June is National Dairy Month, which originated in 1937 as “National Milk Month” by the National Dairy Council in an effort to encourage consumers to drink more milk during a time of surplus. Today, many organizations and regions continue to observe June as Dairy Month along the same theme.
What are Dairy Products?
Dairy products are foods made from the milk of domesticated mammals, like cows, goats and sheep. This large food category includes things like milk, cheese, yogurt, cream and butter. Worldwide, India produces the most dairy (including cow, buffalo, sheep, goat, and camel milk) at over 176,000 metric tons per year, followed by the United States which produces about 97,000 metric tons, and Pakistan which produces around 44,000 metric tons of milk per year.
History and Facts
The earliest evidence of humans raising cows for milk dates back to the neolithic era between 6000-7000 BCE, around what is now Turkey. During this time animals were becoming domesticated and agricultural practices were being established separately by people across the globe. There is evidence that shows dairying was in practice in Southwest Asia around 7000 BCE, and didn’t spread to Europe until 4000 BCE.
Early in human civilization, adults were not able to digest milk because they lacked an enzyme necessary for digesting the lactose in milk called lactase. People used fermentation to make cheese and other products to reduce the amount of lactose in the milk, which allowed them to consume it. In the past 10,000 years, four distinct genetic mutations in humans have enabled the production of lactase in adults, meaning more adults could consume milk with less adverse health effects. Dairy is relatively a new concept in the Americas. It was introduced around the 1500s when colonists brought goats and cows with them.
After the War of 1812, European settlers began to occupy the area around Lake Champlain and built subsistence farms. As railroads and new farm technology emerged like the steel plow with interchangeable parts, farms in the Adirondacks followed the national trend and shifted from subsistence farming to specialized farming, like raising cows for milk.
Shown here: Mrs. Myra Stickney and Cow– July 9, 1897 (Franklin County)
New York State became a hub for breeding Holstein cows, which were prized for their high milk yields. During the late 1800s, almost every town along Lake Champlain had a creamery that farmers would bring their milk to. The creamery then used it to make dairy products that could be transported and sold in cities.
Unfortunately, the Adirondack region hasn’t been immune to the loss of dairy farms due to shrinking cow milk prices. It’s estimated that there were once hundreds of small family dairy farms around the Adirondack Champlain Valley. Today, there are fewer than ten dairy farms in Essex County. According to the 2017 United States Department of Agriculture 2007 and 2017 census reports, Essex County has seen roughly a 19 percent decline in dairy farms since 2007. However, sheep and goat farms in Essex County are growing, with only 2 farms reported in 2007, and 21 farms counted in 2017. This parallels the national trend in growth in goat dairy across the United States. According to the USDA Census, dairy goat herds are the fastest growing sector of livestock, growing 61% between 2007 and 2017.
How Dairy Products are Made
It is a common misconception that cows always “need” to be milked. Just like humans, only female cows, goats and sheep produce milk for their babies when they become pregnant and after they give birth. After giving birth they will continue to produce milk for a period of time if they feed their babies or are milked regularly. Because of this, dairy animals must have a baby about every year to continue to provide an abundant source of milk for humans to consume. Every farm has a different process, but generally, farmers separate babies from their mothers after they are born, sometimes immediately, sometimes after a period of time. This allows them to safely monitor the babies’ health and regulate how much milk they are eating. The milk is harvested from the animals in a milking parlor, where it is stored in a clean, temperature-regulated environment to be shipped or used to make products like cheese or yogurt on-site.
What Makes Milk “Grass-Fed”?
There is a spectrum of ways that dairy farms feed their animals. Some farmers raise or buy grains, corn and soy, for feed. Many manage pastures for grazing and hay production. There are two categories of grazing, free grazing, which is basically just allowing animals to forage from an area continuously, and managed grazing is when farmers strategically move ruminant animals on pasture to allow some areas to recover. “Grass-Fed” refers to animals that primarily eat grass and forage for their entire lifetime. “Pasture-raised” refers to animals that have access to the outdoors for most of the year.
Ashlee Kleinhammer of North Country Creamery gives a farm tour and demonstrates how yogurt is made in their creamery.
How to Enjoy Dairy Products
Locally crafted dairy products offer a true taste of the Adirondacks. Dairy cows, goats and sheep (and their farmers and cheesemakers) transform lush Adirondack pastures surrounded by wilderness into something special. When you buy local dairy products you can taste the extra intention, time and care that you just don’t get in commercially made alternatives.
A Few Ways to Enjoy Local Dairy
- Fancy cheese isn’t just for hors d’oeuvre! Our friends at Asgaard Farm suggest a slice of their soft and flavorful Barkeater Buche on top of a salad of fresh local greens.
- Add a splash of raw milk from Sugar House Creamery to your morning coffee and think about the lush grass, clean water, hard work and intention that goes into bringing their milk to your table.
- Try a smear of Chevre from Nettle Meadow Farm on toast instead of butter.
- Add a dollop of plain sheep’s milk yogurt from Blue Pepper Farm in your chili instead of sour cream.
- Cheese curds make a great snack on the go! Meier’s Cheese in Fort Covington NY makes them fresh and available for pick-up on their farm every Thursday afternoon.
- Add a slice of Dill Havarti from North Country Creamery on your sandwich to step up your weekday lunch.
- Get a taste of the summer with really special ice cream from Farmers’ Cone Creamery at the Hub on the Hill in Essex, NY.
Tour Sugar House Creamery, a farmstead creamery nestled in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks where the milk from a small herd of Brown Swiss cows is turned into cheese.
Where to Buy Dairy Products
Wherever local milk and cheese is sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, retail locations and farmstands selling dairy products at adirondackharvest.com/browse.
How do you like to enjoy local dairy? Comment below and let us know.
Photo at top Milking at Sugar House Creamery (photo by Sam Cecil)