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This is Part Two of our visit to Organic Pastures Dairy—the largest raw, organic dairy farm in the world.

Ali and Margaret at Organic Pastures Dairy

At Organic Pastures, the cows are pastured year-round on a rotational grazing program. This means that when the grass on one pasture is getting low, the cows are moved to a fresh one. “Clean and green,” says Mark, “clean and green.”

Except for a renegade or two, the cows respect the solar-powered electric fence tape that acts as a gentle barrier around the current pasture. This movable tape allows for complete flexibility, and there’s no need for permanent steel fences that could injure the cows.

Renegade cow beside the solar-powered electric ribbon checks out our tripod

When the cows move to a new pasture, the milking barn follows. That’s right—it’s a mobile milking barn. This means that the cows do not need to make the twice-daily trek across the farm for milking, and there’s never a manure-filled pen or waste lagoon near the barn to contaminate ground water.

Cows moooving

Instead, Mark designed the unique 65-foot-long, 13-foot-wide, 60,000-pound milking barn to be moved by tractor when the cows move to a new pasture. There are 30 landing places on the farm that are outfitted with electricity and water for the barn.

Duane and Mark outside the mobile milking barn

It’s approved by the FDA and rated grade A—clean, compact and efficient, with a propane-fuelled instant water heater for sanitizing the pipes and equipment to milk 20 cows at a time. With almost 400 cows, each milking takes several hours.

Inside the mobile milking barn

The cows line up at the barn, ready to be milked. Their teats are dipped in an iodine solution and carefully wiped with a clean cloth before the milking machine is attached. Mark prefers not to wash the cows down with water, as the water could transport bacteria down to the udder and into the milk. Most cows produce about five gallons per day, with some variation between breeds. Holsteins, the majority of the herd, are the heaviest producers, and milk from the Jersey cows has a high butterfat content. Brown Swiss, Ayrshires and a few others fill out the rest of the herd. Organic Pastures cows live as long as a decade, which is over twice as long as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) cows, whose average lifespan is a short 42 months. Without the antibiotics and high-protein feed of a CAFO, the cows produce less milk but produce a higher quality of milk for a longer period of time. This may not make short-term economic sense but it makes for happy, healthy cows who produce healthful milk, which makes for healthier consumers of that milk.

After milking, the equipment is removed and the teats are dipped once more in the iodine solution. The cows, several pounds lighter, saunter back to the pasture to nibble more green grass as the milk is chilled and sent to the milk tank. The equipment and the area are cleaned and the process starts again.

Milking equipment inside the mobile milking barn

Cleaning the area between milkings

The water use is surprisingly thrifty for the size of the herd, and grey water is channeled through irrigation lines back to the pastures.

Mark McAfee explains the importance of hand-washing at every step

As the dairy workers perform their tasks, they have constant reminders of personal responsibility, with pictures of children drinking milk and the caption, “Remember Who We Are Washing For!”  The checklist for the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) hangs on a clipboard, demanding regular quality control.

Recognized ASCA Model Program Checklist

The milk tank, full of very fresh, chilled milk, is transported to the creamery to be bottled. As we follow the same route, we notice the dairy air is remarkably fresh, with nary a trace of that unmistakable CAFO smell.

Enjoying that dairy air

Off to the creamery

Our enthusiastic escort

The creamery is cleverly constructed from two retired refrigerator trailers, outfitted simply with the necessities: reminders about cleanliness, sinks and hot water for washing, steel countertops, and a vintage bottling machine that fills up to 4000 half-gallon containers per day. A new machine, currently on order, will allow the creamery to fill gallon-sized containers, which will fulfill a long-standing request from many customers who can’t get enough of Organic Pastures’ milk.

“Remember who we are washing for!” with pictures of children

Each batch of milk is checked for pathogens 16 times before it is sent off to one of 400 stores throughout California. Not one pathogen has been found—ever. We see the signs for handwashing and hairnets, but what is missing from this creamery are the ubiquitous tanks of toxic ammonia found in a typical dairy operation. “We don’t need it,” says Mark. “We bottle our raw Qephor [a fermented raw milk product] in here, and all that helpful bacteria keeps the pathogens in check.”

Signs at the washing sinks

Despite warnings to the contrary on FDA Web sites, studies show that raw milk does, indeed, kill some pathogens. To prove it for himself, Mark has had Organic Pastures milk tested by BSK labs. The results showed that even when the pathogens Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Campylobacter and E coli 0157:H7 were added to OPDC raw milk at extremely high levels (7 logs) they would not grow and instead died off. In other words, the pathogens failed to multiply and most didn’t survive.

Vintage bottling machine

Although Organic Pastures tried using glass containers, it proved to be too problematic and expensive. Unfortunately, the extra cost of the glass, the problems and expense of cleaning, chipping and breakage, and the added weight of the bottles made the cost prohibitive. The recyclable plastic containers in use today decrease the cost of the milk for the consumer.

Crates of milk, ready to go

Margaret contemplates what she could do with all that ageing cheddar

Other products from the farm include aged raw cheddar cheese, truly raw almonds, cream and, of course, butter. Did I mention butter?

Elaina and Jen admire the raw almonds with Mark

Throughout the tour, we were struck by the simplicity of the operation and the ingenuity and pluck that put it all together. Mark and his wife, Blaine, are the perfect ambassadors for the family farm and for raw milk. They both have backgrounds in the medical field and they love to share their knowledge. Mark is a bubbling fountain of information; his brain racing ahead and answering questions before we even know what to ask. Blaine adds a counterpoint with her thoughts and ideas, while graciously putting the needs of others before her own. Together, their warmth and hospitality is embracing.

End of the tour~time to go back home

The whole package gives us hope for the future—of family farming and of universal access to fresh, clean, raw milk. I will lift a glass to that future, and you can guess what will be in that glass.

Mark in his kitchen at the end of a wonderful day

Until next time~