Friday, February 15, 2008

Meet Clarabelle

Something I've been doing the last four years is reading stories three times a week to one of the classes at my daughter's charter school. In addition, I incorporate a storybook into my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia. All of which means I check out a lot of books at the local library. In fact, I think the librarians experience a certain amount of dread when they see me walk through the door. They never know what kind of strange request I'll be bringing, like, "Got a picture book to go with deviled eggs?"

This week the librarian practically leaped out of her chair when I arrived and began pointing madly, madly, madly at something new on the shelf. It was this story called, "Clarabelle: Making Milk and So Much More." Now, I'm not normally looking for explication when I go searching for childrens books. I eschew the kids cooking section. No, I'm on the prowl for literature that fits the theme of the week. But something intrigued me about this "Clarabelle" book. I was taken with the idea that books like this--the ones that explain to children where milk comes from, or how tractors work--are still being written and printed, only in an updated fashion.

I was very curious to see what this book had to say about a modern dairy.

The story takes place on a real dairy farm called Norswiss near a place called Rice Lake in Wisconsin. It's a big operation, with 1,300 cows. To bring it down to a kid's level, two young boys--Sam and Josh, children of the dairy's owners--figure prominently. Sam and Josh are there when Clarabelle gives birth. They also help feed the calf its first big bottle of milk. My first thought was, "Oh, right. Like that really happens. Sam and Josh are bottle feeding calves every time one of the 1,300 cows gives birth." (In fact, about four calves are born every day at Norswiss.)

But maybe I'm too cynical. So I read on.

There are lots of close-up photos of Clarabelle. She is a fine, sturdy Holstein cow.
But after a while you begin to notice that all of the photos are taken indoors. Apparently Clarabelle is an indoor cow. She never goes outside.

"Each year, she gives birth to a calf that weighs about one hundred pounds," the book exclaims. Presumably she has been artificially inseminated to further her production of milk, which "is bottled for drinking or made into cheese, ice cream, yogurt and other dairy products."

And this part caught my attention, because, "To make all that milk, Clarabelle eats heaping piles of hay, corn, and soybean meal."

Aha! I thought. Clarabelle is just another part of the industrial food apparatus. She doesn't eat grass, the way cows were intended, but a "scientific" diet of silage produced by our monocropping, taxpayer subsidized, eco-polluting corn and soybean complex. Not only that, "Her amazing four-compartment stomach recycles leftover food and fiber products such as brewer's grain, sugar-beet pulp and cottonseed."

So basically, Clarabelle is a walking garbage recycler. There is no mention whether Clarabelle is regularly dosed with bovine growth hormone to increase her milk production. I was ready to write this whole Clarabelle story off as a piece of cleverly packaged Big Ag propaganda aimed at children when another interesting factoid emerge: The Norswiss farm is equipped with a manure processor that uses a microbial system to create methane. The methane from this dairy farm produces enough electricity to power 700 homes, and the leftover solids become bedding for the cows.

I thought this interesting enough to do a little research and found that Norswiss since 2004 has been engaged in a partnership with the Dairyland Power Cooperative to generate local electricity using cow manure and the latest technology.

In addition, the Norswiss owners, Annelies and John Seffrood, have integrated a system of composting to reduce the need for straw bedding and cut down on manure removal, according to an article published by the Central Plains Dairy Association.

"They tub grind the straw to reduce particle size to about 2 inches and use an 8-foot tiller to aerate the compost once a day. Switching to a compost system has cut the amount of straw needed for bedding in half, reduced the number of times the barn has to be cleaned from four times a year to once a year and cut the volume of manure and straw that has to be removed from approximately 2,400 tons to 600 tons annually. The compost also costs less to apply as fertilizer than the bed back, and more fertilizer is immediately available to crops, John says. They are currently building a 70 X 210 foot compost barn for fresh cows."

I don't understand all of it. But I'm impressed that a modern dairy operation in the nation's heartland is not just about feeding cows government subsidized corn and dosing them with hormones from Monsanto, but also is involved in developing ingenious was to reduce waste and turn manure into electricity. Is that a good thing? Is this the future we want for our agriculture, or do we really want something the looks more like the picture on the yogurt container: cows grazing in grassy meadows, submitting occasionally to a tow-headed milk maid?

What I draw from the Mirabelle story is that I just don't know enough about what's happening on our modern farms and I wish I did. I think we should The author of this book, Cris Peterson, herself runs a 700-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin, according to the book's dust jacket, and recently was named National Dairy Woman of the Year by a group that counts Monsanto Dairy among its members.

Such as it is, this is the kind of information about farming that's being passed to our kids at school. I would dearly love to see a book about our alternate dairy system, the one where cows wander around in green pasture and produce hormone-free milk. Has anyone written that book?

12 comments:

Joanna said...

Ed I think you should write it - you're a journalist, you know about food, you've got contacts in the farming world, you know what motivates children to learn enthusiastically about food, you're not sentimental, you could probably find a good photographer (I can think of a few bloggers who'd do it well) ... and WE NEED IT, here in the UK as well as in the US

You're right, we don't want indoor cows being marketed as outdoor ones because the indoor thing is too horrible to face up to.

Joanna

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Anonymous said...

Living in a region where we still have cows nestled among the houses (I live just outside Geneva, Switzerland)I find myself wondering about our children's future when I see Big Ag/non-organic being spoon fed to the next generation. But it is also up to the adults of the world to show them the alternate path. We can act with our wallets by asking our stores for organic milk, and add our voice to the political discussion by speaking up to our politicians. Acting on a personal level makes a greater impression on a child than a book from the library. Poultry is another similar story...we saw a show about how your average chicken is raised, and as a result, made a family commitment to only buy organic, free-range chicken, dspite the higher cost.

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, there are so many books I need to write now, including all the food related stories to go with my "food appreciation" lessons. I wonder where I will find the time. Will you be my agent?

Anonymous, I envy you your life outside Geneva. I spent several years living in various parts of Switzerland and have some very fond memories, including lots of cows wandering around eating grass and making milk for cheese. I do think it is important that we teach our children well--at home, in the classroom and with the books we give them.

keri marion said...

If there's ever a reason to homeschool... and to take accountability into your food purchasing.

Ed Bruske said...

Keri, I'm sure this is a reason many people homeschool. We are lucky to have a charter school just down the street where we've grown very close to the teachers and I spend three mornings each week reading to the kids, so we are confident about how our daughter is being taught. She has great teachers who think like we do.