The widespread circulation of an undercover video showing dairy cows being abused at a large farm in Chilliwack is having a ripple effect on the dairy industry. This week on Food Matters, I try help you navigate the maze of dairy products available here on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
That video certainly wasn’t pleasant to look at and it was very unpleasant to see people who clearly did not have any thoughts for the welfare of the animals they were abusing. I think part of the problem with that particular farm in the size of the operation, 3500 cows. The animal rights organization that shot the video, however, is saying that because this was the first farm in which it managed to place an undercover worker, it thinks that the abuse is widespread. Personally speaking, though, with any dairy farm I have ever been to anywhere in BC, I found nothing but farmers who really care for their animals and their welfare. It’s part of their nature and part of their business…production from dairy animals, especially cows, can really drop off if they are stressed, injured or sick.
Nonetheless, the reputation of dairy farmers has taken a hit because of this news. On Tuesday morning when the news broke, I posted a Facebook status that basically said, don’t tar all dairy farmers with the same brush. And while I received a lot of support for that statement via likes and comments, some of my friends were still asking, ‘well, where can I get dairy products that I can trust come from animals that haven’t been abused?’
There is no easy answer to that question. I’d love to say that there is no abuse of farm animals in BC but we’ve just seen the proof that there is. But I can certainly point you in directions where you have a much great assurance that you are purchasing quality products from dairy animals that are treated with care and respect. So, let’s consider the main dairy products we purchase here on the island. Milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream. Let’s start with the easiest category, cheese. Many of the cheesemakers here on the island either source their milk from animals on their own farm, or a single dairy farm close by that they have carefully selected. Companies that make cheese from their own dairy herd would include Moonstruck organic cheeses on Salt Spring Island, and Little Qualicum Cheeses in Parksville.
Today I got an email from the wife of the farm manager at Little Qualicum, who told me that farm is the only SPCA-certified dairy farm in British Columbia and that her husband loves the cows more than he loves her, ha ha ha. Any certified organic farms also give you another layer of inspection that may turn up anything untoward in the treatment of animals. Other cheesemakers like The Creamery at Cheese Point Farm, Natural Pastures, Salt Spring Island Cheese, all get their milk from local sources they’ve carefully selected, be they goat, sheep or dairy farms. Any water buffalo mozzarella you purchase from Natural Pastures comes from the very well-loved herd at Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley.
So if you are purchasing a locally-made artisan cheese you have a pretty good assurance the milk is from a smaller family farm that takes care of their animals. And this would also hold true for businesses like Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt near Courtenay, and the Legato Gelato people near Fanny Bay. Legato Gelato has their own milking herd of goats, and Tree Island gets their milk from one farm in Comox that they carefully chose not only for the quality of the milk, but the kind of care given to the animals.
It becomes more difficult to know about the source of the milk you’re consuming when you’re purchasing products such as cheese, butter, yogurts and milk that are processed and packaged by large processors. They need large quantities of milk, which is available through the Milk Marketing Board quota system, and that milk is a pool of milk which may be produced anywhere in the province. So there is no way of knowing that a litre of Island Farms milk or ice cream, while produced here on the island, comes from Island farms, or farms that you may have visited here and have seen humane treatment of animals. And an individual can’t just go to any dairy farm in BC and purchase milk directly from the farmer….although I am aware of people who purchase something called ‘cowshares’ at dairy farms because they want to purchase raw, unpasteurized milk. It’s a way to try to circumvent the law in BC that prevents the sale of unpasteurized milk. I’m not part of one of those systems but I presume anyone who is would have access to having a tour of the farm, since they own shares in it, after all.
Trying to buy dairy and other products if you want to keep in mind animal welfare, nutrition and growing practices is hard work! And the animal welfare nature of this particular story gives us another important angle to think about, but I still maintain you can put your trust in smaller, family owned and operated dairy farms in this area. I certainly can’t claim to have all the answers, but over the years I’ve met some very fine producers of dairy products here on the Islands. Check out this story about Farmhouse Natural Cheeses in Agassiz, and this story about two different dairy farms in the Fraser Valley, goat and cow.