By Lindsay Suto
The full moon of May was known by Native American tribes as the milk moon. The warmer weather of Spring brings calving season and fertile soil full of green grass for the animals to feast on. In traditional farming practices, the cows are lead out to pasture at the end of calving season, and this lush diet means milk production is at it’s highest.
When you look back at historical cultures, it is obvious that milk has played an important role and even a spiritual significance. In Egyptian societies cows were made into deities, very similar to the Hindu religion today. The Bible frequently refers to the Hebrew people’s promised land as “the land of milk and honey.”
In fact, the consumption of milk dates back to the domestication of animals around 10,000 BC when societies switched from being nomadic to settled agricultural communities. It made sense for the people to make use of the by-products of domesticated animals in their care, however dairy products were reserved primarily for the upper classes—royalty, priests, and the very wealthy. Milk came from cows, sheep, goats, camels, and other animals, but it was in Europe in the 14th century that cows became prized for their milk over other animals. Dairy cows were brought to North America in the early 1600’s, and the consumption of milk began to spread to family farms and homesteads.
The distribution of milk is a relatively modern invention. Much has changed in the past century, from milking the family cow and drinking straight from the bucket, to having bottles of milk delivered from the local dairy, to now being able to pick up a gallon of pasteurized milk from a farm that is across state borders!
Not only did the industrial revolution shift attention and workers away from the farming practices, but the growth of the alcohol distilleries in America in the early 19th century led to the development of the first large scale dairies. The producers were looking for a way to dispose of the byproducts of the alcohol, so they began feeding them to cows. Unfortunately, cows are not meant to eat grains, so the low nutritional content of the waste they were being fed caused great sickness in both the cows.
Many developments have been made since then to regulate the dairy business, but unfortunately many conventional dairy farms are still feeding their cows a diet that is not compatible with their unique digestive systems. The small farms that raise animals on pasture are a much better option for making sure milk and dairy products have the highest nutrient contents and come from healthy animals. In addition, the traditional farming practices of moving animals between pastures is a form of sustainable agriculture, as opposed to modern practices of using chemical fertilizers to grow feed crops on nutrient depleted soil.
Although there has been an increase in lactose intolerance in recent years, many people find they are able to better tolerate unpasteurized milk or milk from animals other than the cow—which usually come from smaller, local dairies. In addition, fermented dairy products such as yogurt, kefir and cheeses are very beneficial to health and can be easier to digest. We are very lucky to have several local cheesemakers and micro-dairies in our area. With the return of the farmer’s market, there will be ample opportunities to support these local businesses!