Many of you know that I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning I eat dairy products and eggs, but do not eat any meat. I was never a big dairy fan as a kid, but would use milk for cereal. I acquired a taste for cheese as a teenager, for yogurt as a young adult, and still use milk primarily for cereal or in cooking. Even though I now like a lot of dairy products, I have toyed with the idea of becoming vegan primarily for ethical reasons. Ever since I saw the movie Food, Inc., I have been on a mission to learn as much as I can about where my food comes from, and buy only from sources that I trust.
This past Saturday I had the privilege of touring Stryk Jersey Farm , which is a family-run dairy farm just outside of Schulenberg, TX (about 82 miles southeast of Austin). Once again Slow Food Austin organized this tour. The Stryk Jersey Farm currently has between 50 and 100 Jersey dairy cows. They sell raw milk, butter, cottage cheese, and cheddar cheese.
We started our tour just outside the “cheese house,” where Farmer Bob gave us a little of the history of the farm. This farm was his parents’, and he was born and raised here. His parents were commercial dairy farmers back when families ran all commercial dairy farms.
Bob went off to college with the intention of eventually taking over the family farm. When he graduated and was ready to take over the farm, things had changed. Farmers were being told, “Get big or get out.” So, Bob tried to get big, but found the industry was not what he bargained for. Now severely in debt, he and his wife sold most of their cows and decided to “get jobs in town.” They still hung onto their land and a few animals while deciding what to do. After some time, they found out from a friend and fellow farmer that it is legal in Texas to sell raw milk, and there was a demand for it, but it could not be sold in stores (therefore no commercial farmers would get into it). After some research, inspections, and applying for the necessary permits and licenses, they became dairy farmers once again, now selling raw milk and cheese products.
After a little more information on the milking and cheese making process, we were free to “make ourselves at home” and wander around the farm, which is exactly what I did. I was able to meet some “baby cows” as well as the herd.
In order to be able to produce milk, the cows are artificially inseminated to have 1 cow a year. The babies are bottle fed with their mother’s milk rather than allowed to feed off of their mothers in order to prevent any types of infection or contamination of the milk supply. Once the babies have gotten all of their vaccinations and can safely be around the other cows, they are allowed into the pasture with the herd.
The cows spend most of their time outside grazing. About half of them are on the “wet pasture” (meaning they are currently producing milk) and half are on the “dry pasture” (meaning they are recovering, which is for a minimum of 2 months, but usually closer to 4 months). The milk-producing cows are milked twice a day in “the milking room,” and each session takes about 10 minutes. This room holds about 12 cows at a time (I regret I didn’t take a picture of it!). The cows are not milked by hand; after farmer Bob washes them up, they are hooked up to a machine that does the milking. The cows actually enjoy being milked because they are able to eat a tasty treat during the process! It is some sort of alfalfa pellet that they really enjoy. I guess they like having something other than clover and grass to eat on occasion!
Even though both of my parents spent time on farms (my Dad grew up on a farm and was a member of Future Farmers of America – FFA), I did not spend a lot of time out on my Grandparents’ farm, and never had “fresh” milk or cheese. All of the dairy I used came from the store and was pasteurized! During this tour, we were going to have the opportunity to sample raw milk and cheese. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about sampling these products. In our culture, everything is so “sanitized” that many of us think “raw” products could potentially be dangerous.
Properly handled raw milk from healthy cows does not pose any risk to consumers drinking it. In fact, some people believe it is actually much healthier for you as it contains beneficial bacteria (similar to yogurt). In addition, because the cows are allowed to be outside and graze on their “natural” diet, they rarely get sick, which means they do not need to be “fed” antibiotics the way traditional dairy cows are. If a cow does get sick and has to have antibiotics, that cow’s milk is kept out of the dairy supply. Plus, in order to sell raw milk, they are inspected almost daily by the Texas Health Department to ensure all the cows are healthy and free from harmful bacteria (which is much more frequent than commercial dairies).
I am so glad I tasted not only the cheese, but the milk as well. That was the best tasting milk I have ever had in my life! I could easily drink that milk as a beverage and not just have it on cereal or use to cook with. If you are anywhere near the area, I highly encourage you to look them up and tour their farm. Unless I am able to find another dairy farm that is even closer and treats its herd just as well, I believe Stryk Jersey Farm will be the primary supplier of dairy products in the Marquette household for as long as we continue to eatdairy.