The Milk Road

Just outside of Purdin, Mo., in the bright geographical horseshoe that makes up Missouri’s Green Hills region, my milk was born. Or rather, it was pumped, from a herd of more than 200 cows that make their home at Green Hills Harvest.

I try to buy this milk most of the time, but am often tempted to buy a brand in the plastic jugs, which is less than half the price of the fancy glass-bottle stuff. I believe in the principles of organic food but there is that small worry that I don’t get what I pay for.

I decided to see for myself whether the extra $2 I pay for each half-gallon means better milk, or if I’m just paying for a label. This became a journey – a pilgrimage of sorts, to find the origin of my milk.

The expedition began with a two-hour drive up and down and up and down the country roads in the Green Hills region of Missouri, some 100 miles northwest of Columbia. The road undulates past crooked mailboxes of hand-me-down farmhouses and along red campaign signs for JESUS, distributed by the local Baptist church. As other drivers whiz past me along the crests and valleys, they – even local police – smile and wave.

The Buchmayer family farm at Green Hills Harvest rolls across almost a square mile of northwest Missouri. There are four vehicles in the driveway and two large trucks out back by the milking barn. Chickens bob freely around the front lawn. These 550 acres of Linn County land are home to roaming livestock: 200 head of sheep, 220 head of cattle, chickens and the occasional hog.

Barb Buchmayer comes around the corner of her house. Her handshake is firm; her smile is wide. Her eyes out-blue her hat and sweatshirt. Her husband, Kerry, walks across the lawn to join us, wearing aviators and a green ball cap. The parts of cars littering the front lawn are his; he’s rebuilding the Camaro of his youth.

The winding roads and lettered highways had gotten the best of me; I had called twice for directions.

“You came all the way from the big city,” Kerry says with a grin, his handshake as strong as his wife’s.

Barb smiles at me and chuckles a little. “Got a little confused?”

I admit I much prefer the logic of an urban grid to the names and letters of these backcountry roads. Not so with the Buchmayers. Kerry grew up on his great-great-grandfather’s homestead near Iowa City. Barb rode horses in Ohio. They met in 1981 on a New York farm where Kerry worked as a breeder and Barb milked the cows.

The milking barn and the breeding stalls were in two different areas of that New York farm, so it took an accident to bring them together. Barb was about to drive to Ohio in the snow, so she borrowed tractor weights to keep her pickup steady. As she loaded them into the truck bed, she dropped one on her finger. Her finger broke, but she met the man with whom she would build a life.

“I was sweating from my finger hurting,” she says, “and here this nice-looking guy comes up and he says: ‘Well, can I help you at all?'”

That was March. By October, they were married. The couple moved to Iowa, working together on Kerry’s parents’ farm. Two years later, they returned to New York, about 30 miles south of Syracuse, and bought their first farm together. The milk they sold was considered conventional, but Barb says they never raised cattle in a conventional way. Their herd, for instance, was comprised of cast-off calves.

When it’s time for a Holstein heifer to have her first calf, many farmers will breed her with a Jersey to make the birth easier, Kerry says. The resulting crossbred calves aren’t often desired, he adds.

Holsteins are large animals that produce more milk than any other breed; originally from The Netherlands, the modern Holstein is designed to meet the needs of large-scale dairy production. Jerseys – a breed that originated in the British Isles – are second only to Holsteins in milk production. They are smaller than Holsteins, and are excellent grazers that efficiently convert grass to milk. Although there is much more interest these days in developing a commercially viable Holstein-Jersey cross that utilizes the best traits of each breed, back in the 1990s crossbred calves did not fit into the big-farm business model. For the Buchmayers, though, they were perfect. In 1995, Kerry began buying Holstein-Jersey crossbred calves one at a time for $20 a head; he drove them home in the backseat of his Volkswagen Rabbit and started his herd of 25.

Today, a new cast of characters roams these rolling green hills. Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire and milking Shorthorns form the Buchmayers’ Missouri herd. There’s Dotty, the lead cow; others won’t go in to be milked unless spotted Dotty shows them the way. And there’s Larry, tagged 33, whom Kerry named after Boston Celtics great Larry Byrd. There’s Stupid, a brilliant cow with an unfortunate expression. When she starts to feel the sticky heat of Missouri summer, Stupid walks into the milking barn, flips the switch to an oscillating fan and stands back to enjoy the breeze. There’s Number 8, the milking superstar, and Keeper and Hornbob and Homely …

The farm operates on a weekly routine. On Monday, the Buchmayers get orders from grocery stores. Tuesday is processing day. The week’s 5,000 pounds of milk is separated; the first batch is skim. My milk was processed between 11:50 a.m. and 12: 08 p.m. on March 31 with 1,150 other pounds of 2 percent. It was heated to 178 degrees by running it though stainless steel pipes next to boiling water. Then it was pumped into glass bottles, capped and stamped with the date April 19.

On Wednesday, Barb drives a semi-truck full of milk to Columbia. She’s up by 5 a.m., loaded by 6 a.m. and at Hy-Vee in Columbia by 8 a.m. She delivers to Gerbes, Schnucks, Eastgate Foods, Patricia’s and the Root Cellar. She also takes milk to Clover’s Natural Market, which is where I bought my half-gallon. On Thursday, a truckload goes from Purdin to Kansas City, and every other Friday, Kerry is up in Iowa City making a similar delivery.

It is important to the Buchmayers to farm sustainably and “close the loop” in every way they can. The cows graze on pasture of Timothy, brome and fescue grasses with red clover and birdsfoot treefoil. When the pasture is covered in snow, they eat hay or baleage (big round bales of grass and clover hay, sealed in plastic and allowed to ferment). The manure the cows produce, even leftover milk, is spread on the fields to fertilize the grass. The Buchmayers do not buy additional manure, nor do they ship their cows’ manure for disposal. Kerry says this is how farms were traditionally run.

“We try not to waste anything,” he says.

Milking time comes early at 5 a.m. and again at 4:30 in the afternoon. The milking barn is long and low. On one side, big sliding doors open into a holding area where the cows chew their cud and wait their turn. A ditch runs through the middle of the floor where Dayvis Ezequiel and Mariela Rodreguez, the Buchmayers’ hired hands, run the twice-a-day milking sessions.

Ezequiel walks among the cows yelling, “Come on, hey!” trying to scare them into relieving themselves outside before they enter the barn. Eleven brown cows saunter into each side of the milking barn where Rodreguez hoses off their muddy legs and udders.

Ezequiel attaches the milk pumps to a milking machine. It feels like a weak vacuum cleaner. The pumps thunk onto each cow’s udder and milk is sucked into a refrigerated tank.

Once the cows’ udders run dry, Rodreguez coats them with salve. Winter is particularly difficult; if the skin isn’t moisturized, udders can crack and bleed. When that task is done, the cows are shooed on their way, and 11 more are brought in to take their place.

The Buchmayers were milking only about 30 cows, their fall herd, when I visited the farm. Another 50 were almost ready to calve. The babies in this spring herd will stay with their mothers for about three months, until they’re weaned. Then the mothers will be ready to be milked.

There are six bulls on the Buchmayer farm and another 120 or so head of young stock, ranging from newborn calves up to heifers that are about to be bred. Old cows are usually slaughtered by the Buchmayers and turned into hamburger. Bull calves are sold. The culls aren’t labeled organic, says Barb, because there’s no market for it.

When the Buchmayers moved to Missouri in 1996, they found an opportunity to farm more traditionally. The Green Hills farm’s original owner was sick and had let the farm run wild; he didn’t use fertilizer and didn’t spray for pests.

“We had an option to start organic without really any problems because nothing had been done to the place,” Barb says. “It was really neglected.”

The Buchmayers became certified USDA organic dairy producers. They must follow strict USDA regulations that dictate farm management practices for their pastures as well as their livestock. In the pasture, this means they must use physical, mechanical and biological methods to control weeds, pests and disease; most chemicals are prohibited.

Organic producers may feed the animals only 100 percent organic livestock feed and forage plus approved vitamin and mineral supplements. Organically raised cattle must have access to the outdoors and never be given hormones to promote growth, or antibiotics for any reason. The cattle can receive preventive care, including vaccines, to keep them healthy; sick or injured animals receive appropriate medical care, but if treated with a prohibited medication they cannot then be marketed as organic.

Regulations even dictate the maximum temperature of water when washing cans (140 degrees) and require a milk odor that is “fresh and sweet.”

These rules fit in with the Buchmayers’ philosophy: to farm as their grandparents and great-grandparents farmed, to preserve the land, and to leave it better than they found it. Their grown-up children have moved away and have no intention of taking over, but that doesn’t mean the Buchmayers aren’t looking out for future generations.

“Someone will be farming this land eventually,” Kerry says. “We’ll just use this farm for a little bit and then it’ll be somebody else’s.”

I stand in front of the refrigerator at the grocery store. I’m having the usual moral dilemma. My brain is split between saving a few dollars and choosing the milk in the glass container, the milk that comes from the happy cows at the Buchmayers’ farm. In the end I walk over to the organic section and buy a bottle. It’s worth it.