As a mother, it's important to me to know where our family's food comes from, how the animal products we consume are handled, and how our earth is being treated in the process. A recent trip to a small dairy farm in Ferndale, California, a town where my paternal grandmother spent much of her youth, turned out to be more nostalgic and educational than I ever imagined.
The historic town of Ferndale, known as "cream city", is an agricultural community located in Humboldt County, a picturesque 4-hour drive northwest of Napa Valley. Ferndale is full of charming Victorian homes known as "Butterfat Palaces," elegant structures built in the late 1800s from the considerable wealth generated by the dairies. The quality of milk and butter from this area was (and still is) so good that Roosevelt would only eat butter from little Ferndale.
As I looked out the window of our room in the beautiful and historic Victorian Inn, I imagined my grandmother as a child walking down the street, arms linked, with her sister Didi. I felt connected to this town, and little did I know that by the next afternoon I'd feel even more connected.
We were in Ferndale to visit the two small family farms owned by Jim and Susan Regli, both 100% organic and grassmilk Jersey cow dairies that are part of the Organic Valley cooperative. Organic Valley is a 25-year-old cooperative of more than 1,800 dairy farmers around the United States. Their commitment to organic, sustainable, and pioneering agriculture, combined with the increase in consumer awareness around food, has catapulted the company into a $1 billion a year business. Though you may not care about how much they make, you will appreciate the healthy goodness they're providing for our families, their herds, and our planet.
Taste and Health Benefits
What makes grassmilk so good? It's simple: fresh grass - a diet cows' stomachs are designed to digest. These happy cows forage daily on a diet of grass (specifically a tasty rye grass) and white clover. During the off season they feed on hay, haylage and sileage - never any grain or soy supplements. Grassmilk has a delicious seasonal taste and changes in flavor profile depending on what the cows are eating. The spring grass from this area has flavorful notes of vanilla. In fact, Costco's popular vanilla ice cream is made from Ferndale milk. Grassmilk is also good for you! It's full of naturally occurring omega-3 (in fact, twice as high as found in non-organic milk), CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids have important anticancer and weight management properties, among other health benefits), and calcium.
It's non-homogenized with cream on top, something not often found in store-bought milk. Either give the carton a good shake to blend in the cream or skim it off to make a most delicious butter. Roosevelt would certainly approve!
Happy Cows Have "Happy Lines"
"Happy Lines" (vertical and horizontal lines along their rib cage) are a good indication of the general health and well-being of a cow. These lines show that she is comfortable and getting everything she needs from her diet: trace minerals and a balanced starch-protein diet. it was comforting to see all the happy lines on Jim's "girls."
Organic is Best
Antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs or pesticides are never used. If an animal gets sick they are treated with antibiotics but can never return to the herd. Instead, they are sold to a conventional dairy farm. Many conventional farmers are against organic farming because they feel they're not protecting the cows from illness. But, Jim's cows are so healthy they actually get sick far less than cows who are regularly receiving daily preventative antibiotics. To me, that makes sense. We eat a healthy diet to keep our bodies strong and to stave off illness, and we're seeing the negative impact the increased use of antibiotics is having on humans: super bugs and antibiotic-resistant diseases. Why would this not also be the case for other animals? Need more reasons to choose organic? Read here.
Aside from the health benefits to us and the herds, organic farming is best for Mother Earth. "Organic is just a better way to farm, produces a better product and is more sustainable. You’re not using synthetic fertilizers that inhibit microbial activity in the soil and pollute groundwater,” says Jim.
In addition to taking care of the cows, great care is taken to monitor the health of the fields. The coop works together to try and figure out how to improve the pastures, down to planting different types of grasses to see which works best, testing whether to irrigate or not, soil sampling, and more. No farmer is out there on his or her own, and they're all comparing notes on what works best.
The Reglis are also part of a local project to restore the ecosystem of the Salt River, a river once large enough to accommodate small ocean steamers. Now, due to fine sediments that have deposited in the river and its tributaries, one can step over what was once the widest part of the channel. The project is working on improving water quality, reestablishing fish and wildlife habitat, decreasing flooding and improving the drainage system for farmers and residents in the Ferndale area.
We ended our journey at the Regli's beautiful home with a tasting of fresh whole and reduced-fat grassmilk and a lovely lunch with their family. Little did I know that the Organic Valley Grassmilk I'd been buying at our local market in Seattle is from Jim's family farm - from the very cows we'd just visited. Number 168 was my favorite and I think of her now when I make my morning coffee. Now that's a connection.
Editorial Disclosure: Foodista.com's travel expenses were generously hosted by Organic Valley.