Earth Day Reflections
I think we can all agree that the ancient cheesemakers of yore were innovators and heroes. I don’t know who first had the insight to turn leftover whey into something like ricotta, but if I did, I think a poster of that particular lactic celebrity would have gone nicely on my bedroom wall in high school. And today’s brightest cheesemakers are no different. Not only do they produce foods that we celebrate with, and which connect us to one another, but they are some of the pioneers in finding practical solutions to agricultural emissions and climate change.
By volume, cows produce a little bit of milk (about 9000 liters), and whole lot more methane (127,000 L). You may be less enticed by the latter, which is understandable; methane emissions are generally considered to be the biggest agricultural contributor to climate change, and as far as I know, methane is not widely considered to be delicious.
Point Reyes, for example, extracts the methane produced by manure and leftover whey to power 50% of their total energy needs. This process is called methane digestion, and it requires water, so the creamery recycles some that has been used in the cheesemaking process. Once the process is complete and the gas is siphoned off, the resulting liquid is a great fertilizer, so it goes back to the pasture to provide nutrients to the grasses. These aren’t the only sustainable practices on the creamery, but they’re certainly important when talking about ecological impact.
Jasper Hill Farms, likewise, uses methane digestion and a whole range of other processes that work together to utilize the nutrients and energy already available on the property. They worked with several companies over a few years to develop the incredibly efficient and high-tech system they named “The Green Machine.” If you’re interested, head over to jasperhillfarm.com and look at a clear and fairly detailed explanation of how all the moving parts fit together. If you’re an engineering or permaculture nerd—you’re welcome.
A lot of planning, infrastructure, and money went into the implementation of the systems at Point Reyes and Jasper Hill, and it wasn’t just for the good of the earth. One of the realities of a creamery using naturally available resources effectively is that it helps make incredible cheeses that showcase the nuance unique to that location. Our friends at Idyll Farms put a lot of effort into feeding the soil by adding in their goat-made compost, beneficial worms and leftover whey, as well as using rotational grazing practices. This careful attention to soil leads to healthy, vibrant grasses, which in turn makes healthy goats who produce flavorful milk, and eventually, to the delectable cheeses Idyll is famous for. As Idyll says, it results in “the flavor of Leelanau terroir in the cheese”, and it makes sense. Terroir is taste of place, and I’d rather eat someplace delicious.
The cheesemaking heroes of today are masters of blending traditional and modern farming practices, working to strengthen the land they steward, care for the animals they raise, and show us all what taste of place can be. And yes, I do have some of their posters on my wall.
By Kim Steeh