For her advocacy of small producers and raw-milk cheese, Marie-Christine Montel has become a minor celebrity within the cheese world. Her research is an inspiration to a generation of technically curious cheesemakers: she is the cheese geek's cheese geek. When American cheesemaker Mateo Kehler talks about the on-site laboratory that he and his brother Andy have set up at the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont, he jokes that "there is already a lab coat hanging up here with Marie-Christine's name on it."
So there was great excitement when Montel was invited to deliver a presentation on her work with the Salers producers and their gerles at the 2015 American Cheese Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island. The annual conference is the single largest gathering of North American cheesemakers, importers, and sellers. There are educational sessions, industry briefings, and plenty of swag. Delegates wear intricately color-coded badges to denote their status, with categories ranging from members of the press to senior attendees, who are labeled "Aged to Perfection." At the 2015 meeting, twelve hundred people packed into the Rhode Island Convention Center to learn, gossip, and do business.
When it came time for Montel's presentation, a large audience crowded into the seminar room. But as they heard the tale of the gerles and saw the experimental data, they sat unmoved. The elegance of the microbiology, the revalorization of ancient cheesemaking techniques, and the implications for understanding and enhancing their own cheeses were lost on the crowd. Instead, in the question and answer session at the end, it became clear that the research on gerles had seemed irrelevant to the majority of the audience. What most people wanted was advice on potential pathogens and handling issues with public health officials.
The audience had not been ready for her message, had not been primed for a world where microbial biodiversity could be the defining goal of good dairy farming. It was, said Montel afterward, as if she were "from a different planet." It was true. She might as well have delivered a lecture on unicorn ranching. Despite our frustration, we could recognize and appreciate the concerns of the audience. Their problems were intimately familiar: this was the dairy world in which Bronwen's family had lived for over a century.
YOUR GREAT-GRANDFATHER'S HERD
A decade earlier, amid the cocktail chatter at our wedding in London, two dairy industries collided. Many of our guests were Bronwen's colleagues from Neal's Yard Dairy in London, a company that has come to emblematize the revival of British farmhouse cheese. Seated next to the company's sales director was Bronwen's uncle Eddie. We always thought of Eddie as a car enthusiast ex-NASA engineer, but he was also a farmer, fighting a last stand to maintain the viability of the California dairy that had been founded by Bronwen's great-grandfather.
At the time, Eddie's farm in California was comfortably larger than any dairy operation in the United Kingdom. However, even with thousands of cattle, the farm was too small to prosper amid the vicissitudes of the American market for liquid milk. Despite milking high-yielding cows twenty-four hours a day, life was a struggle. But this was not a consequence of his poor management or lack of business savvy; rather, he was the prisoner of a market that was beyond his control.
Bronwen's great-grandfather, Fred Imsand, was a Swiss emigrant to California at the turn of the twentieth century. From a dairying family, he found work at a dairy while he romanced the chambermaids of San Francisco. He survived the 1906 earthquake by the simple expedient of standing in an empty lot during his milk-delivery run, and in the ensuing chaos he made his way to San Bernardino in Southern California, where through a combination of savings, resourcefulness, and gruff charm he acquired a farm of his own, Meadowbrook Dairy.
The dairy of Fred's era was diversified and complete. Beyond the cows and their milk, the family farmed chickens and pigs, smoked their own hams, and sold produce from their orchard. Yet Bronwen's grandparents eventually rebelled against the unremitting toil of this system, embracing the progressive promise of scale, mechanization, and specialization. By the late 1950s, the dairy was a successful local business, with a fleet of milk trucks and — as the Inland Empire grew into Eisenhower-era suburban comfort — five little dairy drive-thrus.
Fred had started out with a herd of twenty Holstein cows, but Bronwen's grandfather Eddie Sr. recognized the direction that the milk market was going and made every effort to expand the business. In this environment, Bronwen's mother's involvement in the dairy as a young woman was restricted to some light bookkeeping as she studied for her medical school exams; a loathing for calves' liver is the only legacy of her upbringing on a dairy farm.
By the early 1970s, as supermarkets began to dominate retail sales, Eddie Sr. decided to concentrate solely on producing liquid milk and abandoned direct-to-consumer sales completely. With that decision came expansion: by the time Bronwen's mother graduated from college, the herd numbered just under four hundred cows. It was ultimately a question of pragmatism, and decisions were made in order to survive. Eddie Sr. had spent a year studying at the University of California, Davis, in the 1930s before the worsening economic climate of the Great Depression demanded that he return to work on the farm, and at each stage of Meadowbrook Dairy's expansion, he looked to the experts at UC Davis — one of the major American centers for industrial agricultural research — for advice. Each decision he made was based on progressive mainstream ideas about best practice.
The pace at which Meadowbrook Dairy grew mirrors trends in dairy farming within the United States at large. We can see these changes reflected most starkly in US Department of Agriculture statistics. From 1970 to 2006, average herd size leapt from just 19 cows to 120 cows per farm. Hidden within the arithmetic mean is an even more significant change: small dairy farms are disappearing rapidly. The smallest class of farm, those with fewer than thirty cows, might still constitute nearly 30 percent of all dairy operations, but together this bottom third represents only 2 percent of all cows and 1 percent of milk production. In contrast, between 2000 and 2006, the number of farms with more than two thousand cows doubled. In 2006, almost a quarter of all milk production — and the majority in the western United States — took place at these megadairies.
Europe is also seeing a steady consolidation of the dairy industry and growth of herd size. The number of registered dairy producers in the United Kingdom dropped by more than half from 1998 to 2013. From 2008/9 to 2012/13, the only UK dairy farms growing in size were those producing more than two million liters of milk a year; based on average milk yields, the average herd size of these farms was approximately three hundred cows. With milk prices at historic lows, milk production at dairies with more than two thousand cows is becoming more widespread. Where the United States has led, Europe is following.
Change came rapidly to Meadowbrook. A sudden series of family bereavements led to a swift generational succession, and in 1978, at age twenty-seven, Bronwen's uncle Eddie took full responsibility. It was a tough time. The suburban expansion of San Bernardino was about to swallow the dairy, and strategic decisions had to be made. Again, the advice of the dairy extension program at UC Davis proved critical. Resisting a possible move to the San Joaquin Valley, Eddie relocated the entire operation fifty miles north across the San Gabriel Mountains to El Mirage. While the high desert did not afford lush pastures, a new five-hundred-acre alfalfa ranch provided vertical integration. The dairy's systems were pared down for maximum efficiency, and an anaerobic digester was installed that converted manure into electricity. Again, scale increased. At its peak, the new operation was milking 2,200 cows, but life was still a struggle.
For this most mainstream of dairies, there was no sense that processing the milk on the farm or attempting to produce a unique product could add anything to the sustainability of the operation. When family members talk about the dairy, their pride is palpable, but each commercial decision and each stage of growth is explained and rationalized as the inevitable consequence of market conditions. Over the more than thirty years Eddie spent running the farm, he was beaten down by a commodity market that he could not control. His is a common stoicism: "Every farmer goes through periods of up and down; it's a cyclic business as far as profit and loss go. It's never been a business where you can count on a percentage of margin."
The farm's milk contract paid according to total solids — the number of pounds of butterfat and protein that the herd could produce — so the system was optimized for maximum production with maximum efficiency. In this model of dairy farming, controlling feed costs is everything, and Eddie was forced to become increasingly sophisticated at supplementing the silage and hay that he made himself with cheaply available commodity by-products. Technology helped. Eventually, it was simply a question of entering the details of the almond hulls, cottonseed, or citrus pulp into the computer to get the appropriate balance for a nutritionally optimized total mixed ration.
To this extent, Meadowbrook Dairy was the diametric opposite of Guy Chambon's operation. The entire conceit of Chambon's Salers Tradition is to have cows who will thrive in a place where they will eat interesting food — hence the painstaking twice-daily milking in the pastures on the top of a mountain — and then let the cheese make itself, with a little help from the gerles. Uniqueness is fundamental. Taken together, these farming and cheesemaking practices, from the choice of the cussed and archaic Salers breed to the maintenance of the biodiversity of the mountainside pastures and the microbial biofilms on the wooden gerles, make for the production of something that could not be achieved anywhere else. In contrast, Meadowbrook Dairy tacitly accepted that their output would be blended with milk from many other sources and that the route toward commercial sustainability was through efficiency and growth. Instead of keeping cows in a place where they would eat interesting food, Meadowbrook kept its cows where space was cheap and then fed them carefully calculated inputs to keep costs down and yields up.
When none of his children expressed any interest in dairy farming, Eddie ultimately took the opportunity to divest himself of the business. When we talk with him now, his sense of relief is clear, even if it is bittersweet: "We ended up taking this as a time we could slow down and keep the [alfalfa] farm out in Inyokern, and we donated the land to the water district. It was an opportunity that comes along only once or twice in a lifetime."
Although the cheesemakers attending Montel's presentation at the American Cheese Society conference almost certainly operated on a smaller scale than thousand-cow dairies, the mentality with which Eddie worked would have been familiar to them. It is true in much of Europe as well, where the scale might be smaller still but the same pressures toward consolidation, volume, and efficiency are being felt. For Bronwen, this too is familiar. When she was a teenager, she and her family had managed, by following received notions of best practice, to domesticate industrial dairying.
INDUSTRIAL WRIT SMALL
Unlike her mother, Bronwen did not grow up on a dairy farm. Visits to her cousins at Meadowbrook Dairy brought exotic new experiences, like the opportunity to climb mountains of fuzzy cottonseed feed, but the dairy and its evolution registered only vaguely on her consciousness. Her parents settled several hours further south in eastern San Diego County, in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains. With hot, dry summers and mild winters, the area was dominated by chaparral and horse fancy. Surrounded by equestrianism, Bronwen soon became obsessed by the desire to own a horse.
And so as she began junior high school, Bronwen joined the local 4-H club along with her best friend Melody; it seemed more exciting than the Girl Scouts, and it would give her the chance to make a halter for the horse of her dreams. But Melody, whose family owned a billy goat called Buck Rogers, also convinced Bronwen to sign up for the dairy goat group. At the first meeting, she was exposed to the vision of baby goats frolicking in fresh straw, and all thoughts of horses were immediately banished. Bronwen's parents recognized a modified win when they saw one, and within days a goat pen was being constructed in the backyard.
When Bronwen's parents, a musicologist and a physician, bought a house with land, they had no intention of dabbling in domestic dairying; they simply needed space where they could practice the violin without the neighbors complaining. Music loomed large in their lives — they had first met as teenagers playing in the same orchestra — and distance from other neighbors allowed assiduous practice to be combined with the odd hours of the work schedule at the hospital. While Bronwen's mother had been raised on the dairy farm and her father's family had dabbled in semisuburban farming when he was young, they had no firsthand knowledge of animal husbandry. Jerry Belanger's book Raising Milk Goats the Modern Way (Garden Way Publishing, 1975) would be their homesteading bible.
The goats, Natasha and Ginger, were to play a major role in the life of Bronwen's family for the next six years. They grew into glossy, glorified pets, but a vague sense of paranoia surrounded their management. Their pen sat within a two-and-a-half acre goat smorgasbord packed with sumac, foxtails, eucalyptus, manzanita, and native sages. This type of Mediterranean scrubland is one of the classic environments for goat foraging, a way of exploiting marginal land that has been practiced for thousands of years.
The goat book, however, suggested otherwise, claiming that a diet foraged from the native chaparral was poor in nutritional value and would lead to malnourished goats and problems with worms. The family deemed it much safer to buy in a mixture of hay, fermented alfalfa with molasses, and vitamin-enriched, grain-based goat chow for them to eat. In an area famous for its raging wildfires, with strict requirements for brush control, the goats looked on quizzically every summer as Bronwen's father scoured the property with a weed whacker and the family raked and bagged up the fallen weeds to take to the local dump. Ironically, within the world of forestry management, goat grazing is now regarded as one of the most effective weed management solutions for fire prevention; it is also inexpensive, nontoxic, and nearly carbon neutral. At its headquarters in Mountain View, California, Google now uses goats for just this purpose.
Then there was the question of sex. There was no mistaking when the goats came into heat: the sex-starved animals would stand on the big rock in the middle of the pen and bleat loudly and incessantly. Were it not for this habit, they would likely have been bred only a couple of times. But as it was, they got their way year after year. When it came time to breed them, they were loaded into the back of the family's dusty Chevrolet Suburban and whisked off to the goat breeder's for a quickie with the buck. Bronwen's father remembers setting aside his Messiaen program notes on a day when the rest of the family was gone, the kids all at school, and "driving the goat off to get nailed."
When the baby goats arrived, the family kept the females or gave them to other members of the 4-H club who wished to found their own goat dynasties, but their sentimental approach to animal husbandry left them in a quandary when it came to the boys. The first set of kids were both, tragically, male. They were sent off at a tender age to "eat grass" in a friend's backyard. Another male kid followed; we learned in researching this book that he ended up as the main course at a family friend's Easter celebration. Had Bronwen known the truth at the time, she would have been beside herself, but it highlights a perennial problem for sentimental domestic dairy farmers: males. Unless you are prepared to eat them, they have no value. Bronwen's reservations about eating her pets were not remarkable. When we talked with Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager for the Livestock Conservancy in the United States, it became clear that many sentimentalists dabble in homesteading with rare breeds. Beranger launched into an anecdote about an enthusiastic couple with whom she worked who could not bear to see any of their males killed or eaten. The couple had the capital to keep them, ultimately tending a separate paddock of forty lost boys. Without those resources, even the ethically consistent lacto-vegetarian will eat veal.