Hey folks, a treat for today~ a few weeks ago, I posted about being excited to learn that there was a new raw milk dairy near me. The post generated a LOT of discussion, speculation and opinions- more than usual, by far! In retrospect, I realize as some were speculating about the farmer himself, I regret that it didn’t occur to me then, well, why don’t we just ask him?
Art Groeneweg, the owner, happened upon the post, and was watchin’ for me when I pulled up last weekend to buy my milk. We had a great talk, I am endlessly fascinated by the whole subject; from the realities that farming has to change from the “standard way” in order for farmers to keep making a living, to some of his dairy peers thinking he’s gone crazy, to the fact that Art feels his cows are calmer and easier to handle now that they’re not amped up on grain anymore. It’s truly insightful to learn from someone who has a long family history of dairying, who can remember the “old way” it was done, but knows the modern conventions backwards and forwards as well.
Art offered to address some of the comments and questions that came up in the last post. And he promised to answer more questions- but in due time; he’s not a blogging junkie like some of us who read every day!
Since this is clearly a controversial topic, I’ll remind: it’s encouraged to discuss and even disagree, but stick to the subject. Any posts that start leveling insults at people (e.g. well ‘yer stoopid then!) are not ok. Happy reading and debating!
Without further ado, here’s Art Groeneweg:
And now a word from your producer… Hello, my name is Art Groeneweg; I am the owner along with my wife Nancy of “The Art of Milk, LLC”. I have been in the dairy business my whole life. Formerly Hollandia Farms LP, a limited partnership between my father, brother and I. We built new dairy in 1989-90 and grew to 650 cows being milked 3 times a day producing up to 50,000 pounds of milk per day which is about 6,000 gallons. We were Vitamilk shippers for many years, eventually things changed and we had no choice but to become Darigold shippers. We worked hard to produce the best quality milk possible, everything from keeping the cows and stalls as clean as possible to the hygiene in the milking parlor of which was the most difficult because employees like to take short cuts and some of them had developed some bad habits from previous milking employments. The partnership became null and void after dad passed away and I had previously bought my brother out a few years before because he wanted out. So then I began running this place myself with predominantly Hispanic help, then the economy went south, and that’s another whole story…
Anyway, I remember when I was a kid, the cows were pastured as much as possible and they did not get excessive amounts of grain like the commercial and/or corporate dairies of today will feed. When a cow died back then, practically the whole valley knew about it and it was a big deal. Today it has become “Push them for all its worth and oh well… there’s another one to take her place” mentality. Hormone injections are given to cows in order to give more milk, sexed semen used for more heifers, two of the biggest things that helped to take out the smaller farmers through the years. Sex semen is still available, but RbST was finally forbidden to use by Darigold several years ago. I, to this day, have refused to use and have not participated in either. Technology can be good, but has its place.
Farming is hard work. Certain things must happen every day no matter what the weather is doing. A good plan and experience helps to get things done right and in a timely manner. It is a big commitment, with a lot of responsibilities, from the husbandry of all animals to the stewardship of the land and resources to producing products for human consumption. Dairying was beginning to become somewhat meaningless to the point where you felt like you were a slave to the food industry, and we were, and we were trapped, we couldn’t get out of it, and the fun was totally being taken out of it. So I thought, there’s got to be a better way, like back in time when I was a kid, how it used to be, it’s time to go “Back to the basics”.
Back then and through the years people have always stopped by the farm and asked if they could get some raw milk, (once in a while we would give it to them) but rarely would we ever give anyone any raw milk, but we always drank it.
Two and a half years ago my wife and I started educating myself further on raw milk’s properties, the pathogens, pasteurization and its effects and so on and had to wonder… could I produce it and sell it without ever getting anyone sick from consuming the milk in its raw state? I came to the conclusion that if you do everything absolutely right every day you will not get anybody sick from it.
There are many things to do in order to achieve this level of safety. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. Having clean cows, pastures, barns, stalls, bedding, modern equipment and facilities is essential. Taking the stress off the cow, God designed the cow as a forage ruminant mammal, forage is what they need; they were not made to digest large amounts of grain, it does create much more milk production but it also creates a lot of stress. This stress creates many health issues; it affects their ability to ruminate properly (generally acidosis), their reproduction (cystic or static), their feet (ulcers or hoof rot) and udders (mastitis). Then there’s the manure, stressed cows have a much higher chance of shedding pathogens in their manure generally driven by the grain factor.
You must have very good hygiene so that you don’t get any manure in the milk, even though stressed cows are more likely to shed pathogens in the manure than stress free cows, you always do the best job you can every time. The State has its requirements that have to be met also. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) requires tuberculosis – brucellosis (TB) and Q-fever testing prior to milking for food consumption. I have also had each cow’s individual quarters tested for undesirable bacteria’s and leucocytes otherwise known as somatic cell counts, which are white blood cells of the immune system involved in defending the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials.
The cows teat ends are sprayed with an iodine based product that has about a 15 to 30 second bacteria kill time, each cow is then stripped about 3-4 times and the milk is checked for abnormal color or composition. The cows teats are then wiped off 3 times with 2 microfiber towels and visually inspected to make sure there is no debris, you must take note of the very end of the teat end, that is where the debris can be if not wiped well or properly. Even though it has been neutralized, you don’t want any debris getting in the milk and/or back up into her teat canal by action of the milking machine. If anything looks off, we get a sample from all four quarters and do an on-the-spot California Mastitis Test (CMT) to grade the level of quality, depending on the findings; additional in-house tests can be performed, like swabbing blood agar with the affected quarter’s milk and incubating it for period of time. In this sort of an event, the cow is generally moved to a separate pen. Depending upon the test results, the cow may or may not get treated for her condition, it depends on what it is and the severity of it. Although, I must say, that when the conditions of running a clean show are kept up and low to non-existent stress levels are applied there is really no reason to have unexpected things like this happening. If a problem develops with the cow it’s usually going to be from an injury from slipping and falling from being in heat, horseplay, or spooked, etc.
Chilling the milk right away is the next step to preserve quality, within minutes of being harvested from the cow it is chilled down to 38 degrees and stored until it is time to bottle it. Glass bottles, there’s nothing else like them, transparent and reusable.
The milk house and processing room each have their own purpose and protocols for milk handling, they are separate rooms. As for when it is time to bottle, entry into this area is limited, only authorized personal are allowed and the correct attire is worn for this process. The biggest threat is Listeria, a cold-natured-thriving-pathogen that likes to live in drains.
WSDA comes in once a month to test a washed, empty and capped bottle, and takes a bottle of milk to test. They also check the cooling room and refrigerator temperatures. Every 3 months we have an equipment inspection for cleanliness and operation, the inspector checks the valves, chart recorders and other miscellaneous items. About every 6 months or so water samples are taken to look for coliform in potable well and the chiller/plate cooler.
Everything we do to ensure that we can produce, harvest and process is so intentional, it does take more time and energy (don’t get in a hurry). I am pretty busy but also having a lot more fun now.
We do carry liability insurance in the event that something should go wrong and somebody ends up getting sick. I whole heartedly believe that it will not be needed but we must carry it anyway.
I take great pride in what I do.
Side notes (also from Art):
I cannot speak for everyone that produces and sells raw milk.
From my observation of what I have seen through the last few years for those producers who have had trouble in which people ended up getting sick, it appeared to me that it was generally related to the conditions in which the animals were being subject to along with the hygiene of harvesting and handling of the milk was improper and/or inadequate.
Thanks Art for taking the time to share!