Recap: NYS Dairy Tour 2014

We mentioned this yesterday in our Geneva Eats post, but last weekend we spent some time in the Finger Lakes area. The fine folks at the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council invited us to stay in Geneva for a weekend at the lovely Geneva On The Lake. We did some exploring and dining on our own (again see our Geneva Eats post) but we also went on a local Dairy Tour that ended with a cooking class at the New York Wine and Culinary Center. We were part of a group of bloggers from all over NY, NJ and PA.

On Saturday morning we grabbed some breakfast at the hotel and got on a bus to head to the Cayuga Milk Ingredients Plant. Alli and myself weren’t sure what to expect. Normally, we try to buy our milk, meat and produce from the small, local farms that we enjoy. We were very interested to see what a $101 million plant would look like but were also skeptical. The plant specializes in dry products and ships milk powder to countries all over the world. The massive facility is actually owned by several dairy farmers and they are obsessive about the quality of the milk they accept. Each truck load is checked for water levels and antibiotics, and goes through a variety of other tests before it’s even let in the door. Milk comes from over 30 farms in NY that all together have over 36,000 cows.

Milking Room

We went through a series of sterile rooms, wore appropriate attire to prevent any contamination and got a personal tour from the CEO. To be very general, the building is gigantic and is filled with brand new state of the art machines. Listening to our tour guide talk about the equipment, their processes and the efficiency of their machinery was infectious. We saw machines that created milk powder in large wind tunnels and automated packaging machines. We won’t bore you with details, but believe us when we say it was impressive. Working with local family farms, many of which have been around for many decades, allows the plant to trace their products back to the very cows it came from. They aim to keep everything as natural as possible (or as natural as it can be when turning liquid into powder) and the plant is environmentally friendly and runs using it’s own recycled water. The dedication to producing quality ingredients and the strong involvement and support of family owned farms left Alli and I feeling better than we expected.

We left the plant and visited one of the family owned farms that are tied to the Cayuga Milk Ingredient Plant, Patterson Farms in Auburn. We witnessed first hand their milking process, what they feed their animals and where their animals live and sleep. For a farm that has over 2,000 cows (1,200 that are active milking and another 1,000 young calves), they handle the process as humanely as possible. No they aren’t roaming free on grass pastures, but honestly, the world we live in and the amount of milk that has to be produced sadly does not allow for that to be the norm. We wish it was that way and if you are able to buy milk from cows that are allowed to live like that, we recommend it. That said, at Patterson Farms (which is apparently similar to many large scale NY dairy farms), the cows are free to roam in the open-air barn (with large openings all the way around), are given food and water constantly, have beds to lay on, back scratchers, heat in the winter and fans and sprinklers in the summer. They looked comfortable and content. They assured us the cows are not given antibiotics unless sick, at which point they stop taking milk from them until the medication has left their system. Growth hormones are used, which is another topic for another day. You may not know that cows do not start giving milk until they have had their first calf, so it is no surprise that they are a lot of births happening on the farm, on average 3 a day. We were happy to hear that they are given a few months between pregnancies. On top of that, the Patterson’s explained their process of using manure to power the entire farm as well as fertilize their crops which are turned into feed for the cows. Really the whole operation was pretty self-sufficient and environmentally friendly. It felt great to see a family owned farm operate at such a high level while ensure ethical and humane practices.

Donnie Cooking

After some lunch and a brief rest, we went out to the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua. The building is quite gorgeous and filled with a large a wine tasting room, a lecture hall and a culinary classroom. That evening Alli and I were taught by Chef Jeffory McLean who seemed like he was a natural in front of an audience. He taught the entire class how to prepare four different courses in just 15 minutes. Alli and I prepared a simple veggie platter with a greek yogurt dip, nothing exciting but I did get some tips on how to properly chop vegetables and smash garlic.

The highlight of the trip to the Culinary Center was dinner after the class ended. All of the bloggers sat down to eat the food that we had made and we were lucky enough to sit with another family who runs a dairy farm and were owners of the Cayuga Milk Ingredient plant. We met Skip Hardie and his wife Holly, who run Walnut Ridge Dairy in Lansing. After some fun banter about our blogs and the cooking class, we got into a pretty informative conversation with two other bloggers at the table. Skip addressed the concerns that millennials have with large dairy farms and their practices. He even got a bit angry when talking about the misconception that he would ever treat his cows poorly. It was great to get a one-on-one conversation with a passionate farmer about the state of dairy in NY. He said that they are of course some bad apples, but a majority of the large-scale dairy farmers in NY are dedicated to caring for their cows in a humane way and producing safe and clean milk. I’m not sure we see eye-to-eye on every topic, especially regarding growth hormones, but after the conversation we both felt much better about New York State dairy farming. In the end, it is nice to know that when you buy a gallon of milk from say, Wegmans, that milk came from a well-treated and healthy cow on a NYS dairy farm.

Overall. the trip was fun and informative. Alli and I ate some good food in a cozy college town, we visited a beautiful culinary center and we came away with some positive feelings about the New York State Dairy community. Of course, we encourage you to do your own research about any food you buy, especially when it comes from large-scale farms. But if you are concerned about the cleanliness and animal care, we hope that, like us, you just felt some relief.

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