Hudson Valley Fresh (HVF) with their cheerful trucks and delicious milk feels like a mainstay of our valley, but they started less than 10 years ago. In 2005, several dairy farmers concerned about the loss of viable farmland came together to create an owner cooperative dedicated to high quality milk, living wages for the farmers, and the preservation of open land.
To make a play on the standard farm to fork shorthand, HVF manages the process from calving cows to delivering bottles. In lieu of the standard dairy model where the milk leaves the farm in the milk truck and that is it. The farmer’s interaction with the milk is not ever finished for the farmer owners of Hudson Valley Fresh. They manage the transportation, processing, product development, marketing, and sales of their milk.
Each of the 9 farms that provide milk to the cooperative may raise different species of cows (Brown Swiss, Holsteins, Jerseys, and Guernseys) and may follow different farming practices, yet they all have in common one thing - extremely low somatic cell counts, which HVF uses as a shorthand for happy cows. Somatic cells are the white blood cells that circulate in the milk. HVF uses that number as an indicator of the overall stress and health of the animal. Federal law mandates that milk cannot have more than 700,000 cells/milliliter and HVF has an average somatic cell count of 150,000 cells/milliliter. Most farms, even organically certified, average in the 420,000 cells/milliliter range.*
In addition to low somatic cell counts, all of the farmers of HVF are very aware that they are pushing to keep their way of life in a complex industry with many external pressures. As Will Jackson, of member dairy Shenandoah Farm, shared with me.
In Dutchess County there used to be over 300 dairies and now there are less than 30. That is the change in 50 years. Most of the milk that is consumed in the NE comes from California. California can produce it a lot cheaper because they have the mega farms out there, they have cheap labor, and most of them don’t need barns because it is a very temperate climate.
In the Northeast, we need to have more money for the farms to survive here. Our tax rates are through the roof, fuel is more here, it costs more to heat because we are in a northern climate, and we have to have barns for the cows. The market is saturated with all this cheaper product, that is what we are competing against.
It is really not as much about saving a heritage as it is about saving our future food supply for future generations. I might never see it in my lifetime that it is a problem but maybe my kids or grandkids might someday have a problem with their food supply. So why put it off, let’s start doing something about it now.
Once the farmland is gone, it is gone - if we ever had to sell this farm it would be developed into a housing development and it would never be a farm again. When you keep losing them at the rate that we are doing. Once the farms are gone where is the food supply going to come from?
Beth Chittenden, of member dairy Dutch Hollow Farm, elaborated more on the difficulty of being in the commodity market - where prices are mandated by the government.
We are the only people who are told what we are going to be paid. We are always looking for niches. Economics are tough. You have to pencil out every single decision to see whether or not it is going to make you money or not. There are 9 employees and 5 family members working on this farm and that doesn’t include all of the kids. The boys just love to be over here driving the tractors and just helping and the girls love feeding the calves - that is part of their chores. And we need them because labor is expensive - you’ve got to be wise and careful how every dollar is spent.
I have been doing this all my life. This farm has been here since 1976, but my mother-in-law and father-in-law were both brought up on a farm and they decided that instead of joining their parents farms they started their own farm because they had 4 children. So basically since the Mayflower came, we have been doing this. It is in our blood.
For us to be sustainable we need to meet the needs of all of these cows. It is important for us to keep them as happy as possible. People want our milk because it is high quality. It is high quality because we have happy cows.
At least from one perspective (how can any of us tell if cows are “happy”) there are facts to back up Chittenden’s statement, - the average life of a dairy cow is 4 years, but not at HVF. I met a cow at Dutch Hollow Farm that was over 10 years old and still producing - perhaps not as much as her younger colleague, who produces 140 lbs a day of milk, but still. Could it be the natural gestational cycles followed by the HVF farmers that allow for the animals to have 2 months off a year from being milked? Could it be the mattresses the cows are provided so they don’t get sore feet? Could it be that they know their milk will be pasteurized for only 20 seconds at 164ᐤ F instead of ultra-pasteurized at 280ᐤ F?
Whatever the reason, the proof is in the pudding. Hudson Valley Fresh has been steadily expanding since they started selling in 2005 and Bard College has been drinking their milk since 2009.
Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!
*Sam Simon, one of the spearheading farmers who started the coop, shared a phrase with me that I will never forget. We were talking about a farm with a high somatic cell count and the false public perception that their milk was so healthy. He responds in his deep voice, “Yes well, pus can run very smooth.”