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By Sherry Bunting
Do you wonder how far your milk travels? Do you want to know how it is produced? Do you assume the label ‘organic’ means ‘local’? Think again.
The terms ‘carbon-footprint’, ‘environmentally-friendly’ and ‘locally-grown’ are often assumed under an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ label. But they are not neatly bundled together this way. An organic label covers some aspects of how milk is produced, but a growing number of conventional farms are showing and explaining their own rigorous standards and practices, and consumers are listening and learning.
Fresh fluid milk is typically the most locally-produced item at the local grocery store or supermarket. In fact, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products have a product code identifying the facility where it was made or packaged. A simple website — www.whereismymilkfrom.com — allows consumers to enter this code to find out.
Consumers are surprised to learn their brand of organic milk is often bottled in other parts of the country and trucked east, while the conventional milk right next to it is produced in their backyard.
Here in the Hudson Valley, consumers are especially fortunate to have an even more localized supply of milk through Hudson Valley Fresh. Sold in stores and coffee houses from New York City to Albany, Hudson Valley Fresh is so local that the milk goes from cow to store in 36 hours.
The process for bottling adds to the freshness. Hudson Valley Fresh is simply not-fooled-around-with. The milk is pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. The lower-heat method of pasteurization retains more of the natural vitamins, minerals and flavor. The fat and protein content of Hudson Valley Fresh milk are not standardized to the minimum level of 3.25 percent. It is bottled fresh without skimming. This means the fat content is 3.8 to 4.0 percent.
Consumers who’ve tasted Hudson Valley Fresh at various tastings, including the recent Dutchess and Columbia county fairs, and in the milkshakes made at the New York State Fair, realize the creamy difference.
In New York City, for example, this brand is fast becoming the milk of choice for coffee houses because its higher fat content improves steaming and frothing. In March, Hudson Valley Fresh supplied all of the milk for NYC’s Coffee-Fest, and the vendors took notice.
As do consumers: “It’s yummy… simply the best milk I’ve ever tasted. We will all be drinking more milk now at home,” said one attendee at a recent farm open house where Hudson Valley Fresh white and chocolate milk was available for tasting.
The nutritional benefits of fresh whole milk are becoming well known after decades of misunderstood science on dairy fat. At the same time, locally-produced brands — like Hudson Valley Fresh — are giving consumers something they haven’t had in NYC for a long time: Fresh, whole, delicious milk that has not been skimmed and heated to death. The flavor and nutrients are bringing disillusioned dairy milk defectors back for another try.
Hudson Valley Fresh started with four dairy farms in 2005. Today, 10 dairy farms ship milk for the Hudson Valley Fresh label due to the 40 to 50 percent compounded growth over the past three years. While not labeled ‘organic’, these dairies are held to the strictest of quality standards — seven times stricter than federal regulations on somatic cell counts, for example.
All Grade A dairy farms are federally inspected, and the Hudson Valley Fresh farms take this further with a production code for cleanliness, comfortable cow beds, and well-balanced cow diets that include not only fermented forages and grains, but also hay to stimulate cud chewing.
Like all milk sold in the U.S., Hudson Valley Fresh is tested at each point from farm to store to ensure all milk is antibiotic-free (a topic we discussed in this column in June).
There are also economic considerations. Hudson Valley Fresh — like other New York State dairy enterprises — was created as a dairy farmer partnership “dedicated to preserving the agricultural heritage of the Hudson River Valley and promoting it as one of the premier food regions of the U.S.”
Why is this important? If you live in the valley from New York City to Albany, you’ll find Hudson Valley Fresh in large stores and small stores and coffee houses. Notice the dairy farms that dot this landscape. These hard working family farms make significant contributions to their local communities.
For every cow on a dairy farm in the community, over $13,000 of annual revenue is generated and spent in the community. For every 100 cows on a dairy farm, nine jobs are created throughout the farm to retail system.
“In New York City, the first question we get is ‘are you organic?’” says dairy producer Beth Chittenden, who goes to the city weekly and promotes not only Hudson Valley Fresh, but also the dairy industry and the families who farm the land here. “When we tell them there are no antibiotics in any milk — organic or not — and when we bring consumers and purchasers to our farms to see how the cows sleep, the diets they eat, the procedures we use in the parlor, the care these cattle receive, they begin to see the true picture.”
The farms of Hudson Valley Fresh range in size from 70 cows to 700. Some are one-family farms and others are farms of families. Larger farms are still family-owned and operated, just with more generations working together to manage more cattle on more land.
In every area of life and work, we as consumers want to see progress in conservation, safety, health, and animal care. Farms don’t have to be “organic” to accomplish these worthy goals.
“People come here with a picture in their mind of a farm being 10 cows milked by hand,” Beth relates. “Then they see how clean it is here, and how the cows are cared for. Then they taste the milk. After that, there’s no turning back.”
Hudson Valley Fresh sells over 75 percent of its milk as whole milk. Taste is everything, and with new interpretations of the old science on healthy fats, consumers are turning to real foods, like butter and whole milk. For information about upcoming local tastings, visit www.hudsonvalleyfresh.com
A former newspaper editor, Sherry Bunting has been writing about dairy, livestock and crop production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.