Thirty-five years ago when my wife and I started out on this little farm, I milked a dear old nanny goat named Mrs. Trotter twice a day. All four kids were weaned from their mother onto Mrs. T. and they all grew up stronger, healthier and better-looking than their father. I became a walking commercial for the health-giving qualities of goat milk and preached the gospel from every platform.
But Mrs. Trotter gave up the ghost after training my youngest off the bottle and by that time the older children had decided goat milk was yucky. I tried a Jersey cow but she was bad-tempered and the kids preferred the stuff that came in bags from the store. Then they all went off to public school and fell into the hands of the prophets of doom. My eldest daughter became a vegetarian, then a vegan. Her brother followed. The younger two stuck to hamburgers stubbornly just to be different but they eventually found almond milk, whole foods and hot yoga. I gave the milking machine back to the retired dairy farmer who lent it to me and my dairying came to an end.
I have no idea what kind of milk is guilt-free anymore. On the rare occasions my family sits down together at supper, I try to discourage any discussion of food. We now have two vegetarians, a dairy-free duck hunter, a gluten free food forager and a shellfish allergy (my wife.) The only common ground they share is the certainty we are living in the Age of Extinction. That puts me off food altogether.
This past week I learned that almond milk has now fallen out of favour because the almond industry kills a lot of bees. Coconut milk exploits third world workers and destroys rainforests, so we can’t have that. Rice milk is a water hog and has few nutritional benefits. Hazelnut milk scores high on the environment charts but it is also high in sugar and price and can cause a rapid shrinking of the wallet. A lot of people have gone back to soy milk because those old worries about excess hormones turn out to have been overblown. But you still have to be careful to buy from Canadian sources or you may be helping to burn a rainforest. Oat milk has a lot going for it nutritionally and no rainforests will fall because oats only grows in cool climates. But wait . . . just when I thought it would be the new superhero milk I find it gets sprayed with Round-up before harvest so oat milk comes off the list, too. I forget what they said about hemp, cashew and flax milk because my head was starting to hurt.
The only thing the chattering class on social media can agree on is that dairy is a disaster. But is it? I was at a soil and crop meeting last week where everyone was talking about new research from Britain that suggests grazing by livestock may be essential for soil health. This comes as the British government, egged on by the milk and meat police, is proposing an 18.5 per cent carbon tax on beef and dairy that threatens to put livestock farmers right out of business. But we often forget that plant-based diets have a dark side, too. Most cash crops like corn, soy and wheat release carbon to the atmosphere and mine nutrients from the soil. Livestock grazing and manure management sequesters carbon, adds water-holding capacity and improves soil structure. A sustainable soil scientist told me that forage plants react to being stepped on by a cow the same way a Manitoba maple reacts to being cut. It sends up a bunch of suckers and you get more vigorous growth. Two thirds of the world’s agricultural land is marginal and only good for pasture. Giving up animals means we give up a huge source of food production. And animals are the only source of organic fertilizer . . . But we knew all this, didn’t we? Why would any of this come as a surprise?
What I love best about mixed farming on a small acreage is the orderly chaos of it. The pig follows the cow, the chicken follows the pig and the earthworm follows everybody. Kitchen scraps go to the henhouse, cracked eggs get broken over cattle feed. The steer comes from the barnyard and goes to the freezer, passes through us and the dog and then back out to the garden again. Everyone minds his own business and every single one of them is glad to see me in the morning.
I think it’s time to get a nanny goat again.
This article was posted in the Small Farm Canada magazine on April 13, 2020. Click to visit the Small Farm Canada website for more news and articles.