By Rachel Gelman, Hazon Food Area Intern
There’s no doubt that including dairy in your diet can have a wide array of health benefits. Dairy staples such as yogurt, milk, and cheese offer a healthy dose of calcium, protein, and vitamin D. Consumption of low-fat dairy has been proven to help lower blood pressure, and the calcium that comes from dairy can increase bone density and has even been linked to weight loss. Plus, it’s absolutely delicious! But there are also some considerable reasons to choose organic dairy products over their non-organic counterparts.
First of all, dairy can only be certified as organic if the production animals consume certified organic feed and are managed organically. Therefore, buying organic and local dairy products not only supports organic farms, but it also supports fair treatment of the production animals. Organic dairy products can also be better for your health and the health of the animal. The chemical rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, is a genetically-synthesized hormone that some dairy farms inject into their cows to increase milk production. This hormone can have some serious health risks for animals. For cows, this hormone can lead to a 40% reduction in fertility, a considerable increase in the risk of clinical mastitis, and a 55% increase in the risk of lameness. Although there is no direct proof that rBGH is carcinogenic for humans, there’s been a lot of controversy within the environmental world as to whether or not this hormone is actually safe for human consumption. So it seems like organic and local is your best bet, not only for personal health, but also for the welfare of the animals producing your dairy products.
Aitan Mizrahi is a Jewish goat farmer that started Adva Dairy in 2004, eventually merging herds with Adamah in 2009 to become Adamah Dairy. He has 46 goats in his herd and he uses the goat’s milk to craft kosher, organic, artisanal cheeses and yogurt, as well as teaching Adamah visitors how to milk the goats. All of Adamah Dairy’s products are sold through their CSA or at local farm stands and markets. I was lucky enough to get to speak with Aitan Mizrahi and ask him some questions about his goats and his dairy. The interview is below.
First of all, why a goat farm? What inspired you to start a goat farm?
It came together for me in 2004 as the Adamah fellow. By my mid to late 20s I started figuring out that I wanted to work outside, work with my hands, and be more involved with the Jewish community, and through Adamah I was introduced to goats and animal husbandry. I found working with animals more rewarding than working with vegetables because they had personality and they were just engaging. It also connected me to my Judaism in a way that I hadn’t felt before because I never really identified with the white collar academic Jew of the 20th or 19th century, I always identified more with the biblical Jew, the nomadic Jew. My dad’s family is Kurdish, Mizrahi, and so I always had this inkling of what it would be like to be outside with your animals and I think it was a combination of the Judaism and the work and just being involved with growing my own food and providing food for myself and my community.
How do you feel that the values associated with organic dairy might correspond with Jewish values?
What distinguishes a Jewish dairy farmer, at least a dairy farmer who identifies as Jewish and practices Judaism is that on Shabbat when other farmers are going out to milk and to save the milk and bottle it to convert it into cheese, we don’t use the milk, we pour it out. As a business it’s kind of radical to think that one day a week you pour out your product. We milk for the sake of the animal, her utters are filled with milk and it’s uncomfortable to have full udders for so long so it’s our duty as caretakers to milk her. Early on in the Torah it talks a lot about proper stewardship and the land, and proper stewardship includes caring for your domesticated animals and for their well-being. There’s also a lot in the Torah and in the following texts about not really polluting your body and taking care of yourself, and there seems to be an obvious connection here- eating healthy foods is a good way of taking care of your body as a Jew.
Do you think there is value in forming relationships with your animals?
There are some interesting dynamics of working with domesticated animals and the relationship and the responsibility we have towards caring for animals. Doing it in a respectful way and in a small scale way is important. When it gets to be 100 or 200 animals and you don’t know the animals personally there’s more room for error, and here on a small scale we have the ability to pay attention to the detail and be able to bring in variety.
Do you think it is important to choose organic dairy products over industrial? If so, why?
I would say one important value is that it gives the consumer the opportunity to know the farmer and know the animals. Whenever customers come and see the animals it really puts together some of the missing pieces about where food comes from and gives them a different relationship and value with their food. So I think the small-scale element and knowing the farmer is very important. A lot of Judaism is about learning and knowing, how much better to know and really be there and experience it. We hand milk our goats so there’s no interference between us and the animals. We’re really going to the source, and our animals eat whatever is growing in the woods. They roam the woods and they convert all of that local energy that’s stored up in the woods into liquid sunshine. If you have the choice, after seeing what’s out there in the commercial industry, why would anyone choose that. On a basic level it makes sense as human beings to make your own food and participate in food making, it’s a basic need that we all have and it’s a pleasure to be involved in that and be able to bring that to people.