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.
KUDOS to Ed Shank and his family and its to bad their are not many thousands more American farmers like the Shanks for the nation then would not be going broke trying to pay for our NEEDLESS medical bills.
grass fed is a part of a system not the whole system and we are approaching the understanding that the pendulem must be near the middle..ignoring that will teach you may things right quick..cows and soil have principals one cannot avoid..if one does all involved are shorted to the cost of the farmer.
At a recent meeting somebody lamented that it seems like too many farmers today are D students. They dont seem able to grasp the concepts necessary for sustainable farming. I dont know about that, but its certainly clear to me that there are no dummies at all successfully grazing in a sustainable way. As an example, I am learning now from a grazier about two issues: How to best extend the grazing season, and how to manage fescue. Believe me, my head is spinning trying to make sense of all the details. Fescue endophytes, relative tonnage of rye vs. oats in the various seasons, planting schedules, the effects of 14 vs. 18-day rotations, seed head timing, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The two-plus cows per acre equation is definitely not the whole story. Soil/flora/fauna conditions, heifer management, rentable acreage, co-op dollars vs. wholesale market vs. retail market…
Any way you cut it Ed Shank has his work cut out for him, especially since our current dairy industry standards encourage no interest at all in sustainable practice, and our regulators are geared up to support large confinement dairies (so don’t fit the sustainable ag boys and manage only to interfere). As Ive said before the information is out there, but it takes a special sort of farmer to go after it. God bless Ed and all others like him.
Over the years,we moved through many systems of farming.We did the management intensive grazing for a few years.There is a lot to learn and to keep up with.Now we are working on the biodynamic approach.I like it.The philosophy is to take some time every day to observe how nature works and to arrange things as closely as possible to that model.Whereas we used to confine the cows to a small area and move them as much as three times a day,now we have them on much larger pastures and let them decide where to graze.The whole farm has become more wild looking and we have even more wildlife than before.Rather than trying to have more cows to the acre,we try to always have abundant pasture even through the winter and the dry spells in the summer.To make ends meet we add as much value as possible to everything we produce.The intensive part of this farm is all of the work that adds value to the basic food that we produce.Milk becomes cheese,apples become cider,whey is fed along with apple pulp from cidermaking to chickens,calves and pigs ,pork becomes smoked hams and bacon cured with maple syrup from the woods.To be sustainable,we need to keep the fertility of the soil here on the farm.If you sell great quantities of anything, all of those nutrients have to be brought back onto the farm somehow.There is a limit to what the soil can produce.We have to be aware of that limit and try to resist the temptation to take more today at the expense of tomorrow.
…observe how nature works and to arrange things as closely as possible to that model.
That is a nice way to define proper ag practice.
Sustainable is a mere word of course, and suffers from the same insufficiencies as all language, but I like the term because it encapsulates the essence of your quote, and because it more than hints that generations will have to make their lives on the land long after the current generation is gone. It doesn’t imply, in my mind anyway, any attempt to get more than the land can give. Quite the opposite, it recognizes that the necessity for artificial inputs is an indicator of a need to adjust practices.
I have no idea what Ed Shank is doing on his farm other than what David wrote, but based on that very short summary it’s clear that Mr. Shank has made at very least a step toward naturalism, and that is a much needed step toward sustainability (and may be recognized by some as a step toward biodynamicism as well). I applaud all who are on the journey, as I do you for moving …through many systems of farming in a search for true symbiosis with the land, and for finding the stark truth that it is craziness to, as you say, …take more today at the expense of tomorrow.
I would add only this: Proper management of the land by humans is by all signs BETTER than leaving land alone. And while our history is replete with years of shameful, extractive, cut-and-run, get-rich-quick tactics that have simultaneously depleted the ground, our health, and our communities, there are here and there astoundingly encouraging bright spots. Among those are your writings, the new turn for Ed Shank, the fields and farms of my holistic management friends, and if I might say so, my own pasture, which after fifty years of runoff and monoculture weediness is now wonderfully (though not totally) grassy, and is sustaining dairy animals in excellent health, growing earthworms, and drawing an amazing variety of fauna (of which the most obvious are, you will understand, birds).
I don’t pretend to comprehend all the vagaries of the book publishing business, but my understanding is that Amazon heavily discounts some new books to encourage sales, as kind of a loss leader. So congrats on a good deal. (Hope you still feel it’s a good deal after you’ve read it.:)
SWAT raid on food storehouse heading to trial by Bob Unruh
John and Jackie Stowers resist the tyranny that was inflicted upon them and their FAMILY.
Read the story and click on the video link to hear in their own words what can happen to peaceful farmers in our once land of the free!!!
One scary part of the article talks about a proposed bill that would "give the FDA expanded oversight of food producers." That does worry me…
Highest and deepest congrats to you all in your efforts and transition.
You are offering hope to humanity and health sanity.
Welcome to raw milk and the incredbly wonderful consumer conection.
One that I dearly love and deeply appreciate.
All the best,
RMAC has been grappling with dairy certification – this is a huge issue for us in Colorado – how do you measure milk quality and milk safety? Is once a month (post-consumer) testing reliable? Or should we test every batch, and thereby exclude the 4-goat or 2-cow dairy? What test protocols should we use? What herd health tests (e.g. TB & Brucellosis) will we require, in a TB- and Brucellosis-free state? Why can’t we buy into Mark Purdy’s research, and buck the system?
(I’ve written to both state and federal "help" websites and got nothing. OK – tried FSIS website and fled in terror….APHIS website worked though….and our own CO Health Dept feedback was honest and non-judgemental – although not affordable.)
Why doesn’t our gov’t support small farms? Policy needs to change soon, and radically.
Should process quality (grassfed as much as possible, no pesticides, etc., no antibiotics….) rule, or should a simple product quality rule (milk safety tests)?
Will we self-regulate ourselves to death? Will we become what we despise? Bottom line, who do we trust? Science or Nature? Gov’t or God? Antibiotics or grass? Should we just keep learning, sharing observations about nature, educating; passing on traditional knowledge, accepting the risk and keep being fruitful?
I’m increasingly nervous about the position I’m in. I’m just a front; just a spear. Hope they throw me in the right direction….
David – read the preview on your book today – Wonderful teaser! I want 50 copies or more – you want to work out an RMAC membership promotion deal? Would you come to our Annual Gathering in January? How much do you cost? What a feather in our cap you would be!!!
Love and thanks,
Sylvia-Guessing why small farms aren’t supported appears to lead back to follow the money…..Yes, policies do need to change.
Blair-Should process quality (grassfed as much as possible, no pesticides, etc., no antibiotics….) rule, or should a simple product quality rule (milk safety tests)?
Sylvia-I beleive the "quality" (natural and without added chemicals as much as possible) should be promoted. Some sort of testing should be in place, to protect the farmer and the consumers.
Blair-Will we self-regulate ourselves to death? Will we become what we despise? Bottom line, who do we trust? Science or Nature? Gov’t or God? Antibiotics or grass? Should we just keep learning, sharing observations about nature, educating; passing on traditional knowledge, accepting the risk and keep being fruitful?
Sylvia-having basic protocols/SOPs should be sufficient, for those who go above and beyond, they will surpass the basics. Trust? that’s a tough one. Science and Nature can work as a team, it becomes unobtainable when regulations become unrealalistic as when producers don’t adhear to laws of Nature. The govt for the most part has shown they are there for whomever is in their pockets. Medicine does have a place in this world, and it is possible to work in harmony with nature. Nature/natural is best. We should never stop learning, sharing, observing.
Blair-I’m increasingly nervous about the position I’m in. I’m just a front; just a spear. Hope they throw me in the right direction….
Sylvia-It’s very admirable what you do. A trailblazer yourself. Trust your gut and you’ll always go in the right direction.
Faced with determined and engaged people, as with you, with the folks constructively involved in legislation and regulation in Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan, California and many other states, better things can happen. The big missing piece, of course, is the monolith of FDA, which simply ought to get out of the raw milk business, but they’ve decided they are too good to talk about it. FDA has better things to do.
I’m acutely aware that the best path is to leave privately consenting parties to do their own thing – Dave Milano will quickly remind us – but a largely self-regulated scheme is the next best solution, in my view. If there is an outbreak, public health will become involved, hopefully as neutral fact-finders to help figure out the problem so it can be fixed, but self-regulation of farmers by farmers with involved and committed consumers, emphasizing best practices and close consumer contact, is the best course for small farmers to pursue.
Congratulations on your hard work in making a sensible framework within which Colorado small dairy farmers can operate.
"We can feed the world" isn’t an apt statement though. Americans eat far too much for their own good and many other counties are following suit.
I am interested in hearing more of what Dave Milano and Miguel have to say about sustainable pasture. I am a bit confused about the concept of "partial rest" and how it applies to non-brittle areas such as the eastern US. I have read a lot about management intensive grazing, but on a smallholding like mine (25 or so animals), that management style just seems too stressful on the animals and myself. They have solid routine of visiting almost all available pasture daily, then returning to their shed each night.
The subject of raw milk outbreaks is a complicated one. The list of most dangerous foods you refer to does include cheese, which may include outbreaks from so-called "bathtub cheeses" made from raw milk. Usually this milk isn’t intended to be served raw, but winds up in some cheese made by small producers, and gives legitimate raw milk a bad name.
Blair, I appreciate the kind words about my book. I have emailed you separately with answers to your questions.
Instead of immediately objecting and raising the specter of illness when the talk turns to finding economic opportunity for dairy farmers losing their livelihoods, how about seriously exploring whether it’s possible. I wrote a post last month about how Ed Shank, a Pennshylvania feedlot owner, had made the transition to raw dairy.
It wasn’t an easy process–took him three years and much hard work. Here’s a suggestion: take some of those aggressive state agriculture inspectors and bureaucrats working so hard to put decent raw dairy producers out of business, and assign them to work with struggling dairy farmers to make the transition to raw dairy. Sure, some farmers aren’t up to making the transition, since it’s difficult. I know, this would be new territory for the ag people, to be actually helping farmers be productive rather than destroying them, and it may be too much for the regulators to handle, but it beats turning more people to the unemployment rolls.