Better for the Land, Water & Air: Advocates for Grass-Based Grazing Gather in Upstate NY

The Annnual Conference for members of the Grassfed Exchange was recently held at the Desmond Hotel in a suburb of Albany in upstate NY

The conference kicked off with a tour of Dharma Lea farm in Sharon Springs (Schoharie County, NY) and a farmstead lunch

Maple Hill Creamery’s Tim Joseph would lead a talk at the conference on Grass Fed Dairy Excellence

Jasmine Dillon, Allen Williams and Jason Rowntree were featured experts in the talk on The Ins and Outs of Grass-Fed Beef

Francis Thicke, an organic farmer for over 30 years and who served on the National Organic Standards Board, led a talk titled From Grass to the Grocery Store Shelf.

Corn is the dietary staple of most cattle because it’s an inexpensive feed that fattens the animals quickly – but that comes at the expense of the cow’s own health. Grassfed cows are healthier and the meat and milk that comes from them is better for humans. And the cycle of grass-based grazing is better for the land, water, and air.

Fortunately, grassfed meat is becoming a serious market force, a message that underscored this year’s annual conference for members of the Grassfed Exchange, a volunteer organization that has spent nearly a decade collecting and disseminating information to anyone involved or interested in the product. The sold-out conference, which took place September 27-29 at the Desmond Hotel in a suburb of Albany in upstate New York, brought together 500 attendees (100 more than last year’s conference) from 40 states as well as from Canada, Holland, Australia, Algiers, Auli (in the Chamoli district in India’s Himalayan mountains), Great Britain, and Norway. Previous conferences have taken place in Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, Michigan, and Georgia; this year, New York’s extensive amount of grassfed dairies and grassfed cattle was recognized.

The conference kicked off with tours of two such farms: Dharma Lea, in Sharon Springs (Schoharie County, NY), and Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin (Rensselaer County, NY). Both are family-run businesses that take a holistic approach to grassfed cattle management, and Dharma Lea demonstrated the gustatory effectiveness of such a practice by offering a lunch prepared from their own beef, with some help from a neighboring farm, along with locally sourced organic potatoes, eggs, dairy products, and root vegetables.

Boots and dungarees were the norm for the farm tours, and the dress code didn’t change once the folks got back to the hotel. The ensuing two days of talks and trade show featured an impressive array of speakers addressing topics ranging from land cultivation to butchering to marketing.

From Grass to the Grocery Store Shelf was the theme of a talk by Francis Thicke, who owns and runs the 90-cow Radiance Dairy in Iowa (with the highest five cow rating from the Cornucopia Institute), and has been an organic farmer for over 30 years. He and his wife, Susan, take their product from barn to bottling and on into the select stores and restaurants that buy as much as he can produce.

He described himself as a “recovering bureaucrat,” noting that he worked as a National Program Leader for Soil Science at the USDA-Extension Service. He also has served as a member of the National Organic Standards Board. Away from bureaucratic demands, Thicke radiates a pleasant, laid-back nature. “We start by going all the way back to the soil,” he began, which isn’t surprising – he has a Ph.D. in Agronomy/Soil Fertility from the University of Illinois. “We’re talking about geologic material that has been affected by plant matter,” he said, and what followed was an elegant tour through ecological cycles that too often suffer from the monoculture of industrial agriculture.

“Midwestern agriculture is inherently leaky. Two-thirds of Iowa’s surface is planted in corn and soybeans,” he said. “The result is that water percolates down into the soil with too many nitrates.” It’s a problem that can be solved with cover crops. “You should have something growing on your land at all times.”

Other talks covered such topics as Regenerative Agriculture and Why Bugs Matter, Kale vs. Cow, The Keys to Ecosystem Health, The Multi-Species Advantage, and a talk titled Water Is a Verb by noted ecology writer Judith D. Schwartz (author of Cows Save The Planet and Water in Plain Sight).

At the talk Honoring Meat, Jeremy Stanton, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park (Dutchess County, NY) and has helmed kitchens in New York, Florida, and the Berkshires, where he lives, noted that “The art of butchering is the art of marketing,” Stanton has butchered and sold meat in his own retail setting, and currently operates Fire-Roasted Catering in Great Barrington (Berkshire County, MA), creating events that feature an open wood fire for the cooking. “It’s about making the display case look beautiful.” Key to that is learning how to communicate with the slaughterhouse you work with.

“On your cut sheet, be as clear as you can about what you’re asking for. You have to decide what cuts will be the most valuable to you – do you want to sell tri-tip (the triangular muscle cut from the bottom sirloin) and flatiron steaks? – and how exclusive you want to be. I find that the Porterhouse doesn’t sell very well. I’d rather sell the individual strip loin and tenderloin cuts.” Stanton’s knowledge of cuts of meat was extraordinary: “Some of the cuts, like the merlot steak, from the side of the heel, are never worth the effort and time. You can spend 15 minutes butchering time to get that merlot cut.” But this fine point prompted a mildly dissenting response from attendee Larry Althiser, who runs Larry’s Custom Meats in Hartwick (Otsego County, NY). “If you’re not a difficult customer,” he said, “we’re happy to do special requests. If it’s a special cut, and we’ll be doing it again and again, the rhythm will come. Cutting the merlot steak is really just a few extra swipes of the knife, but there certainly are other cuts that can take longer.”

Asked his opinion of the future of artisan butchering, Stanton said, “It’s wildly inconvenient to most people. It means making a second or third stop when you’re shopping, and you might be buying something unfamiliar, which means you’re taking a risk, cooking something you weren’t planning on cooking and paying more for it.” Morgan Hartman, of Black Queen Angus Farm, agreed, noting that only two percent of the USA population is actively farming, “which means that 98 percent are disconnected from their food. So this is also about the re-education of the consumer. We need to catch them when they’re young with good food.” Said Stanton, “If you really want to appreciate the superior flavor of grassfed beef, have a tasting with friends. And throw a grocery-store steak in there for contrast.”

The talk, The Ins and Outs of Grass-Fed Beef featured three speakers with deep insight. Jasmine Dillon, a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Science at Penn State University, has combined interests in grazing systems and food security into her dissertation research on multiple sustainability indicators for grassfed beef production systems across the country. She emphasized the need to examine the environmental footprint. For a beef operation, this includes resource inputs (fuel, fertilizer, machinery, the animals themselves) that go to animal and food production as well as manure handling, with resulting air, soil, and water emissions. And there are measurable components to that footprint that include carbon, reactive nitrogen, fossil energy, and water.

Dr. Jason Rowntree, chair of the Grassfed Exchange, is also the faculty coordinator for The Lake City Research Center at Michigan State University – the first academic farm (with its 810 acres of managed land and 180 beef cows) to become an accredited hub for Holistic Management working with the Savory Institute. “The way I made it work was to bring in people who know more than I. Together we formed a holistic goal, centering our research around grass-finishing and around human health.” Production and profitability is tied to genetics, forage management, animal handling, and post-carcass management, he explained. “Genetics are all about energy metabolism. Those cows have to eat a crap-ton of grass.” Most cows eat about 1.1 percent of body weight, he said, “but my cows eat 1.5 percent. Cover crops increase quality in the last 60 to 90 days of finishing. Using a complex mixture can give a 20 to 25 percent increase in carcass weight.”

And the third speaker, Dr. Allen Williams is a founding partner of Grass Fed Beef, LLC, and Grass Fed Insights, LLC, and is also a partner in Joyce Farms, Inc. (a family farm in Winston-Salem, NC, with partner farms located in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia, which process and market beef, poultry and game). Williams pioneered many of the early grassfed protocols and forage-finishing techniques, and describes himself as “recovering academic,” thanks to fifteen years on the faculty at Louisiana Tech University and Mississippi State University. He offered advice for transitioning from conventional to grassfed. “You have to start with soil health, increasing the microbial population. Then you need complexity and diversity in your pastures. The monoculture farming we’re used to makes it more difficult. Then there’s genetics. You have to look at the proper phenotype and bloodlines. Also, you should understand how being a finisher affects your bottom line. Know what finished cattle looks like – and have a market!

How can we nudge consumers to eat more grassfed meat? “Let them know the story around the product,” said Williams. “It’s coming from a local or regional family farm. There’s no feedlot. No antibiotics or hormones. And it’s a great, consistent product. For health benefits, just look at the fatty-acid profile. The omega-3 numbers are substantial, especially compared to an infrequent portion of salmon.”

The talk Grass Fed Dairy Excellence was led by Maple Hill Creamery’s Tim Joseph, who sources milk from over a hundred small family farms, at the center of which is the 250-acre dairy farm that Tim and Laura Joseph bought when they expanded their own farming operation in 2003. “I wanted to stop working in the corporate world,” said Tim, and because they realized that a crop income comes only once a year, they “got some cows” at the very start of their farming life.  Joseph’s talk was given in conjunction with Phyllis Van Amburgh, co-owner of Dharma Lea, the first of the farms to sign up with Maple Hill Creamery as a milk supplier.

Van Amburgh looked at the challenges of the dairy farm itself. “The cows have high metabolic needs, which makes them fairly fragile. You need a cow that can thrive on high-energy, highly mineralized forages.” Like many others, she stressed the importance of genetics. “We do our own breeding, so we’re able to produce cows that we find to be the right size – smaller, usually. But we need cows that put on weight easily.” Her farm has a herd of 75 right now, but it’s been successful enough to prompt expansion plans that should more than double that number.“You have to learn to adapt. You can’t have a cow that’s too rugged or you’ll get no milk, so you always have to give a little bit.”

For the Josephs, becoming dairy farmers became a trial-and-error process, but eventually they not only learned how to cultivate cattle but also took their herd to grassfed, certified organic status in 2007. “At which point we were more broke than when we started.” Tim sought an alternative to milk sales, and hit on the idea of producing yogurt. Maple Hill Creamery’s success now sustains not only the Josephs’ own 250-acre dairy farm but also the small family farms (over a hundred) who provide the creamery with milk from grassfed cows.

Asked how to teach consumers about the merit of grassfed product, Joseph suggested using any tools available, such as in-person conversation, social media, promotional events – “You’re not going to convert the consumer who wants 36 grams of sugar in yogurt that tastes like Trix for kids.” But not knowing the story of our food according to Joseph is abnormal: “We need to tell consumers that story, and we only get a few square inches on a cup or a carton to tell it. Those little circles of information, called ‘bugs,’ tell you if it’s organic, kosher, grassfed, non-GMO, and so on. [Editor’s note (FWB): Last month we reported on misleading language used on yogurt containers to market yogurt that was no longer produced from pastured animals.] We only have a few seconds for the consumer to take all that in.” And Joseph maintains that there must be one voice about what grassfed means: “Does it mean no grain or corn, ever? Many consumers believe that, in which case 80 percent of the dairy-case items claiming to be grassfed don’t meet those standards. We need to come together for the greater good of grassfed and dairy.”

(B.A. Nilsson, 10/11/17)

[Editor’s Note (FWB)David Montgomery’s appearance at the Grassfed Exchange conference in the Albany area was especially notable. Montgomery’s Dirt, The Erosion of Civilization, is a remarkable accomplishment: a history of world agriculture in one very readable volume. We regret not hearing him speak on his new book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life at the conference. Also check out our farmstead yogurt directory and our pasture raised meat directory which spotlights Eatwild’s directory of more than 1400 pasture-based farms.]

Increasing Risk: Imported Non-Organic Products May Be Labeled As Organic

Arrayed on a dining room table, one of the three monthly deliveries of last winter’s share from Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook (Columbia County, NY): 16 beets, 8 watermelon radishes, 15 onions, 2 celeriac roots, 20 carrots, 39 potatoes, 14 sweet potatoes (total weight, 32.5 pounds)

Twenty-seven years ago, part of the 1990 Farm Bill, known as the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), required the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish national standards governing the marketing of agricultural products as “organically produced products.” In response, the USDA established the National Organic Program (NOP) as a regulatory program within its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). This regulatory program was created to assure consumers that products with the USDA organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards.

Imported agricultural products may be sold or labeled as organically produced if they have been produced and handled under an organic certification program. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has the responsibility to administer organic trade arrangements and agreements with foreign countries to ensure that U.S. government standards for organic products are met.

Last month, the Office of Inspector General of the USDA issued an audit report dated September 13, 2017 finding that USDA’s AMS “needs to strengthen its controls over the approval and oversight . . . for the import of organic products into the United States.” In particular, the audit report noted that AMS “was unable to provide reasonable assurance that NOP required documents were reviewed at U.S. ports of entry to verify that imported agricultural products labeled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms and businesses that produce and sell organic products.” USDA data shows that U.S. imports of organic food have soared to a value in 2016 of $1.72 billion. Moreover, the audit notes that this lack of controls at U.S ports “could create an unfair economic environment for U.S. organic producers.”

In the October 2017 issue of Acres magazine (The Voice of Eco-Agriculture), Mark Keating reported that fraudulent imported organic grain is flooding the U.S. markets. He also noted that domestic organic corn and soybean producers with rock solid certification histories experienced price declines in the range of 25 percent. That many domestic producers of organic corn and soybean have reported difficulty finding any market whatsoever for their crops is nothing short of deplorable.

Keating’s article in Acres magazine references a recent article by Peter Whoriskey (5/12/17)  in the Washington Post which tracked a 36 million pound shipment of conventional soybeans, grown in the Ukraine and shipped through Turkey before arriving in Stockton, California in December 2016, that were sold as organic to certified feed handling operations in the United States. Washington Post reporter Whoriskey also noted that two shipments of fraudulent organic corn from Romania totaling 92 million pounds were sent to ports on the East Coast of the United States before undetermined amounts entered domestic marketing channels.

Most important, the Washington Post article cited by Keating in Acres magazine, in his words, laid bare how poorly prepared the USDA is to prevent blatant fraud of this nature. Shockingly, there are fewer than 10 employees working in the NOP’s Compliance and Enforcement Division, which is responsible for ferreting out violations of the USDA organic standards around the world.

To conclude on a more upbeat note, one way to avoid this potential for consuming conventional food, sold deceptively as higher priced organically produced food, is to know your farmer and participate as a shareholder in a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm committed to organic growing standards. Even as autumn becomes winter, especially in northern parts of the United States, a winter CSA share may still be available. Check the listings of CSAs in our directories to find one possibility close to home.

Each fall, this advocate for an organic diet enjoys a winter share from Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook (Columbia County, NY). It’s an economical way to maintain organic, locally grown food as part of a winter’s food supply. At the cost of $125, my winter share consists of 90 pounds of organic root and storage crops, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, celeriac, watermelon radish, carrots, beets, onions, parsnips, cabbage, rutabaga and winter squash. The deliveries take place once a month in December 2017, then in January and February of 2018, at the economical cost of $1.38 per pound for organic and local food of the highest quality.

(Frank W. Barrie, 10/6/17)

Upending Traditional Diets of Real Food While Processed Food & Obesity Spreads Worldwide

Food Tank: The Food Think Tank recently spotlighted 17 organizations fighting hunger around the world through regenerative agriculture and agroecology

No surprise, the colorful candy aisle of an American supermarket stocks Nestlé’s Sno Caps, Raisinets & Nips

Nestlé’s Purina Dog Chow and Cat Chow take up a good part of the pet food aisle in an American supermarket

With over 8500 brands, the Frozen Food section of the typical American supermarket has lots of Nestlé’s products including Hot Pockets, Haagen-Dazs, Edy’s and Dreyer’s ice-creams, DiGiorno frozen pizzas, Lean Cuisine, Stouffers, etc.

After the examination by The New York Times of epidemiological studies, government reports, corporate records of multinational big food companies and interviews of scores of nutritionists and health experts around the world, reporters Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel’s front page story, How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food  (NY Times, 9/17/17), part of the newspaper’s Planet Fat series, deserves attention. Earlier this past summer, we reported on a new study on the Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 Years (published in the New England Journal of Medicine) which was based on the global research program known as the Global Burden of Disease Study, a collaboration of over 2,300 researchers in 133 countries (of late). This lengthy front page story by NY Times reporters Jacobs and Richtel provides an explanation on why and how the American obesity problem is spreading world-wide: industrial food replacing real food.

As sales growth slows in the world’s wealthiest countries, multinational food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have unleashed, in the reporters’ words, a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India. The sales of packaged food by the big food industry (which a growing number of nutritionists say is inextricably linked to the obesity epidemic) grew 25 percent worldwide from 2011 to 2016, compared to only 10 percent in the United States. And carbonated soft drink sales in Latin America doubled since 2000, overtaking sales in North America.

A special focus of the NY Times article is on Nestlé’s door-to-door program in Brazil, a nation whose obesity rate has nearly doubled to 20 percent, and the portion of people who are overweight has nearly tripled to 58 percent. Each year, 300,000 people in Brazil are diagnosed with Type II diabetes.

Nestlé’s door to door program serves 700,000 low-income consumers each month and is growing according to the NY Times report. Unlike most food retailers, the company gives customers a full month to pay for their purchases, and its saleswomen (only women are vendors) know when their customers receive Bolsa Familia, a monthly government subsidy for low-income households.

A saleswoman, who previously tried selling Tupperware and Avon products door to door, noted that many of her customers failed to pay: not a problem with Nestlé’s door to door program because in her words, People have to eat. Nonetheless, although 800 products are available through its door to door saleswomen, the most popular are virtually all sugar-sweetened items. (Nestlé owns over 8500 brands in over 80 countries, according to a Wikipedia article.) Despite the growing obesity crisis and potential for long-term medical costs, certain economic benefits are referenced by the reporters: Nestlé employs 21,000 people in Brazil, and its apprenticeship program has trained 7,000 people under 30.

In her letter to the New York Times in response to the article in the New York Times, Anna Lappé, the author of Diet for a Hot Planet, emphasized policies that work to improve public health: restricting marketing to children; promoting healthy food procurement through initiatives like the Good Food Purchasing Program; and passing taxes like the sugary beverage taxes now covering nine million people in the United Sates and every resident of Mexico and several other countries around the world.

To Ms. Lappé’s list, the Slow Food’s 10.000 Gardens in Africa program should be added. And Bridget Huber in her article in The Nation magazine (7/28/16), Welcome to Brazil, Where a Food Revolution Is Changing the Way People Eat, describes the work of Sao Paulo pediatrician Dr. Carlos Monteiro and others, who are part of the good food movement in Brazil, working to preserve traditional diets of real food. In particular, Huber notes that Brazil’s Federal school lunch program is bolstering local farms.

Moreover, 2.5 billion people in the world on 500 million farms are involved in small holder family agriculture and food production according to Steve Brescia, Executive Director of Groundswell International, one of the 17 organizations fighting hunger around the world through regenerative agriculture and agroecology identified by Food Tank, The Think Tank for Food. Another of these 17 organizations is The Land Institute based in Kansas. Its director, Wes Jackson, appeared with Wendell Berry at last autumn’s E.F. Schumacher Lecture in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which is now available for viewing on line.

(Frank W. Barrie, 9/29/17)


Three Cheers For NOFA-New Hampshire’s Program to Subsidize CSA Farm Shares for Limited Income Folks

NOFA-NH is one of the seven state chapters comprising the Northeast Organic Farming Association

Conventional supermarket chain’s surprising marketing campaign: The Farm Just Got Closer

Hard not to ask what the “farm” source is for the sugar laden breakfasts for sale in the cereal aisle, including Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Post’s Cocoa Pebbles (each with 10 grams of sugar in an unlikely & modest 3/4 cup serving) and General Mills’ Reese’s Puffs (9 grams of sugar in a 3/4 cup serving)

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is an affiliation of seven state chapters in the northeast United States: New York, New Jersey and five of the six New England States, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire. Each of the seven state chapters provides educational conferences, workshops, farm tours and printed materials to educate farmers, gardeners, consumers and land care professionals. In Maine, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) similarly educates about and advocates for organic agriculture. (Formed in 1971, MOFGA has a long history, as noted on its website, of illuminating organic agriculture’s interdependence with a healthy environment, local food production, and thriving communities.)

NOFA is a vigorous advocate for organic and sustainable agriculture, family-scale farming and homesteading in not only rural areas, but also in cities and suburbs. The organization maintains a strong focus on the primary goal of organic agriculture:  To optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.

In addition, NOFA spotlights issues of agricultural justice and other related policy issues. No surprise then, that NOFA-New Hampshire this past spring launched its first Farm Share Program to assist limited-income individuals and families to participate as a shareholder in an organic New Hampshire CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. The state chapter of NOFA in the Granite State offered small grants throughout New Hampshire to organic CSA farms so that farm shares could be subsidized for folks who would otherwise not be financially able to participate.

NOFA-NH has recently announced the success of its CSA farm share subsidy program and its hope to continue the offering for years to come. Dozens of farm shares were subsidized for eight certified organic NOFA-NH member farms: Bear Mountain Farm in South Alexandria (Grafton County, NH), Brookford Farm in Canterbury (Merrimack County, NH), Picadilly Farm in Winchester (Cheshire County, NH), Pork Hill Farm in Ossipee (Carroll County, NH), Shaker Organic Gardens/Concord Food Coop in Concord (Merrimack County, NH), Stout Oak Farm and Willow Pond Community Farm, both farms located in Brentwood (Rockingham County, NH), and Work Song Hopkinton (Merrimack County, NH).

Helping to eliminate barriers that keep lower income people from eating better, healthier and organic food is a praiseworthy goal. There is no doubt that with limited income, people have a harder time eating well, and it is startling to note that those living in poverty are disproportionately overweight or obese (malnourished, not undernourished) according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination survey which analyzed data from over 5,500 adults and over 3,100 youths.

Roxbury Farm, one of the largest CSA farms in the United States, on its application to participate in a farm share, welcomes participants to add a contribution that would help subsidize farm shares for lower income people. NOFA-New Hampshire has taken this praiseworthy model a step further by coordinating a farm share subsidy program for CSA farms located throughout an entire state. Bravo!

(Frank W. Barrie, 9/21/17)

[Editor’s Note: After we posted the above article, we heard from NOFA-New York about its praiseworthy Neighborhood Farm Share program which provides limited-income residents of Buffalo and Rochester with financial support to participate in local CSA programs. Income Eligibility Guidelines and further information about the program is provided on NOFA-New York’s website.]

Ever Important & Simple Advice: Be Wary of Marketing Claims

An everyday lunch for many years: a dish of Black Sheep Yogurt plus organic walnuts and blueberries

Unused farm buildings in Old Chatham (Columbia County, NY)

No sheep in the barn

A posted notice Where are all the sheep?, near the self-serve area, explaining the sale of the business and the relocated operation to the Finger Lakes location

Refrigerator cases at the Old Chatham farm with cheeses and yogurt now made from 2100 dairy sheep, fed local hay and grain, at Shepherd’s Way farm in the Finger Lakes

A neighbor’s small herd of sheep grazing on the pasture’s edge of the Old Chatham farm: Click on the photo to see the herd more clearly!

Available at the Honest Weight: Mohawk Drumlin Creamery’s Sheep’s Milk Greek Yogurt (plain and maple in glass jars) and Hawthorne Valley Farm’s grass fed cow’s milk yogurt

Last month, we reported on the Organic Consumers Association’s campaign to challenge the use of the words natural and socially responsible to market ice-cream by Ben & Jerry’s, now a subsidiary of Unilever, the world’s largest consumer goods company. A marketing matter on a much smaller scale has been of personal concern to this reporter since this past summer and is a reminder that even a cautious consumer, who reads labels and views marketing claims grudgingly, can be deceived.

For several years, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s Black Sheep Yogurt has been a sought after (and enjoyed) daily dish of protein, probiotics and, yes, saturated fat. And the yogurt container has been examined carefully by this cautious consumer to justify the price, 16 oz. (450g) of plain Black Sheep Yogurt at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in my hometown of Albany, NY costs $5.99.

The ingredients noted on the container are simple: Pasteurized Sheep’s Milk, L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, L. acidophilus, Bifidus. Eight succinct points are specified to describe the proclaimed Delicious Black Sheep Yogurt: (1) 100% sheep’s milk, (2) All natural ingredients, (3) Live and active probiotic cultures, (4) An excellent source of Calcium, (5) High in Protein, (6) No added sugar, only 4g per serving, (7) No stabilizers (naturally thick), (8) No artificial growth hormones.

And two very particular marketing claims appear on the 16oz  container: Intolerant to cow’s milk? Try our sheep’s milk products. Even more eye catching and featured at the very top of the container is the second: We produce our great sheep’s milk yogurt with care on our farm in Old Chatham, New York.

Impressed that Black Sheep Yogurt is a farmstead yogurt and produced not far from my Albany home, three years ago I took the easy drive to Old Chatham (Columbia County, NY) to take some photos of the local herd of sheep to illustrate our review of the powerful Canadian film, The Auction (Le Dematelement) about a French Canadian sheep farmer’s lonesome life which comes undone. It was also a pleasant surprise that the farm maintained a self-serve area where a visitor could stock up on Black Sheep Yogurt as well as the farm’s sheep cheeses at lower prices than retailed at the food co-op in Albany.

So it seemed natural on a beautiful day this past summer to take another drive down to the farm in Old Chatham after we posted a story on recent scientific research that supports eating more yogurt and stock up on some of the farmstead yogurt and even indulge in purchasing some sheep cheeses too. To this reporter’s unexpected discovery, the cheese making operation was no longer located at the farm. And another visitor to the farm shared the news that the real estate was for sale and the small herd of sheep (raised for fiber and meat, not dairy purposes) at pasture were those of neighbors who had been given permission to graze their sheep on the farmland.

It must be emphasized that the facts concerning the changes in operation were posted at the self-serve area on the farm. And when I returned home, I discovered that the details on the changed operation are also disclosed on the website for Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, albeit not on its home page. The home page notes that Recently celebrating 20 years of business, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company is continually growing and striving to produce the highest quality sheep’s milk products on the market. The home page also informs that the company’s Black Sheep Cheese & Yogurt are celebrated for their uniqueness and distinctive flavors.

At the website’s  About page, the history of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company is described as follows under the heading From our Farm to Ewe:

Old Chatham Sheepherding Company was born back in 1993 when Tom and Nancy Clark bought 600 acres of lush grassy fields in Old Chatham, New York to form a sheep dairy farm. It soon became the largest of its kind in the United States. The Clark’s [sic] were involved in every aspect of the operation for nearly twenty years, from helping design the barns and the creamery to making the cheese itself. 
Old Chatham’s Camembert, Ewe’s Blue, Kinderhook Creek and sheep’s milk yogurts have since won numerous awards and appear on restaurant menus and in the cheese cases of the best specialty food stores throughout the country.
Dave and Sally Galton purchased Old Chatham Sheepherding Company from Tom and Nancy in December of 2014 and continue to produce Old Chatham’s original line of artisanal cheeses and sheep’s milk yogurts.

And lower on the About page, the change in operation is disclosed under the heading We love our sheep!

Shepherd’s Way, The Galton Family farm has been working in conjunction with Old Chatham Sheepherding Company for the past several years. We recently built a state of the art facility in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, where the sheep are now located. our flock is currently made up of 2,100 dairy sheep that are milked twice a day. The flock is fed a combination of locally sourced hay and grains. Our milk is transported directly to the creamery where it’s crafted into our signature sheep’s milk cheeses and yogurts.

Besides carefully reading food labels and having a cautious eye for marketing claims and advertisements, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (The Penguin Press, New York, 2011) has provided tremendous advice on what food to purchase and consume. And Pollan’s use of the word Rules should not be off-putting. Rather the latest edition of Food Rules, now available in paperback and a must-have book, is full of humor and wonderful illustrations by the New Yorker cartoonist Maira Kalman.

Pollan’s Food Rule 30 in some part had guided me to become a consumer of Black Sheep Yogurt in the first instance years ago. In discussing the consumer’s chose on what meat to eat as a flavoring or special occasion food (since an overall guiding Pollan principle is to eat mostly plants), Pollan’s Rule 30 advises: Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.” Pollan elaborates that food from animals with access to green plants  “will contain much healthier types of fat . . .as well as appreciably higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.”

In its past history, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s flock of sheep at pasture in Old Chatham was what led to my decision to consume its farmstead yogurt: 2,100 dairy sheep fed a diet of locally sourced hay and grains is simply not the same as a flock of grass-fed sheep at pasture. (Old Chatham Sheepherding Company began in 1994 with 150 sheep, which grew to a flock of over 1000 East Friesian crossbred sheep on the farm in Old Chatham in the upper Hudson River Valley.)

On a visit to the Honest Weight Co-op earlier this week, I again noticed the same containers being used to market Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s Black Sheep Yogurt.  It’s well past the time that the new owners should have deleted the prominent language on its yogurt containers that We produce our great sheep’s milk yogurt with care on our farm in Old Chatham, New York;  Not true, even in our current age when facts seem to matter very little and marketing claims can easily confuse consumers.

The new owners, Shepherd’s Way, emphasize its status as a family farm. (They’re not owned by a transnational, corporate parent with hundreds of brands like the current owners of Ben & Jerry’s ice-creams). Nonetheless, this consumer will stick to a farmstead yogurt made from milk of animals at pasture (as much of the time as possible). And on a recent visit to my local food co-op, I was glad to see available sheep’s milk yogurt produced by Mohawk Drumlin Creamery based in St. Johnsville (Montgomery County, NY) as well as grass fed cow’s milk yogurt from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent (Columbia County, NY) and from Butterworks Farm in Westfield (Orleans County, VT). The three are included in our yogurt directory which has nearly 30 listings.

(Frank W. Barrie, 9/14/17)



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