At White Creek dairy: Happy cows, happy farmer
WHITE CREEK, N.Y. -- Jeff and Wendy Gibson haven't had a vacation in years. However, they don't seem to care.
"Wendy and I just go across the way and float around in the company yacht," he laughs. "That's our idea of a vacation!"
The yacht is a paddleboat Gibson bought for Wendy a few years back, and the company is their family farm, Schoolhouse Dairy in White Creek, N.Y.
Two years ago, Gibson spent 17 days in the hospital with a case of pancreatitis. It was during this time, at age 55, that he decided he wanted to live a simpler life and become a dairy farmer.
"Wendy told me I was crazy," Gibson remembers, "But honestly, looking back, it was the best decision I've ever made -- That we've ever made."
As he stands proudly in his driveway, gesturing to his 85 cows, the massive barn, his home, sprawling green acreage, and Zoro the zorse (half zebra, half horse) in the field across the street, it could not be more clear that Gibson loves his life -- a fact made especially apparent as he jokes about "only having to walk across the driveway to get to his office," and that his Facebook status is often, "What a great day to be a farmer."
Gibson prides himself on the health of his cows and openly admits to treating them like his children.
All of the cows (who have names and distinct personalities to boot) are free to roam the fields and munch on grass to their hearts' content (when, of course, they're not being milked).
Pregnant cows enjoy a two-month long maternity leave in a special field behind the barn where they can "relax and live the life," says Gibson.
The remainder of the herd lives in just as much bliss, spending their days in a spacious barn, where the "open stall" layout allows cows to come and go as they please. Their body temperatures are constantly monitored. To ensure optimum comfort, the barn's ceiling is outfitted with spigots that automatically emit a gentle shower onto the cows during warmer months.
"We mist our cows like fresh vegetables in the grocery store," Gibson chuckles.
So why does Gibson go out of his way to keep his cows happy? It's all about the product.
"Happy cows make delicious milk," says Gibson. "It makes sense if you think about it."
He explains that he believes in farming in the traditional manner.
"Instead of focusing solely on production or the amount of milk we produce in a single day, we focus on the end result," he says. "The quality of our milk is what concerns us."
Gibson's farm is unique in that he sells raw milk. Raw milk is just what it sounds like: milk in its rawest form, and, arguably, its healthiest form.
According to realmilk.com, a pro-raw milk organization, the conventional milk pasteurization process diminishes vitamin content including C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, and is rumored to cause a slew of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.
Gibson is passionate about the perceived health benefits of his raw milk but is equally as passionate about the economic stability it could bring to farms across the country, including his own. According to Gibson, pasteurization laws favor large, industrialized dairy operations and make it difficult for small farms to make a profit off of their products. When farmers have the right to sell unprocessed milk to consumers, they can make a decent living, even with small herds like Gibson's.
Conversely, the FDA argues that raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1,500 people in the United States became ill after ingesting raw milk products between 1993 and 2006. In addition, the CDC reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause food borne illness than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.
Regardless of differing opinions, Gibson is proud of his farm and the safety measures carried out to ensure a safe and delicious product.
"Our milk is watched very closely and tested every day by Cabot Creamery," said Gibson. (His farm is one of many that sell its milk to Cabot Creamery).
"Our milk is also tested once a month by the state of New York," he continued "and we have a very low cell count compared to other farms."
By law, a cell count of 750,000 cells per milliliter (cpm) is permitted in milk produced in New York state. The milk from Gibson's cows falls well below the state maximum, clocking in at a mere 50,000 cpm.
Gibson said even those who may suffer from lactose intolerance can feel confident about drinking his milk, or any raw milk, for that matter.
"Lactose intolerance, eczema," said Gibson, "Raw milk is the answer!"
In September, Schoolhouse Dairy is set to be nominated for a national quality milk award. Gibson is elated.
"It makes me feel so good to know that I'm putting a quality, safe product out there for people to enjoy," he said.
Gibson and his wife sell their raw milk on their farm and sell raw milk cheese at local farmers markets in Vermont and Hoosick Falls. Also found in the farm's store are fresh eggs, Cabot butter, and grass fed, free range beef and pork products.
In the future, Gibson hopes to open a petting zoo on his farm so that children from the area have the chance to learn about farm life up close and personal. In the past he has invited families to tour the farm, even offering tractor rides to enthusiastic children.
"I love showing kids where their food really comes from," Gibson said. "It's so much different than just going to the grocery store and picking milk off the shelf."
Gibson feels that his son Dylan, now 17, benefited greatly from growing up on a farm, and clearly enjoys the lifestyle as much as his father. He attended Greenwich Central School solely because they offered a Future Farmers of America program.
Gibson and his wife say they don't pressure Dylan to take over Schoolhouse Dairy one day, but they certainly encourage the idea.
"We see how happy it makes him," said Gibson, "and we just want him to be happy."
Gibson pauses to think for a moment. "However," he says finally, laughing heartily, "It may be good for him to have a boss other than dad!"
Visit Schoolhouse Dairy farm at 323 County Route 68, White Creek, N.Y. 12057, or call them at 518-779-8897. For more information about raw milk, visit www.realmilk.com.
Contact Elizabeth Conkey at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.
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