Bobolink Dairy is about 50 miles northwest of New York City in rural Vernon, New Jersey. Owned by Jonathan and Nina White, it produces artisanal grass-fed cheese and wood-fired bread, plus whey-fed pork and suckled veal -- terms of art that make foodies drool. The Whites sell their products at their farm, through a Web site, and at greenmarkets. But like many savvy farmers these days, they also invite the public to visit the dairy. Agritourists can take an hour-long tour for $5, a five-hour cheese-making workshop for $50, or they can just stop by to pick up a few things for dinner. To my husband and me, cheese-making sounded like an excellent family outing. To our 8-year-old daughter, wary of anything that smells of lessons, it sounded like another sort of opportunity: "I want to milk a cow," Lucy said.
That we were visiting a farm for any reason was evidence of the growing movement to support local agriculture. Local is the new organic, goes the current dogma; buying local will save the family farm and benefit the environment too. But there are wrinkles in this movement. Recent studies show that how much energy is spent on the farm (heating greenhouses, for example), and how food travels (by truck or ship or train), can be just as important as how far it travels. And the pressures on small farmers are now so acute that simply buying their products may not be enough to keep them afloat.
Lucy didn't care about any of this, of course. She just liked scratching the poll of Brunhilda, a big brown Ayrshire, while three dirt-streaked women milked cows with vacuum hoses nearby. I looked around the dilapidated barn, and the lack of trim and polish seemed like a good sign. The Whites were too busy caring for cows to paint windowsills, or to get children set up to help with the milking. If they spent their time fussing over aesthetics, there might not be much to sell: Making cheese from grass is hard work. So far, Lucy seemed to be taking everything in stride.
In his tall rubber boots, Jonathan White leaned against a stanchion and offered a primer on the natural history of Bos taurus . The farm, he said, was breeding a short-legged black bull from Kerry, Ireland, with Guernseys, Jerseys, and Ayrshires to produce the Bobolink Black Grazer, "a new breed of cattle for the post-petroleum age." Tough and calm, the cows eat grass and, in the winter, hay. They live outside, which cuts down on illness; they don't know from growth hormone and antibiotics; and, most important, they've never tasted corn.
Cows didn't evolve to digest corn. The grain ferments in their gut, allowing dangerous strains of E. coli to thrive and causing illness that needs to be treated with drugs. Grass-fed cows are happier, and cutting corn from the equation means the Whites don't have to buy something grown and delivered using fossil fuel.
White himself is representative of a new breed, crossing the natural conservatism of those who work the land with the political ideals of a progressive activist. Except that White, 50, wasn't born to either bloodline. His father was a math teacher, his mother an editor. "I was an electrical and mechanical engineer," he said. Food was a hobby until 1993, when the children on a friend's farm decided they didn't like to drink goat's milk; suddenly there was a surplus. "I took the milk and started making cheese," he said. That same year, he gave up his day job. In 2001, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, White formed the Grasslands Cheese Consortium to share his experiences with other small dairy farmers. In 2002 he and his wife began leasing the Bobolink property.
After milking, the cows ambled outside to a creekside pasture, and Lucy and 11 adults -- the sort of people you'd expect to see on a wine tour -- stepped into the creamery. White donned a cap and let the morning's milk flow into a stainless steel vat. "Guess how much this cost?" he asked, referring to the white plastic shovel he was using to stir the milk. "A hundred and fifty dollars," he answered himself. Even Lucy knew that wasn't right, but this shovel was what the health department required. While he stirred, White talked.
Making cheese takes a lot of time, time that can be used to educate visitors about federal farm policy, which has historically subsidized commodity growers but done little for operations like his; about "nouvelle conventional" (White's term for watered-down organic standards); and about the avarice of middlemen who steal from producers and consumers alike. I can't say I didn't expect, or appreciate, this. Thanks to rising environmental awareness, eating has never been more political than it is now. A farmer without an opinion on government regulations and the power of the agricultural lobby is a farmer without a pulse.