Sustainable Agriculture Spotlight: Pure Èire Dairy

Submitted by ameyer on December 5, 2014

As part of our Farmer-Grower series we interviewed Jill Smith, a dairywoman who is most definitely doing milk right. Jill owns and operates Pure Èire Dairy located in Othello, Washington. The name Èire is a bit of a play on words as it literally means Ireland, but has a deeper familial meaning as their family is of Irish heritage and employs practices that her husband’s grandfather would have used. Despite being located in a region surrounded by conventional farmland, Jill is doing things differently with her sustainable agriculture operation. Pure Èire is certified organic, milking all Jersey cows, 100 percent grass-fed and never fed corn or soy. The dairy is also Non-GMO Project Verified and Animal Welfare Approved. They are farming in a way that they believe is respectful to the land and to the animals.  They respect what the animals are giving to them and they want to dairy and farm in that manner.

 

Q: When and how did your interest in food and farming start? Who or what influenced you?

A: I was a farm kid and my husband was a dairy kid. I was 14 when I started my first project, with FFA. I went to Washington State University and majored in Ag Business and spent the first ten years of my career in the livestock industry, so I have a background in conventional agriculture. I worked for a pharmaceutical company and saw firsthand the use of antibiotics & growth hormones. I have been on both sides of it and I am not knocking on conventional production whatsoever. My husband and I decided to leave our big jobs where we were working really hard for someone else. We went out on our own to raise dairy heifers, working hard for ourselves. We grew it into a large operation where we were feeding and breeding heifers for other milk producers. We practiced good animal welfare, but we raised the heifers as the dairymen wanted, whatever vaccine or antibiotic protocols they used on their own farm. Somewhere along the way my husband had the crazy idea to start an organic dairy. We were shipping to a national processor and under their guidelines. Even if we exceeded organic standards or practices, our milk was mixed with milk from many other dairies.

In 2009, I started this little dairy on the side with only seven cows. I started with just raw milk. In the meantime, we had already taken over the family farm and transitioned it to organic. We were in a unique situation because we had a conventional herd we could feed transition-feed to. When this dairy started to grow, we were lucky enough to have already transitioned the ground to organic in Othello. There was a barn on one of the pieces of property that we actually decided to rehab into a milking parlor and a certified organic processing facility. The dairy has continue to grow from seven cows to milking 160 cows and processing our own milk. We are now in control of the operation from the soil, to the feed, to milking the cows, to putting that milk in the jug, and getting it on the shelves. This dairy took on a life of its own as it grew. Thankfully, along the way, we were able to transition out of the other two operations we were involved in and make this our sole focus.

This process gave us a great opportunity to have backgrounds in both the conventional and organic dairy industries. We’ve had the chance to ship our milk to a processor and direct market our milk. This dairy has allowed us to take our milk further and find our own niche in the market place with a product that we feel really good about producing. It has certainly given us a whole different perspective on the industry and deepened the respect for those within the dairy industry, on all levels.

Q: Considering emerging and pressing issues like climate change, increased use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds, and intensified agriculture – how has your relationship with food and farming changed over time?

A: When you become a mother or a parent you start to look at your food more. I think the more you delve into the industry and the more you learn, the more you evolve as a producer and a consumer. The more you research your food, the more you learn about production practices and you make choices based on your research. We’d all previously been taught that “milk is milk is milk;” but the more we look at food and farming practices, the more we learn about how we want to feed our own family. Our kids are looking over our shoulders and we want them to make wise food choices, as well as learn to respect animals and land. We want to teach them to be good stewards of the land and environment.

Q: What is your involvement with the coffee industry and how does it relate to your views on food and farming?

A: The coffee industry has been really interesting because they have taken it to the furthest degree to figure out where their coffee is coming from, the flavor notes that change based on where the beans are grown, knowing exactly who it comes from, even knowing the exact batch. They have taken it so very far, and yet, have been slower to look at the quality of the milk they are using. In a lot of cases, the milk makes up 80 percent or more of the drink. A friend within the coffee industry has gotten me involved with the Specialty Coffee Association of America. We took a different perspective and said let’s look at milk the same way we look at the coffee. We focused on identifying the flavor notes that come with the seasonality of a milk like ours, how much milk is actually going into the drink, and how it affects the customers; the taste, the experience, basically the whole package. So I spoke a lot about what our farm does and why. We had baristas using our milk and really enjoyed the flavor it brought out in their coffees. We had several baristas competing in the cappuccino portion of the US Coffee Championships with our milk.  In fact, we worked with the US Barista Champion. She and I hand-picked the bottle of milk to pair with her coffee for competition based on the flavor notes. To pair your coffee with the milk and tell the farmer what you want; that hasn’t been an option in the past. We formulated a special fat percentage at the request of the barista who won, one that we don’t have on store shelves. She had the chance to tell us exactly what she wanted. The dairy industry has long told consumers what they should drink.  I think there are some unique opportunities out there to be telling the farmers what you want, not just in the dairy industry.

It has been really interesting to work with baristas, to hear what they want and for us to get to be part of these activities. It is great to get recognition for producing a milk that really has great flavor that people are proud to use. It changes that “milk is milk is milk” thing; it shakes it up a little bit. There is a coffee roaster in Seattle, Slate Coffee, who is top ten in the US and the best in Seattle. Their entire staff took the time to sit down with me to ask all the questions they had about their milk. They utilize the time they have with their consumers, to stand and talk with them about what makes them unique. It is a bar style where you have the chance to work through your drink with the barista. We have felt so honored to have them use our milk in a deconstructed cappuccino. They put the espresso itself in a small glass and the steamed milk in another glass to be tasted. Then, they combine them so you can taste the combination. It is really forward-thinking and exciting for us to be part of. They have a unique opportunity to explain product differences to their customers and really create a great experience with the coffee. They are a great example of a coffee shop that is trying to tell consumers the whole story.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception that modern consumers have when it comes to food, especially dairy?

A: I think it goes back to “milk is milk is milk;” the misconception that it is all the same. If we tell a consumer that we are grass-fed they might look at us and say, “Don’t all cows eat grass?” I think that is a misconception based on great marketing campaigns, such as happy cows coming from California. The majority of cows in California are in confined feeding operations. The dairy industry, for example, has made it even more confusing with different claims such as rBST-free, natural, or growth hormone-free. I use the dairy industry as an example, but I think that it is across the board. Unless you really understand the labels and take the time to ask questions, you just have to go with whichever label looks the best. Our industry has also trained our customers to look for the cheapest milk possible, rather than to seek out product differences. Grocery stores have long used milk as a loss leader. Milk prices are something that nobody wants to see go up, but they don’t reflect the true cost of farming or support the improvement of more sustainable practices.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing for modern consumers to understand when it comes to food, especially dairy?

A: I think knowing where your food comes from and understanding labels are imperative to making thoughtful food purchases. Milk, for example, is one of those foods that we give our kids from the time they are babies. This is a food that is truly in our diet from day one. Ask questions, do your research. There are so many things that go into a gallon of milk; drying processes, removal of protein and fat, all processes that may affect the way we digest milk. I think we have lost a lot of milk drinkers because some of the processes just don’t fit with people’s systems. When we make a naturally nutritious product so sterile that we have to add vitamins and nutrients back to it, we’re really changing the product’s make-up.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn more about sustainable food but doesn’t know where to start?

A: If you get an opportunity to meet with a farmer, ask questions, and learn about their practices. I think that leads you to ask more questions and to take it a step further. We had these really sweet gals come over from Seattle because one of the things on their bucket list was to learn how to milk a cow. They probably got 15 no’s before they got our yes. They drove all the way over just to touch and feel a cow. It was fun for all of us, for my husband and me, and for our employees. We take what we do for granted, but to see someone giddy and excited over getting milk out of a cow; it kind of jazzes you up again. People do care and they want to know and develop relationships, but those opportunities are hard to track down these days.

Q: What do you believe is the most underrated issue in talking about food systems? Are there any issues that you don’t feel are talked about enough in mainstream media?

A: I think truth in labeling is huge and deciphering labels. I think it creates so much confusion and it’s an injustice to our consumers. I also think stepping back and actually seeing how the family farm is functioning and whether it is sustainable. The manufacturer may present a much different picture than what is actually happening on the farm. This will be significant for the sustainability of organic milk. If those dairymen are not making it on the pay price that they are getting from their organic processors, they are not going to be around to supply that milk. Again, milk is a special product that nobody wants to see the price to go up on. You will see the price of other products such as beef or conventional milk move around because they are traded as a commodity. In the organic milk industry, the farmer’s milk pay price; whereas in the conventional world, milk trades based on supply and demand. Organic has worked so hard to stay at a low enough price point to attract consumers, but it is not necessarily sustainable for the family farm. If we want organic milk we have to make sure that it is sustainable all the way back to the family farm.

Q: What is your favorite go-to resource when it comes to sustainable food? List any of your favorite books, magazines, websites, cookbooks, etc.

A: The dairy and organic industries do try to educate producers about new methods and ways to improve on what we’re doing. Consumers are a great resource in a business like ours.  As for cooking, my favorite all-time cookbook is an old Irish cookbook that my mother-in-law gave me. It really is just whole foods and simple ingredients. My mother in-law is a great resource because she cooked with what they raised or what was local and seasonal. My husband was raised in a family that wasn’t trying to be organic, they just used what was in season or what they preserved themselves. I didn’t grow up that way even though I was on a farm, so she is my go-to. My primary driver is that I am trying to provide my children with whole foods, or foods we raise ourselves, and teach them to make thoughtful food choices.

 

This interview has been edited for length.

Read about more Sustainable Agriculture Spotlights and organic farming stories at GreenAmerica.org.

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