Out of the City and Into the Dairy

What is it about Spring?  What is it that makes us so stupid on the most beautiful days of the year? Is it the air? Is it the sun? Is it the pollen? The weather in and of itself does not let us do our work. It won’t take no for an answer. Like a precocious child it pulls you towards the green of the parks and the budding trees and doesn’t let you go. I, for one, cannot resist the Greenmarket  at Union Square, and now with my mission being “food in NYC,” I had a genuine excuse to get outside.

As I walked through the market one Wednesday, I was curious what they were offering now that the weather was turning. I was planning to enter a photo contest for Saveur Magazine, which called for “pictures of spring produce,” so I went and looked around, chatting with farmers. They all told me that the produce really hadn’t arrived yet, that it would be another week or so. I snapped a few shots anyway, hoping to find some sort of inspiration. There were parsnips the size of giant squids that had wintered over and I was told that they tend to be some of the sweetest you can eat in the year. Cool.. but I still wanted something different.

I moseyed past honey makers, bread makers, new fresh flowers, and plenty of fresh greens. Hmmmm…  I kept walking. Then I saw the stall for Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. I asked myself the question, “What about milk? Is milk different in the spring?” I was feeling adventurous. Why take pics of rhubarb and artichokes like the rest of the entrants? Why not take photos of milk? It IS produce in its own way. I had to be sure.

             I walked up and introduced myself to Tom at the Ronnybrook stall. I cut to the chase with my question, “Is milk different in the spring?”

            “Absolutely it’s different!” he said. I was ecstatic.

            “Really? Why?”  

            “It’s this time of year that the cows finally get a chance to graze upon fresh grass in the fields. In winter, there isn’t any grass for them to eat, so they are fed a type of hay.”  

            “Does it taste different?”

             “Yeah. It’s greener.”  This totally intrigued me.

            “You should come out to the farm and see for yourself,” he said. I agreed. Plus, photos of packaged milk wouldn’t nearly be as cool, and the contest deadline was a few weeks out. I took his card and thanked him for the invite.

A week later, I am rushing out of my apartment in the pouring rain trying to make my train out of Grand Central Station for Wassaic. I was wearing glasses–mistake–and had forgotten my umbrella–mistake–but I was going to the Ronnybrook Dairy Farm and there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me from exploring this “Spring Milk” question. Bev, their PR gal had told me that Ronny himself would pick me up at the station to take me on to Amcramdale where the dairy was located. I felt honored.

My scarf and coat lay across the train’s seats drying as I looked out through wet windows onto wet landscape. I couldn’t help to also think about all the other images of dairy farms I had seen over the past few years of industrialized farms, where animals are bred and treated with only mass production and dollar bills in mind. I shuddered at the thought, or maybe I was just cold and wet.

When I arrived it didn’t take them very long to find me. Did I really appear to be such a city girl? I was wearing all black, in wet glasses, a little lost… Ok. Yes. Dead give-away.

The car ride from the station to the dairy brought to light that this was a true family farm.  As the windshield wipers flapped back and forth, Ronny and Peter Onofsky, father and son, debated from time to time about nutrition and lactose intolerant folk and many other things. They cared about their work; cared enough to even bicker a little. This was agood sign.

And what did I find there? This time, on this adventure, I found everything I could have ever dreamt about. Other than the fact that I still didn’t get a chance to milk a cow, which I still hope to do someday, I found happiness on the farm.

And, like those commercials on TV for California cows, the cows at Ronnybrook are truly “happy cows” and do not need to go off to the west coast. They can stay east coast cows if they darn well feel like it! They have a windowed view of the farm from their cozy stalls. The stalls are clean and fresh and without the appearance of neglect. They have enough room to rest, lie down if they want, be milked with ease.

When the cows are old and need to retire, they are literally “put out to pasture” to enjoy themselves without the requirements of work. I saw a few of these old gals out and about grazing. They looked at me like the elderly do when they have had a successful and fruitful life. They had this “knowing” about them, like “yeah, girly, I don’t have to work anymore… haha ha!  But you do! You poor thing!”

The calves are treated just as humanely. They are not left to starve without their mother’s milk or their mother’s attention. When they are old enough to produce on their own, they eat a nice and healthy diet, which thankfully excludes hormones, massive amounts of corn and daily antibiotics. These cows actually look you in the eye, and not out of fear or trepidation, but genuine curiosity. 

Oh yes, I did in the end learn all about the“spring milk!” You see, after the blankets of winter have slid off the hillsides, cows file out of their stalls and graze upon fresh green grass, which causes the milk to take on a new, greener flavor. What is that flavor??? A generous helping of beta-carotene, and it is much better tasting than a multi-vitamin. You can see the beta-carotene especially in Ronnybrook’s butter, whose color changes from a placid winter white, to a pale spring yellow. Tom, at the stall in Union Square, was true to his word.

Maybe I saw things through rose-colored glasses, or maybe after seeing so much horror in the dairy industry, a little average peace and quiet looked like heaven on earth. 

I can’t help but hope that this heaven will grow. I can’t help but hope that with all the books and documentaries like Food Inc., and the Omnivores Dilemma, the crimes at the giant dairy farms will be more and more exposed over time and that accessibility to real sustainable dairy products will increase. Thanks to greenmarkets and “buying local” campaigns, we are a smarter consumer than we were just five years ago, and good things are happening.

In true Galavant style, I missed my train home that day. I was so engrossed in what I was learning at the farm, I forgot I couldn’t just hop on a subway “whenever.”  Ronny generously rushed me to another train station even further away than Wassaic. I barely made it, but what I took with me was some hope that real change was happening and of course I took home some darn good Greek style yogurt. Yum!

A nice article on Ronnybrook containing a lot of historical info can also be found at nysmade.wordpress.com.

Greenmarket

2 Comments

  1. Christina Z.
    July, 2010

    Loved this article and your writing. Keep up the great work 🙂

  2. tmvtrpnh
    September, 2010

    tmvtrpnh

    tmvtrpnh

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