It’s almost eerily quiet in the huge holding area that was once the center of Edwin Shank’s confinement dairy in central Pennsylvania. In the adjoining photo, you can see the empty structure, where hundreds of cows were once kept 24/7.
The action is now several hundred yards away, out in the pasture, where 275 cows grazed on Saturday afternoon, and the main sound was that of orchard grass, blue grass, rye grass, and clover being ripped and chomped by the hungry animals. The other sound was the uneven melody of about 1,000 broiler chickens and laying hens grazing in an adjoining pasture.
It’s been nearly four years since Ed Shank made the decision to end years of running a confinement operation as the fourth generation owner of The Family Cow farm, and transitioned to an organic system, modeled heavily on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, and Mark McAfee’s Organic Pastures Dairy Co. Since it takes three years to transition from a conventional to an organic system in any event, it’s only been in the last year that The Family Cow farm has been able to sell its raw milk, eggs, beef, and chicken as organic products.
In the process of making the transition, Edwin Shank is seeking to disprove the arguments of both agriculture experts and some raw milk advocates that conventional dairies shouldn’t even attempt to become sellers of raw milk, not to mention grass-fed beef and pastured chicken. “The dairy inspectors always told us, ‘If you do raw milk, you’ll be okay, but your customers won’t. Of course, that hasn’t happened.”
I’ve long argued that state ag departments, which are supposed to be in the business of promoting agriculture and farm viability, should help dairies out of the downward-spiraling conventional dairy business, and educate farmers who are interested in how to safely make the kind of transition Ed Shank is making, together with his wife, Dawn, and six children.
As he took me on a whirlwind tour of his operation just off I-81, with its 120 acres of pasture, small farm store, and airy home, Ed made the point a few times that he’s a poster boy for the viability of such transitions. As enthusiastic as he is, he cautions that it’s not a simple proposition. “It’s never going to work for the farmer who maintains his old mindset. He has to read. He has to get past the idea that production, production, production is important. He has to change his mentality.”
Farmers who approach such a transition only from the vantage point of increasing their profits “shouldn’t try to make the change. Raw milk in a confinement setting won’t work.”
But for those farmers willing to change their way of thinking about farming—from one of maximizing productivity to one of creating an ecologically sustainable system—“this is a model that is so repeatable,” says Ed. “We can feed the world.”
Part of his enthusiasm stems from the contrast with his feedlot operation, which involved hauling in feed for the cows, and hauling out their manure. The new sustainable system involves moving the cows from one pasture to another in line with growing grasses. The chickens follow the cows, and spread their manure around, as well as reduce the population of flies and other bugs. “This green grass is a solar panel,” says Ed, looking over his cows. “The cow is the harvester. She is powered by solar energy… The harvesting and hauling of feed is done by the cows and the hauling of manure is done by the cows.”
Another part of his enthusiasm stems from the changed nature of his interaction with customers. “You have these families that are thrilled that we are producing food for them,” he says. “Before, I sold to a dairy co-op. Now I sell to a mom and dad and children coop. Those co-ops say sometimes, ‘We pray for you.’ I don’t think the big co-ops ever prayed for me.” Not only that, “We’re glad the cows have a nicer life.”
So far, The Family Cow is selling its products both through its farm store and through groups of consumers placing orders via email. With 275 milking cows, Ed Shank has instantaneously become the largest raw dairy operation in the East.
He is extremely grateful for the outside assistance he’s received. “I can’t say thanks enough to Mark McAfee and Joel Salatin and the Weston A. Price Foundation for their help and for preparing people’s minds where they are ready for this sort of thing. It’s been a liberating experience for us.”
I want to extend my thanks to Maureen Diaz and her fellow members of the Weston A. Price Foundation chapter in Orrtanna, PA, for their hospitality over the weekend. I spoke (along with State Sen. Mike Fulmer) at the chapter meeting Saturday at Maureen’s home about my upcoming book, The Raw Milk Revolution, and thoroughly enjoyed sharing ideas with the sixty or so people who attended. I also appreciated the wonderful pot luck lunch they served.