Thursday, April 22, 2010
Celebrate Earth Day with safe, humane meat and dairy
Dr. Sam Simon was born and raised on a dairy farm, and he's been milking cows for 50 years. The orthopedic surgeon/farmer even maintained the family farm while attending medical school due to his father's death.
"I know the plight of the farmer because I was raised in it," Simon said. "The sad thing is, you need to be an orthopedic surgeon to farm."
Though meant to be sarcastic, Simon's claim is not entirely inaccurate. Dairy farmers in the Hudson Valley have had an increasingly difficult time making a living off their farms, as larger factory farms have brought the price of milk down to an unsustainable low for the little guy.
It was this plight that led Simon, who owns Plankenhorn farm in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., to start Hudson Valley Fresh, a not-for-profit co-op of nine farms representing 5,000 acres of open space in Dutchess and Columbia Counties.
"Our goal is to take on more farms as we grow to preserve the open space and preserve dairy as an industry," Simon said.
Today's industrial farming practices have made it so that a gallon of milk is sold for less than it costs small farms to produce a gallon of milk. Hudson Valley Fresh has a set price of 21 cents per pound of milk. This ends up being higher than the cost of factory farmed dairy, but allows farmers involved to keep farming.
In the first month of Hudson Valley Fresh's existence in 2005, the company brought in only $37. In February 2010, the company brought in $87,000 - a 27 percent per year growth, despite the economy.
"As a business entity we don't demand a lot from the public [farm acres don't use the public services their tax dollars pay for, such as schools and police], but we return a lot to the economy."
Hudson Valley Fresh milk can be purchased at grocery stores where students already shop, including Stop & Shop, Hannaford and Adam's Fairacre Farms. The company also supplies milk for all the colleges in the area, with the exception of Marist. These include Bard College, Vassar College, Dutchess Community College and the Culinary Institute of America.
It's not just business for those involved in Hudson Valley Fresh. The humane treatment of the cows is what drives them.
Simon is so cautious with his cows that those entering his barn must disinfect the soles of their shoes in a solution, so as not to drag unwanted bacteria in. The barn itself is designed for the highest comfort for the animals. Recycled rubber tires make up beds for each and every cow, and kiln-dried sawdust, which soaks up bacteria, lines the stalls that are cleaned every day.
Though ethics are a driving force in Simon's decisions, it's also good for business. Cows prefer to be lying down for 15 hours per day, and produce the most milk while lying down.
"They all can lie down and often do," Simon said.
According to Simon, the average life of a cow in the United States is three and a half to four years, because cows are given RBST and RBH hormones that fool them into thinking they've just given birth. They are then milked for 600 days before being slaughtered.
The cows at Plankenhorn farm, on the other hand, live full and healthy lives. They are nurtured from birth, and once old enough to give birth, they are milked for seven months, then rest for two months before starting the process over again.
"I like seeing cows that look good and have a long life," Simon said. "I love watching their offspring grow. The animals are very receptive to good care."
The humane treatment of dairy cows benefits not only the cows themselves and business, but the consumer as well. Hudson Valley Fresh milk has quality standards well above the federal mandate. Simon uses a somatic cell count to measure the number of white blood cells in his and other Hudson Valley Fresh farm milk. The higher the white blood cell count, the worse the quality of the milk is. Hudson Valley Fresh milk must have a somatic cell count of under 200,000/milliliter. The federal limit is 750,000/milliliter, and organic milk sold in supermarkets averages about 400,000/milliliter.
A cow that passes the test will be ensured not to have any infections in the udder, reproductive system or gastrointestinal tract that could impact the quality of the milk. The cow is also not under stress of any kind, as the somatic cell count is known to increase in cows that are stressed.
"We're the only co-op that has such strict standards," Simon said.
At Hahn Farm in Salt Point, N.Y., it's a similar story. Seventh generation farmer Tom Hahn is passionate about treating his animals with dignity.
"I couldn't agree more with the concept of animals being treated humanely and being treated, basically, the way I would like to be treated," Hahn said. "That may be a little corny, but nonetheless, if I have a baby calf born during the winter or early spring and it's freezing rain, I can't sleep nights."
A member of Hudson Valley Fresh, Hahn Farm also raises angus beef, chicken and pork for sale. He keeps his animals comfortable and clean, and allows them the opportunity to graze as much as they want. He believes this improves the quality of his products and contributes to his success as the largest direct-to-consumer farm in Dutchess County.
"Can you put a price on cleanliness and being outside in the sun?" Hahn asked. "I'd like to think so. We don't do anything particularly spectacular with our animals as far as feeding them and genetics, but people just rave over our beef."
He said when he sees how his competitors, located literally up the street, treat their animals, "my stomach turns." He described conditions with manure piled high and animals kept in 100 by 100 foot areas where they live and die.
"This is much how it is in factory farms," Hahn said. "It would be insulting to call them farmers."
As it is illegal for farms to butcher their animals on-site, Hahn ships his animals off to a butcher who does it for him. He said he puts special consideration into making sure his butcher is as concerned for the ethical treatment of animals as he is, not just for the animals' sake, but because the quality of the final product demands it.
"Our butcher, for example will absolutely throw a shit fit if somebody brings an animal in filthy, because your chance of contamination is greater with that animal," Hahn said. "If you're just working in total fecal matter it's not pleasant for anybody. It's not good for the animal; it's not good for the slaughter house because they have more to contend with. It's just filth. It's just flat out wrong."
Despite his disgust in the factory-farm way of treating animals, Hahn does not believe all the blame lies with those farms.
"This whole confinement system will not change until the consumer demands it and says 'I will not buy meat or animal products from people or corporations or companies that condone this," Hahn said. "When you or someone else buys from a company that buys their cattle or buys their chicken or pork or eggs from factory farms where things are not done right, you are condoning it. If you don't change it with your dollars, it's not going to change."
Factory farms treat their animals poorly and pollute the environment, and their products form the basis of the majority of meat we consume. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on Thursday, April 22, try substituting at least one inhumanely raised factory-farmed meat or dairy item with one from a local farmer.