Farmer Mike De Smet walks about six feet behind a group of 20 dairy cows through knee-high green grass, rhythmically whistling as he brings them from pasture for their daily milking. The scene is idyllic in every sense of the word. Mike is calm, the cows are calm, the sun shines, wind rustles the leaves, the acequia waters murmur behind us. It is the classic pastoral scene we see more often portrayed on milk bottles than on actual dairy farms, most of which are large confinement operations these days. Mike’s wife, Erica, stands with my husband, two children and me on the dirt road nearby and quizzes my daughter on bovine knowledge. The black and white cows are Holsteins and the brown ones are Jersey cows (one of these, Snooki, has a son named Lorenzo). Did you know cows have four stomachs? And all cows have horns, even the girls. My 5-year-old starts to look concerned as the large, gentle beasts move closer, so Erica shares, “They only have teeth on the bottom, so don’t worry, they can’t bite you. There’s Red,” she exclaims, and interrupts her teaching to praise and adore the sole red and white Guernsey now strolling by us. “You’re our prize milking cow, aren’t you, Red?” she crows. Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion, but Red does indeed look pretty proud of herself. In fact, all the cows on De Smet Dairy Farm look content, clean and healthy.
De Smet only became a Grade A, grass-fed, organic, raw-milk dairy in October of 2013, but dairy farming has been in the family for generations. “My grandfather moved to Bosque Farms in 1949, bought his first section of land and started dairying right over there,” Mike says, pointing to the original flat barn. His grandfather started out sitting on a stool and milking the cows by hand. Things went well, the farm expanded, he bought a pail milker (one of the first machine milkers) and “was probably milking more cows at that time than I am now,” Mike says. It was a confinement operation––about 250 cows were kept in an area smaller than a football field; the feed was harvested and brought to them. Later, Mike’s dad, Huck (birth name, Emil), and Mike’s uncle took over and ran the dairy together until the uncle was killed in a tractor accident. Huck was left to do everything himself—which might be why he attempted to dissuade his three sons from taking over the family farm.
“He would always tell us, ‘Don’t do this, it’s too much work, and there’s not any money in agriculture,’” Mike says. Though his brothers moved on to other careers, Mike was not to be dissuaded. He went to college in Florida, then moved to Vermont, where he managed several dairies. He was on the verge of buying a 1,800-cow farm [HM1] when his focus shifted to consulting with smaller, grass-fed, raw-milk dairies. Around the same time, Huck suffered a stroke and was unable to run the farm. Mike returned to take over but his father had already contracted out all the cows. “We tried a few cash crops at first,” Mike explains, “[like] hops and a few other things to get the farm to work and generate enough money, but dairying, I realized, is where my passion lies.” Inspired by the smaller Vermont farms, as well as by the birth of their first son, Landon (now 3 years old; they also have a second son, Logan, 1), and apparently propelled by naysayers, Erica and Mike decided they were going to have the cleanest, healthiest milk in the state. The USDA inspectors came and told them what needed revamping to be certified organic and up to code as a raw-milk retailer and they were clear in this message – reason for taking this out is that they are now supportive of us and we don’t want to tarnish that relationship.” Other pessimists had similar messages—your cows are going to dry up early because you’re not milking twice a day; your bacteria counts are going to be high; you can’t graze cows and milk them[HM2] . “We were going about it opposite of anybody else,” Mike says. “And thus, everything worked out fine.”
At a recent organic farming conference, an inspector from the New Mexico Environment Department stood up in front of a class Mike was teaching and lauded him for setting records in New Mexico for clean milk. “Our milk is so clean because our cows are out on pasture,” Erica explains. “We do not confine our cows. We get them out there and continue rotating paddocks; we don’t ever allow pathogens to be able to grow. We’re not facilitating a lot of these things like E coli or salmonella becuase the cows graze and rotate every three weeks or so on five-acre parcels of land, each sowed with different grasses and legumes, all organically grown. Understanding that the cow is only as healthy as the soil, the De Smets practice nutrient cycling, which means they plant cover crops after the grazing crops have been harvested to add necessary nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil. They do as much natural, eco-friendly farming as possible, irrigating and planting according to water conservancy projections about how much water (“liquid gold,” as Erica calls it) to expect that season, purchasing a no-till drill to keep tractor work to a minimum, and even using solar power to run the electricity through the paddock ropes[HM3] .
When the cows come in for milking, the entire udder is scrubbed down—even the underside of the nipple. The udders are sprayed with an organic sanitizer, hand dried and stripped (patted in a way that helps the cows psychologically prepare for milking) before the pumps are placed and the milking begins. The process is time consuming, but because the De Smets are not milking hundreds, they are able to take these extra steps with each cow to ensure a clean product. Part of being a Grade A dairy means that every month the USDA tests the milk in both the bulk tank and the bottle. (The De Smets bottle onsite three days a week). Because of his confidence in the product, and perhaps partly because the USDA initially opposed his mission, Mike looks forward to these monthly inspections. “The inspector told me I’m the only dairyman in the state that calls him to ask when he’s coming to test,” he grins.
To keep the nutrients of raw milk intact while maintaining a low bacteria count, the milk is cold pasteurized—run through cold plates immediately after milking to bring the temperature down to 36 degrees—before being bottled and refrigerated. Erica addresses the “Why raw milk?” question with this explanation: “The milk you find in the store is essentially a processed food. We call it ‘dead milk.’” She is referring to the common practice of ultra-pasteurization: the process by which the milk is heated to very high temperatures to kill “bad” bacteria, which also depletes the nutrients and turns the naturally occurring enzyme lactase into lactose, a sugar many people are intolerant of. The milk then has to be re-“fortified” with the nutrients that were cooked off, and these can be more difficult for the body to process than the nutrients in their original, raw form. “Raw cow’s milk has all the vitamins, minerals, probiotics and nutrients that your body needs to grow,” she continues. “I’m giving you something that I’m willing to drink myself and give to my children because I believe it’s the healthiest thing you can put in your body. And 99 percent of people who don’t ‘do’ dairy because of lactose intolerance can happily drink our milk.”
On that first day the farm opened its doors to sell in October of 2013, people steadily arrived and purchased milk all day and they have continued to do so every day since. New Mexico raw milk buyers previously had to go as far Texas; Erica says she’d even heard of raw milk being trucked in from Colorado in gallon Ziploc bags. Because of the health benefits and outstanding taste, people were willing to go to great lengths. Thanks to the De Smets, that distance just got quite a bit shorter.
Story by Emily Beenen; photos by Joy Godfrey