Tuesday, May 29, 2012

These hooves were made for walkin'...

Funny thing. I decided I wanted to write a newsletter about sustainable food systems (versus big, creepy, chemical-filled, over processed industrial agriculture.) It's at the core of why and how I do what I do with The Bloomy Rind.

But guess what? It's a friggin' huge topic. Huge, as in books and documentaries and graduate degrees. (Oh my!) And then there’s the fact that I'm not exactly an expert. I'm passionate and always learning and probably paying more attention than the average citizen, but I am definitely not an expert.

Yet I still want to shout what I’ve learned from the mountaintops. Or maybe just chat about it over the countertops in, say, a meat n’ cheese shop? Either way, it’s too important not to.

I may be in a little over my head, but if you’ll indulge me, and if you’ll hopefully participate as you’re inspired to do so, I think we should dig into this wonderland of a topic: our food system.

Without further adieu, I’ll start close to home…what goes in The Bloomy Rind cheese case?

There are two essential criteria in my selection: how the animals are raised and how the cheese is made. In addition, I consider where the cheese is made, having a good mix of styles, and, of course, the cheese has to be tasty.

Let’s start with how the animals are raised which has an impact both on the quality the cheese and on our food system in general. I’ll probably expand on this later, so for now, I will boil it down to this: I look for farmers and cheesemakers who pasture their animals as much as possible and do not give them synthetic growth hormones. [Normally, when I'm discussing sustainably raised farm animals, I would add to that list farmers who do not administer sub-therapeutic (so called "preventative") antibiotics. With cheese, this isn't really an issue because they can't make cheese with antibiotic-laced milk as the antibiotics would kill the cultures essential to cheesemaking.]

Pasturing is what nature intended for these creatures, and it produces the best milk which, in turn, makes the best cheese. 

It’s also best for the environment as the animals’ waste is distributed around the pasture in amounts the soil can absorb and be fertilized by. In the confinement feed lot setting of industrial agriculture, the waste is too concentrated and actually toxifies the soil and water. Can you say feedlot runoff? Ewww.

Grass-based dairy is also better for us, the cheese lovers. There are studies being done comparing the fats in grass-based versus corn-based dairy (and meat and eggs). The fats are different. And, surprise surprise, grass-based animal products are way better for us. (Or, if you need a little dairy pun, whey better!)

Then there’s just the peace of mind knowing the least we can do for animals that produce our food is to treat them well. Making them live in cramped quarters, on cement or in mud (and, let’s be frank, up to their "knees" in cow shit), with no access to pasture, is pretty terrible, eh?

Pasturing animals is incredibly complex and labor intensive (part of why the good stuff costs more, but we’ll dig into that later). There are such dynamics as pasture management, rotating the herd, seasonality (snow, droughts, etc) and more at play – which is why I focus whether the animals are pastured as much as possible.

I’m simplifying all this for a few reasons. One, as I mentioned, I do not claim to be an expert so I couldn’t tell you everything there is to know even if I wanted to. Two, if you’re anything like me, your attention span has limits - and if I still have your attention at this point, I probably need to wrap it up so you might come back in the future. Three, if this is new information for you, I think it’s helpful to digest it in bits.

On the other hand, if you're ready for more, here you go:

[Please let me know your feedback and questions in the comments section below. Is this info helpful? What questions do you have when it comes to choosing your food source?]


  1. I loved this article! I feel the same way about sustainability and the fact that cows are supposed to be eating grass not grain. Thank you for your thoughts - serious yet entertaining. I want my kids to experience the work involved in farming and have been searching for summer farm tours. I found one at Tap Root farm in Franklin, TN so we're going to check it out. Hope I won't be disappointed.

  2. Thanks for the kind words and feedback! Love that you want your kids to know where their food comes from. You might also check with Hatcher Dairy - pretty sure they do tours. Many farms are welcoming to visitors *with advance notice*, not because they're hiding anything, just because they are super busy people.