How America’s Dairy Farmers Are Making Cheese Greener (& Better) Than Ever
We’ve teamed up with Dairy Farmers of America and The Nerd Herd to shine a spotlight on the sustainability efforts of their family farm-owners, from farm to table to cheesemakers and beyond.
Between Buffalo and the Finger Lakes, there stands a 143-year-old tree surrounded by vast acres of neon-green pastures. The tree, one of the largest cottonwoods in the state of New York, was planted in 1880 by Frank Tillotson, who had just bought the land to raise dairy cows. He named his emergent business Cottonwood Farms after the tree—a business that is not only still thriving today, but innovating.
Cottonwood is one of many dairy farms focused on the way they farm in order to be a part of the solution in helping the planet. They’re family farm-owners of Dairy Farmers of America, a farmer-owned cooperative of nearly 11,000 family farm-owners across the U.S. working to produce environmentally-friendly milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products that don’t skimp on quality.
At Cottonwood, this commitment to sustainability is all about heritage. “We are only stewards of the land for a short time,” says Paul Tillotson, fourth-generation owner and Frank’s great-grandson. “It’s important to us that we’re leaving it in as good as or better condition than we got it in.” Cottonwood has been a certified organic farm since 2005, and they’re home to two of only three Solar Hybrid Diffused Augmented Wind Turbines—which use both solar and wind energy to power the farm—in the country. They also run bi-facial solar panels that reflect the sun’s rays in the summer and bounce light off of the snow in winter. They also grow feed for their 300 dairy cows who graze freely across 800 acres of smooth, rolling grassland.
The Tillotsons’ efforts are part of DFA’s work to reduce its carbon footprint to net zero or net negative, an effort in which they recently got a boost from a USDA grant to scale back methane emissions and increase soil carbon sequestration. This work is led by an aptly named Nerd Herd—a team of farmers, engineers, scientists, veterinarians, and many others who are working to make dairy more sustainable—and demonstrates that dairy is part of the solution to climate change.
“Each piece of our operation works together,” says Will Collier, DFA farmer-owner of T&K Dairy, in Snyder, Texas. “We grow feed for the cows and convert their waste into fertilizer for the crops. We use recycled water from our lagoon to flush and clean the concrete lanes in the robot barn, and then use the same water on our fields to help fertilize the crops.” Collier also maintains detailed records of any chemicals used on the land, monitors soil for nutrient levels, and keeps his cows healthy with lights and fans (and even back-scratchers) set up on energy-efficient timers.
Several DFA family farms now also use anaerobic digesters, which capture methane emitted by the cows’ waste and convert it into energy that can be used on the farm—or sold back to the grid. At Philip Verwey Farm in Hanford, California, the operation produces enough renewable energy to power the 4,600-acre farm and enable Philip and Brent Verwey to sell two-thirds of their energy back to the local utility cooperative.
And it isn’t all digesters—DFA is also committed to mitigating methane emissions by supporting trials for feed additives that may reduce cows’ methane output.
“The most untold story of our industry is what we’re doing as recyclers,” says AJ de Jager, DFA farmer-owner of Hunter Ridge Dairy in Ault, Colorado. “We bale old tires and recycle them as windbreaks for our feed lot. They absorb sunlight and create a higher thermal output and insulation.” Hunter Ridge also recycles their food scraps, water, and manure. At other operations, such as Brownhaven Farm in New Bremen, Ohio, sustainability initiatives take the form of crop rotation, management of water run-off, and wetland establishment. At Crimson Ridge Dairy in Watertown, Wisconsin, Shelly Grosenick keeps chickens to help with organic pest control, and makes soaps from her leftover raw milk. “Taking care of the land so that it takes care of us is important,” Grosenick says.
All of this creates dairy you can feel great about eating—and not just because it’s better for the planet. Members of the Nerd Herd ensure sustainability for the entire DFA ecosystem at every turn. From the veterinarians who ensure that the cows are happy and healthy to the engineers (affectionately referred to as the “engi-nerds”) who help the family farms transition to renewable energy sources, this team of experts contributes to the feel-good factor of sustainably-made cheese.
“Being environmentally friendly is good for everyone,” says Brent Verwey. “It’s good for the public and it’s good for the industry.”
The farmer-owners of DFA produce the dairy that goes into a wide range of products, from butter and cream to cheddar and gouda—and their website, Half & Half, has plenty of recipes to help you transform all that sustainably-made dairy into comforting, delicious dishes. As the name suggests, their Five Cheese and Mushroom Slow Cooker Risotto employs a medley of cheeses like Asiago, fontina, and parmesan, while their Cauliflower Mac ‘n’ Cheese makes use of their planet-friendly milk, butter, and mozzarella. On the sweet side, we also love their creamy No-Bake Lemon Curd Cheesecake Bars.
Looking for a taste of classic American dairy? Look no further than the cheese curds in Food52’s Best Poutine. You can also share sustainable dairy at your next gathering with a Bloody Mary Cheese Plate and our Easiest, Cheesiest Skillet Dip, or take a cue from South Korean YouTube star Mangchi and whip up some Grilled Cheese Tteokbokki. The possibilities are always endless when it comes to cooking with good dairy, and even more so when it’s dairy you can feel good about eating.
What are your favorite cheesy dishes to make with American dairy? Tell us in the comments below!
Our friends at Dairy Farmers of America are committed to preserving farmers’ legacies and nourishing a hungry world. They champion sustainability through innovation, community-building, and of course, plenty of delicious dairy. To learn more about DFA and sustainably-made dairy, visit their site.