One of the most striking aspects of the shift over the past century to mechanized food production is how the local logistics have shifted.
For example, think of a dairy farm. In the pre-refrigeration past, most of the dairy products, particularly fresh milk and cream, were produced at the farm itself. Butter could be made at the farm, or the cream brought to a nearby butter factory. Cheese could be made at the farm, or by nearby cheesemakers who bought the whole milk at the farm. The dairy industry still works like that in much of the world. When I lived in Switzerland, we had a dairy in our little village, nestled in the base of the hill. Early each morning, you could see the hausfraus walking back up the hill, toting their full milk pails back from the dairy.
Our current system in the United States bears almost no resemblance to that small-scale, localized dairy of the past. With the advent of refrigeration, mechanical milking, and better transportation, the industry shifted to a centralized, large-scale specialized production system. Using milking machines, modern dairies are ably to milk many more cows than their hand-milked predecessors. More cows meant much more milk. Instead of selling the milk locally, it is refrigerated in large holding tanks, before a milk transport tanker arrived to bring the milk to a factory. At the factory, it’s homogenized, pasteurized, and packaged before being shipped to a central distributor, and from there to various grocery stores.
the milk truck
a vat in a milk factory
This centralization and mechanization of the milk industry has caused a sharp decline in the number of U.S. dairy farms:
while U.S. milk production overall and production by cow has been steadily increasing:
(all charts from the National Agricultural Statistics Service)
The rate of decline in the number of dairies was even steeper five years ago, but has slowed somewhat. It is clear, though, that there is a strong trend towards consolidation in the milk industry, with fewer, larger farms, with each cow producing even more milk each year.
With the increasing strength of the local foods movement, there is a small but growing group of local dairies that are committed to reviving the older, more community-oriented model of milk production. An article in Wednesday’s New York Times highlighted this trend, profiling several dairies in the New England area. Several are organic, and I believe that all of them shun the use of growth hormones to increase milk production. As small-scale producers, they all avoid many of the problems enormous dairy farms, and have healthier cows and much less waste.
The New York Times article focused primarily on the superior taste of the locally produced butter, cream and cheeses, bragging that one farm’s butter production has completely sold out to such high-end restaurants as Per Se and the French Laundry, both owned by Thomas Keller. And it’s true: the butter, milk and half and half that I get from Ronnybrook Dairy at the farmer’s market is utterly delicious. Their ice cream, which I sampled at the new Old Brooklyn Parlor in Prospect Heights, is some of the best ice cream I’ve had in my life.
Locations of NYC-local dairies:
What’s just as important, though, is that these small dairies are preserving the knowledge and methods of what a local dairy is, and what it can mean to a community, and preserving some small alternative to the massive commercial industry that modern milk production has become. Without the preservation of these farmers’ skills and knowledge, that alternative is that much harder to resurrect.