Homestead Life Updates
- The Tradition of Dairying
- Ghee Recipe
Homestead Life Updates
Homestead life updates are both happy and sad this week. If you are on our mailing list, you received a newsletter on Wednesday in which I shared the good news of our first calf just 2 days earlier. You can get on our mailing list by going to www.peacefulheartfarm.com and entering your name and email address. I send out a newsletter once per week that highlights this podcast, recent recipes, and some pretty interesting articles that I come across from time-to-time about food, cheese and tradition. Join us, we’d love to have you ride along with us on the homestead journey.
The day after the newsletter was published, we had very sad news. The cow who had delivered the calf died. She had a very virulent systemic infection that resulted from her difficult birth. The calf was breech. We thought she was going to be fine the day of the birth and even the next day. But the third day she was despondent, not eating and isolating herself. I had the vet out on the farm and on the phone all three days keeping tabs on what to look for and what to do. However, it was only hours between the despondency in the morning and her ultimate demise.
Her name was Dora. It is short for Adorable. She was the most adorable calf. In fact, that is her picture on our home page. She has been there for years, welcoming you all to our website with her adorableness. We miss her so. Her calf missed her so also, but he is doing splendidly now and follows us around like a puppy. We call him Trooper.
I still don’t have the strawberries planted. That is on the docket for Monday. I had to replant some of the cabbage due to it getting frosted and stunted so bad that I thought it better to start over with some more well-established plants. Cold weather plants must be planted early, but not too early or they get frosted. And they must mature before it gets too hot. It’s a delicate balance.
Creamery walls are still rising. It’s a beautiful site. It’s going to be a beautiful dairy and creamery. Speaking of which, let’s get to the topic of the day.
The Tradition of Dairying
We love it and can’t imagine doing anything else at this point. Sure it’s a lot of work, but so worth it. So fulfilling. We hope to pass on the tradition of dairying to the next generation, keeping it alive far into the future.
The tradition of dairying in its most reductionist form, merely swiping some milk from a cooperative grazing animal, goes so many thousands of years back into prehistory that we can’t get a fix on it. It is known that Laplanders herded and milked reindeer 11,000 years ago. 30,000 years ago, people in the High Sinai were confining and breeding antelope with the aid of fences, a human invention arguably as important as the spear. Wherever antelope, reindeer, sheep, camels, goats or cattle have been brought under human control, they have been milked. Among the very earliest human artifacts are vessels containing milky residues.
Even horses have been milked. The hordes of Genghis Khan swept out of Asia eight centuries ago on tough, speedy horses. They triumphed everywhere because of two important military advantages: they used stirrups, thus freeing both hands to use weapons. And they had a lightweight, high protein food source always handy: mare’s milk, ingeniously dried by their wives prior to their raids. Each day a horseman put about half a pound of dried milk into a leather pouch, added water, and by dinnertime he had a tasty fermented yogurt-like food. No army travels far nor fights well without provisions. Because he didn’t have to wait for the quartermaster to catch up with the speedy horses, Genghis Khan always maintained the advantage of surprise.
On the other hand, more peaceable folks milked goats and sheep. Sheep and goats had the advantage of being able to thrive on steep, rocky land and they reproduced rapidly. Gestation takes only five months. It’s nine months in cows and a full year for donkeys. Goats and sheep often have twins and are old enough to breed by one year. Cows need to be at least 15 months old before being bred, giving birth no earlier than two years of age.
But wherever people have the choice and needed resources, they choose the cow. So long ago was she chosen and so much was she valued that her wild ancestors vanished many hundreds of years ago. The last known wild cow died over 500 years ago in Poland. Cows were integral in a relationship with humans at least 10,000 years earlier than that. They have been lovingly nurtured and defended throughout Africa, Asia and Europe ever since. The cow lives in symbiosis with us humans.
Archaeologists and anthropologists have shown much greater interest in the role of grains in human history, speaking of what came before as “mere” herding. In fact, discussions of modern diet seem oblivious to the long prehistory of herding. Arable farming, growing grain, began about 10,000 years ago. This is an unknown number of years after dairying was already being practiced as I just talked about. But most writers link arable farming together with animal husbandry apparently assuming they sprang up together. Not true. It is often stated in otherwise well researched sources that dairy products are a comparatively recent addition to the human menu. To the contrary, grain is the recent inclusion in the human diet, not dairy foods. This false assumption about dairy foods is apparently linked to the widespread belief that milk production is dependent upon grain. It is not.
To produce grain in useful quantities requires rich wetlands such as floodplains. It requires a large amount of energy, available in antiquity only where complex cultures had developed. This energy was produced by slaves. The more slaves you had, the more grain you could grow. And the more grain you could grow, the more slaves you could afford, thus giving rise to a wealthy class able to afford monumental tombs and other durable artifacts of civilization. Grazing animals have been around for millions of years thriving on grass. They are not dependent on grain. For many thousands of those years they were herded and milked, tasks which require neither slaves nor even permanent dwellings.
To herd animals requires only the availability of shepherds and can be done on any kind of land from rocky mountain sides to the beach. Wherever herbivores have been herded, their milk as well as their meat became important parts of the human diet. Herbivores transform grass, bushes and weeds into high-grade readily available food. They do this with enormous efficiency whether in captivity or not. Remember the great herds of buffalo on the plains. No grains, just grass.
Grain is not necessary in the diet of grazing animals, but where it is available in excess of human requirements it can be fed to animals to fatten them and as an extra energy source. We use it as a supplement when the cows are lactating. They get a couple of handfuls of a specially prepared supplement twice a day during milking. It takes a lot of energy to produce the milk in the quantities they provide. The health of our animals is at the top of our list of desired goals. They can survive just fine on their own on grass. But when sharing their resources with us, we make sure they get some daily candy.
Historically, the fence served less to keep animals from running away than to protect them from the predators at night. Ancient Sumerian writings reveal that it also provided a means for keeping the best milk producing animals close at hand. But this was only feasible where there were servants available to fetch and carry feed to the milking animals. The downside of fencing is that it forfeits the transcendent advantage of the grazing animal, that it finds its own food.
The fence served another function basic to animal husbandry. It permitted selective breeding of cattle, sheep and goats. By confining smaller and more docile males and permitting only these to breed, at least 10,000 years ago people were manipulating animal genetics to create the domestic breeds. These breeds began to have smaller horns and be of more manageable size and temperament. This was particularly important in the case of cattle which like all dairy animals, are often handled by women and children. The original wild cattle were huge and quite dangerous. Although in actual numbers worldwide there have always been more sheep and goats being milked than cows, the cow very early in human history became the most prized of the dairy animals.
The Cow, the Premier Dairy Choice
The cow is the premier dairy animal because of her cooperative temperament, the comparative ease with which she can be milked, the volume she is able to produce, and because of the versatility of cow’s milk. The cream is easily skimmed and made into much prized butter and ghee. Ghee is butter that has been melted, rendered and strained.
The cow is a primary producer of wealth. She can support a family. She not only turns grass into milk in quantities sufficient to feed a family but also provides extra to sell and she contributes a yearly calf to rear or fatten. The byproducts from cheesemaking (whey) and from butter (buttermilk) will support a pig or two. Her manure improves her pasture and when dug into the garden, results in plant growth that cannot be surpassed by other growth mediums. The family that takes good care of its cow is well off indeed.
The cow is now forever domesticated. Other domestic animals can revert to a wild or feral state with predictable success. Put hogs in the woods and they won’t look back. They won’t get fat but they will immediately form a breeding population. So will horses on the plains. Many breeds of sheep can establish themselves in hill country. Goats are well-known for this aptitude so long as they are not too far from the sea; they have a high iodine requirement. Cows are dependent on humans for their survival as a species.
So Huckleberry Finn’s Pap might’ve had a pig or goat he could turn loose and still call his own but a cow requires consistent responsible care. If she doesn’t get it she won’t give milk and she won’t start a new calf and she won’t live through much cold or draught.
She Created the Surrounding Community
The dairy cow doesn’t ask for much but she asks every day. Historically, people creating wealth with the cow either are hard-working and reliable or they get that way in a hurry. This is the way it has been for a very long time. The fine farms of Europe, England, New England and much of the United States were all established thanks to the wealth derived from cows. Wherever there is, or used to be, a big barn it was built to store winter hay for the cows which once dotted the pastures.
The need to milk a cow twice a day determined the location of churches; people had to be able to walk there and back without disruption to the milking schedule of cows. Formerly, every district in Europe, England and the Eastern United States had a corn mill situated so that a farmer driving a horse and wagon could deliver his load of corn and still get home in time for milking. It is certainly no coincidence that such a large number of our finest American statesman were born on farms. Important virtues are nurtured on the farm, including a graphic understanding of the relationship between working and eating. Homestead living is making a resurgence in the US for just those reasons. Moms and dads want to raise their children to be virtuous. A farmstead with a milk cow goes a long way to accomplishing it.
If Cows Are So Great, Why Doesn’t Everybody Have One?
Not so very long ago, a great many people did indeed keep a cow and she was often an adored member of the family. Well-to-do families even in cities kept a cow well into the early part of the 20th century. During the Victorian era, country homes of the wealthy included charming accommodations for their cow. Some of these were quite fanciful and included beautifully tiled dairy rooms for making butter and cheese. All this attested to the high regard in which the dairy cow and dairy products were held.
Peasant homes were built to take advantage of the considerable heat given off by a cow. In Scotland often the cottage was built to surround a stall in which the cow spent the winter; picture an arrangement like a playpen in the middle of a low-ceilinged room. In other locales, including Spain, the family lived in rooms above the cows, using them like a furnace in the basement.
Some of the forces that stopped cow-keeping were the same ones that have stressed the American family. An insatiable desire for consumer goods focusing the whole energy of the family on acquisition of every imaginable gadget was certainly a factor. The automobile was important; it dispersed families and directed interest away from home-based activities. A rising desire for consumer goods fostered a yearning for enhanced social status. There have been eras and there still remain places in the world where the cow accords status. But nowadays status is more likely to derive from real estate in a good location. If it is a country property, the high-status animal is now the horse. We call them hay burners. They provide no sustenance for the family, but they sure do eat a lot themselves. But all these factors are as chaff compared to the power of the 20th century revolution in food production, processing and distribution.
The food revolution is lauded in school text, political speeches, virtually everywhere as an exemplary modern triumph that is showered us with endless choice and plenty. Occasionally there are warning from farmers and homesteaders like me. We point out that the current food system is extremely wasteful and definitely nutritionally compromised. But the most astonishing feature of this food revolution is usually overlooked.
For all of human history until very recently, and still for many people living in the world today, food is something you find, you grow, you fish from the sea, or you obtain locally from the actual producer. The purpose of this food is straightforward and obvious: it is to feed people. If sold, it changes hands only once. It goes directly to people who intend to eat it. Designer food intended only as a source of profit has arrived late in man’s history.
The foods in our shining supermarkets were produced as a financial investment. They are not so much food as consumer goods. As such the primary constituents of the majority of finished goods, the wheat, corn, edible oils and sugar cane or sugarbeets, are grown as a monoculture on millions of flat acres, traded on the stock market, the constituents are broken down and reassembled into something that keeps nicely on the shelf and vaguely resembles food.
As for milk, because of its extremely perishable nature, milk initially presented a challenge. In the late 19th century as the size of American cities rapidly expanded, the demand for milk was met in several ways. One enterprising solution was to position a great barn full of cows right downtown next to the inevitable brewery. The cows were fed the spent malt. In theory, this could have proven satisfactory; in practice it was disgusting. The cows were kept in filth and were milked by hand by anybody off the street. On top of that, the milk was routinely watered down diminishing its nutrition even further.
Rural dairies had a better reputation and made a valiant effort to get milk delivered fresh and cold by train. And in most smaller towns and cities, it was possible to get fresh milk delivered right to the door by the actual producer. These dairies took enormous pride in their products.
Milk trains moved through the countryside before dawn picking up milk cans that waited on platforms. The milk did not travel great distances and it was bottled and delivered fresh to doorsteps that very morning. Cans on their way to the creamery were kept cold by blocks of ice cut from the northern lakes in winter. Ice cutting was an important industry in northern states. The big blocks of ice were packed in sawdust, available in quantity from sawmills, and it kept right through the summer. There was an amazing support structure for the rural and small-town dairy industry.
Honorable dairymen well understood that milk quality depended on healthy cows, clean milking practices, rapid chilling and expeditious delivery. Milk itself tells the tale at the table just as unmistakably as does fish. Your nose knows when it is fresh.
There are two ways to achieve a safe, edible product. Number one is by conscientious handling. Number two is by sterilizing and preserving the milk or fish or any other food, after which it matters a great deal less how it is stored or for how long. Small dairies able to exert quality control every step of the way, often even bottling and delivering their own milk and cherishing the one-on-one relationship with their customers, supported the method #1. Larger, well-funded consortiums seeking control of dairying favored method #2. Their approach was to pool larger quantities of milk, drawing it from greater distances, overcoming problems of quality by heat treatment or pasteurization. The outcome of this struggle was by no means a foregone conclusion. Heating changes the appearance, flavor, nutritive and culinary properties of milk and none for the better. As for its keeping qualities, everybody and his grandmother knew milk goes sour after a few days. It wasn’t expected to keep; after all, that’s why we make cheese. Everybody preferred fresh milk and consumers understood perfectly well that pasteurization served as a substitute for quality. Dairymen who wanted to continue selling fresh milk geared up for more efficient delivery using ice and seemed about to make their case for quality control at the source. Quite apart from concern for their customers preferences, this enabled them to maintain financial control of their own product.
The Winter of 1886
Then came the winter of 1886, the winter the lakes didn’t freeze. Lacking ice, the case for fresh milk was lost by default. Dairy farmers were forced to sell their milk to the middleman as they do to this day. They have never been able to regain control over their own product. The mega-dairy industry overwhelmed the little guy.
Consumers had their minds changed about pasteurization by a fear campaign based on disease standards said to be unavoidable from unpasteurized milk. Indeed, this is likely to be true when milk from thousands of cows is pooled, although then as now, it is perfectly possible for herds to be clean and disease free. What is not possible when fresh milk is pooled and transported great distances is to avoid it’s going sour and becoming unsalable; pasteurization was instituted for the benefit of distributors. But a nervous public was sold on a slew of new public health statutes that fostered the concept of pasteurization as being the only safe way to consume milk. Though we had survived as a species for 10s of thousands of years on unpasteurized milk, today unpasteurized milk is demonized nearly as harshly as poison. Indeed, at that time America was in the mood to sterilize everything possible. It was the heyday of the hospital-white kitchen and bathroom. Dairymen were required to paint everything white too, as part of the mystical association of whiteness with health and cleanliness. To this day, we dairy farmers must conform to public health regulations far more strict than those imposed on any other industry including the very processing plants where milk is conveyed to be pasteurized.
That’s as far as I’m going to go with the history today. In another episode I’ll talk about the demise of the Family Cow in the 20th century and how we have evolved in terms of milk production today. There is a renaissance of desire for fresh milk from our own cow. Perhaps the family cow will return in great numbers. Or at the very least, families will buy their milk from a nearby farmer whom they know. More and more will want to buy a share in a cow herd, paying the farmer to house, care for, maintain and milk their cows for them. Herd shares are gaining in popularity here in Virginia. We are currently looking into the possibility of providing butter, yogurt and cheese to folks just like you who want to own a family cow but don’t have the time, place or know how to properly care for her. We’ll take care of that for you. Just stop by the homestead and pick it up each week. What do you think?
Making ghee is a process I enjoy, and it yields a wonderful cooking medium. For those of you who might be unfamiliar, ghee is an unsalted butter that has had the milk solids removed after separating from the butterfat, resulting in beautiful, golden, pure fat with an unusually high smoking point.
This means ghee (and its cousin, clarified butter) is remarkably stable, even at higher temperatures. The process for making clarified butter is similar to that of making ghee, ghee is simply cooked longer and has more contact with the browning milk solids, in turn lending a different flavor profile.
Tips for Cooking with Ghee
- Use less. If you’ve never cooked with ghee before, just go easy to start. I’ve found that I typically need less throughout the process compared with, say, olive oil.
- Wok cooking or stir-fry is an exercise in high-temperature intensity. Which can be hard on oils, and you end up having the oils break down, and not in a good way. So, ghee is a good option, as long as it works for the flavors you are cooking. I don’t think it works alongside soy sauce, for example, but a quick vegetable stir-fry is a winner
- In my opinion, the best ghee comes from homemade butter. Meaning, you first make butter from fresh cream you got from your herd share. Then you turn that butter into ghee. You might try making cultured butter and turning that into ghee.
- Ghee can be stored, unopened, in a cool, dark, place for 9 months. Once opened, a jar can be kept on your counter top for 3 months. Beyond that, the open jar can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 year. How’s that for shelf life.
What You Need
- 2 pounds unsalted butter (I’ve used salted as well)
- Pinch of salt (optional)
What To Do
- Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low. It will start to bubble and separate. The whey will float to the surface creating foam. Skim the whey foam as it arises. Continue to cook the butter until it turns clear and the milk solids sink to the bottom. This is clarified butter. (You could actually stop here.)
- Continue to cook your butter until the milk solids brown (lightly) on the bottom of the pan. It will smell like popcorn butter.
- Remove saucepan from heat, add salt (optional); cool for about 2 minutes.
- Pour ghee through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Store in tightly sealed mason jars or refrigerator.
- Use it in place of almost any cooking oil. It will add butter flavor without burning.
- If butter turns dark brown or black, you’ve burned it and you will need to start over.
That’s it for today. I hope to have better homestead news next time. We checked Buttercup today and she looks like she might give birth in the next 2 to 3 days. Pray for her please. She had trouble last time.
I hope you enjoyed the history of milk tour. Lots of people say we are not meant to drink milk. However, we have been doing for thousands of years and have prospered as a species. Lots of people say that no other animal drinks milk after a certain age. Perhaps that is because they are smart enough to figure out how to squeeze that teat and get at that luscious white nectar. For sure, anyone who has ever had a barn cat in the dairy knows that cats will most definitely continue to drink milk when it’s offered to them. They would have a real problem getting those paws trying get at it themselves.
And lastly, give that ghee recipe a try. Homemade butter and other natural animal fats are very healthy. Humans have survived on animal fats for thousands of years. Ghee is a great way to preserve that milk/cream/butter for a long time. It is an excellent cooking medium.
Ghee is even used in traditional ayurvedic medicine. Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. It was developed more than 3,000 years ago in India. It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. And that’s a beautiful thought to end with.
As always, I’m here to help you “taste the traditional touch.”
Thank you so much for listening and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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