Nestled in the vivid green undulating hills of southwest England, thrive several small family dairies. Dairies that, for generations, have kept their animals outside, on fresh pasture. These small farmers have come together through their cooperative, to offer a beautiful organic cheddar that has just recently been made available in the US. Last autumn, they invited me to have a look: to meet their farmers, to stroll the pastures, to sample the cheddar.
So, my family packed our bags and headed to the vivid green pastures of Devon in Southwest England to visit three of the eight family farms of the cooperative that supply Kingdom Cheese, the first certified organic European cheese imported to the US, and I wanted to share what I learned with you (and why it matters.)
Care for the Soil, Care for the Animals
We spoke with the farmers, shared dark and bitter mugs of tea and light scones topped with thick cream and dotted by strawberry jam. And while we peppered the farmers with questions, their responses time and time again revealed one singular message: care. Care for the soil, for the land, for the grass, and for the animals. That sense of care, sensitivity, duty and hard work seemed to be the center for each of the three farmers we visited on our trip through the rolling green pastures of Devon - an area that is noted for some of the best dairy in the world. It's here that cows are fed on verdant pastures.
And it's against this idyllic backdrop of hills and hedges and stone churches that some of the world's best cheese is made: real, traditional and authentic cheddar.
Why Grass-fed Milk Matters
When a cow is kept outside, on pasture, she spends her time foraging - eating grass. When grass makes up the bulk of a cow's diet, the milk she produces is richer in many nutrients than it would be if she were kept confined, and eating a diet comprised primarily of corn- and soy-based feed. The milk she makes is richer in fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, E and K2. Vitamin A plays an important role in skin, vision, reproductive and immune system health. Vitamin K2 supports bone and cardiovascular health, while vitamin E acts as an antioxidant.
Keeping cows on pasture, where they're able to derive the bulk of their diet on grass, also improves the fats in their milk. Milk, butter and cheese from grass-fed cows is also particularly rich in conjugated linoleic acid, and offers a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than does the milk of cows kept in confinement, where corn- and soy-based feed serves as the bulk of their diet. (You can learn more about the benefits of grass-fed dairy here.)
Of course, most cows, even in pasture-based dairies, eat at least some supplementary feed - mostly during milking and during cold and dark months when fresh grass is not always available. When I asked about this on my visits to the farms at Kingdom Cheese (you can check out their profiles here), each farmer explained that his family's cows spend their days grazing outside whenever possible (that is in spring, summer, autumn and in winter, too, as weather allows). At milking time, and when whether doesn't permit, they're also provided with silage and a USDA-certified organic (that means no GMOs, for those of you who are concerned) supplementary feed.
What this means for you, is that when you buy a wedge of Kingdom Cheddar at your local natural foods shop (find one here), not only is it particularly sharp and bright the way traditional English cheddar should be (I use pair it with bacon and shallots in this recipe), but one that is also particularly nutrient-dense.
Grass-fed Doesn't Always Mean Organic
I used to feel that grass-fed meat and dairy were synonymous with organic meat and dairy. Unlike the term "organic," the term "grass-fed" isn't regulated. So while cows may spend the bulk of their time on pasture, and be considered "grass-fed," that pasture may be routinely treated with synthetic fertilizers or other synthetic inputs. The cows may likewise treated more frequently with antibiotics, as farmers may be more likely to push them for higher milk yields (which can lead to mastitis - a painful infection). Further, the supplementary feed of conventional pasture-based dairies often contains genetically modified soy and corn, which may be of interest to those of you concerned about GMOs in animal feed.
How Pastures are Managed
In organic dairying, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to treat fields is disallowed, requiring farmers to, instead, take a more holistic approach to how they manage their pastures. When I asked Alan of Hensley Farm, one of Kingdom's eight supplying farms, what the biggest challenge he faced in transitioning to organics, he responded that the 3 transitional years proved to be the most difficult - and that transitioning from synthetic fertilizers was the hardest, as the land becomes almost addicted to them in order to perform. Yet, with that time of transition and rest, the land and pasture was renewed and now it thrives with diversity of flora.
Instead of approaching their fields with rigidity, these farmers approach it with introspection. For example, dock is the enemy of many pasture-based farms - seen as a nuisance and as a weed. And while a conventional approach might be to spray synthetic pesticides to rid the fields of dock, the approach taken by Alan of Hensley Farm was, instead, to honor it: dock aerated the soil, fed the cows, and brought up minerals and tannins to the surface thanks to its long root system. As a result, the need for tractors and inputs was minimized. And this is just a single example of the broad, holistic approach that many organic farmers take.
How Cows are Cared For
Just as adhering to organic standards necessitates a holistic approach to managing pastures, so does it necessitate a holistic approach in caring for dairy cows. For those farmers who adhere to USDA organic standards, like the farms that supply the milk for Kingdom Cheddar, the health of their cows is of paramount importance. In conventional dairying, a cow who develops an infection such as mastitis, is treated with antibiotics, and when the antibiotics clear her system, she's returned to the milking pool. In organic dairying, if a cow falls ill and antibiotics are indicated, she'll receive treatment, but she cannot return to the milking pool. In effect, the farmer has lost a cow.
This is why organic farmers take special care to ensure that their cows simply don't fall sick. The prevention of illness, and thus the prevention of antibiotic use, is of paramount importance to the farmers I spoke with at Kingdom. Where one described that conventional dairies often give all their cows antibiotics as a preventative measure when they stopped giving milk for the season, this sweeping use of antibiotics is not possible for an organic farmer. Instead, the farmers I spoke with took great care not to stress the animals, and to use natural treatments like anti-inflammatory peppermint-based balms that increase blood flow and help to mitigate the risk of mastitis. When cows are healthy and unstressed, they don't get sick.
And while the lifespan of cows in conventional dairies hovers around 4-5 years, Adam of Philham farm - one of the suppliers for Kingdom cheese - sees cows remaining in productivity much longer, such as his oldest cow, Niagara, who is 18.
Now, conventional dairies can apply these same techniques and they can take a more holistic approach to both their fields and their animals, but with organic dairy, you're guaranteed that synthetic inputs aren't used, GMO feed is not used, and that farmers do not routinely use antibiotics.
How I Choose Dairy for My Family
So, for the most part, I keep my shopping close to home: a raw milk share from a family friend, buying bulk meat form our local holistically managed ranch, and taking part in a CSA for our fruits, vegetables and herbs. Getting to know my farmer, their farms and the hows and whys behind the choices they make, is at the center of my family's approach to our food. When that isn't possible, I rely instead on third-party certification like organic.
Where to Find Kingdom Cheddar
If you wish to support these small, organic family dairies, you can do so when you pick up Kingdom Cheddar which has only recently become available in the US. You can find Kingdom Cheese, a sharp, bright and creamy cheddar in many natural health food stores across the country. If you click here, you'll see if the health food store nearest you stocks theirs cheese, and you can request it if they don't. You can also follow Kingdom Cheese on Facebook here.