Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thoughts On: Home Dairying

In this second in a series of essays reflecting on her life as a small-scale farmer in Yamhill, Oregon, Chrissie Zaerpoor of Kookoolan Farms shares her education in the joys of dairy cow ownership.

Back in the day, one supposes it must have been pretty straightforward: You obtain a cow, you milk the cow, you drink the milk. If the cow is making more milk than you can drink, then you share it with your friends or culture it up as yogurt or cheese to preserve it for later when there will be less milk available.

When we decided to buy a family cow, the first thing I did was read The Family Cow by Dirk Van Loon,an excellent book. He suggested that one of the best ways to get a cow is to go to a dairy and ask for one. So, during the weeks when we were out driving around looking for a farm, at some point we drove past a dairy where we could see not only cows but people, too. We stopped and asked about buying a cow.

The cows were all Holsteins: giant, gentle behemoths that produce huge quantities of milk. All of the cows on this dairy were quite young; the worker explained that cows only live four or five years. He was treating a bad knee on one of the cows with an antibiotic. We commented that it must be unusual to have such an injury; he explained that no, lots of the cows had bad knees. We asked what other kinds of problems cows might have (since we were new to the whole thing and genuinely curious and concerned about what we might be getting ourselves into). He listed a scary litany of ailments, and finished the list by asserting, "You can't raise cows without antibiotics. We use 'em for everything." And with that statement ringing in our ears, we left.

Well, later we found our farm, and some months after that, we found our cow, the lovely Jersey pet Ariba (top and left). She had been a pet show cow as a heifer (that's the word us farmer types use for a cow that hasn't yet had her first calf). But after she had her first calf, her udder was droopy, so she was retired from showing. For me, her most attractive characteristic was that she was currently being milked by hand by an 8-year-old child. I figured if a little kid could do it, I could do it too.

We brought Ariba home and waited two dry months for her calf to be born. And then I started milking by hand. It took a good two hours to get all the milk out of her mammoth udder, a good five gallons a day. Within a week I was looking in the refrigerator at more than 25 gallons of gorgeous, raw, grass-fed Jersey cow milk, loaded with cream that filled one third of each bottle.

I've been a home winemaker and beermaker for years, so, unintimidated, I started calling homebrew supply shops to find some cheesemaking supplies. There were none to be had anywhere. Finally I found the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, from which it's possible to buy almost anything for home cheesemaking. However, shipping it overnight proved to be cost prohibitive, and shipping it by ground took more than a week. Next thing I knew, I was pouring out almost 30 gallons of hand-milked milk for the laying hens to drink.

Thus we started carrying a few basic cheesemaking supplies as a natural adjunct to milk. And within several months, we were carrying nearly the entire product line from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. Now our farm store always has in stock pretty much every single ingredient or supply you'd need to make any kind of cheese you can think of.

Still, the milk comes in waves, with new lactations producing copious quantities of milk, and dry cows dropping out of the milk pool and reducing the volume of milk by a third or a half.

This week we have the newly-lactating "Caramel" producing enormous quantities of rich, creamy milk, and once again we find ourselves well, almost swimming in milk, or at least considering the possibility of bathing in it. Tonight I made a gallon of vanilla ice cream and a gallon of egg nog ice cream. Yesterday I churned two quarts of cream into butter. So now it's time to make cheese. I favor soft fresh raw cheeses, which are considered health foods in Europe, but in America the USDA has turned them into suspicious cousins of heroin. (Check the website for the schedule of upcoming cheesemaking classes.)

As to the adventures of dairy farming, I have been stepped on and kicked. We have participated in the births of two of the calves. We've bottle-fed calves. We've given shots, taken out stitches and retrieved wayward cows from the other side of the highway. We've bought alfalfa hay $8,000 at a time, learned how to milk cows, how to test milk and learned what the hygiene standards are for raw and pasteurized milk in three states which, by itself, could be a whole other essay.

Basic Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe

1 qt. cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 c. maple syrup (Grade B preferred)
1 Tbsp. arrowroot powder
2 tsp. vanilla

Blend all ingredients together in blender, then pour into ice cram maker. (Tip: Get a new ice cream maker in Sept. when they're on sale for 50% off. I bought a new ice cream maker a couple of months ago and the new ones are WAY better than the old wood-barrel design. The new ice cream makers are a smooth, self-contained unit that you store in the freezer: no more ice and salt!)

For egg nog ice cream, add 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, a little mace, a little nutmeg, and 1/4 c. of brandy or rum.

Basic Fromage Blanc (soft fresh cheese)

Warm a quart of whole milk up to 86 degrees farenheit. Add Fromage Blanc culture (available from Kookoolan Farms or online) and stir or shake. Leave the milk on the kitchen counter at room temperature for 6 to 12 hours, until a firm curd sets up. Put a colander on top of a mixing bowl and line the colander with a cheesecloth. Pour the curd through the cheesecloth and tie up the cheesecloth to drain. Drain for 1 to 4 hours, leaving the bowl under the cheesecloth to catch the whey. (Save the whey for later. You can use it to soak dry beans and grains. That's a whole other topic: lactofermentation.)

Fromage blanc can be used fresh for about ten days, or frozen. You can stir garlic and herbs into it and form it into a festive log for holiday parties. Or stir dried cranberries, honey and crushed nuts into it and spread on bagels.


Nate-n-Annie said...

This is a great article. I learned so much! Being a farmer is hardly romantic but it is real. Thanks for posting.

And thanks for adding us as a friend on Foodbuzz. We welcome you to come visit our site!

kab said...

I love Chrissie's writing, too, and I'm so glad she's generously agreed to share her thoughts with GSNW!