Located in the heart of Pennsylvania farm country sits a farm with roughly 80 cows, some chickens and horses, the makings of an organic vegetable garden, and a family that has devoted itself to humane, progressive, and sustainable farming.
I had been buying cheese from Keswick Creamery before I started the HumaneFoodFinder. In fact, Mel -- one of the owners of the farm -- was the first person I spoke to about the animal welfare practices on her dairy farm. She was not only gracious in explaining their practices in the midst of a busy day at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, but like many who devote their livelihoods to humane farming, she was enthusiastic about sharing this information that is absent in the industrial farming world.
Mel helped inform my standards for humane.
At that time, I was reading a lot of materials and trying to navigate through commendable farm groups' standards -- like Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane -- and less-than-commendable "humane washing" from the likes of Land O'Lakes, Perdue and such. Mel walked me through Keswick's humane standards: when de-horning calves they use anesthetic to numb the area so the calf does not feel pain; they do not dock their cows' tails; their cows are grass fed on pasture; their cows are not over-milked.
Now, more than a year later, I was attending Keswick Creamery's annual open house.
Like so many farmers who sell at farmers markets (although not all), Keswick invites consumers to visit their farm and see where their food comes from. I was excited to see one of the early inspirations for HumaneFoodFinder up close and personal.
While driving to Keswick, we passed the types of farms I had read about, but never seen in person. On the highway, we passed several factory chicken farms, or what the industry calls "grower houses."
They were large, windowless structures with several fans in the wall circulating the rancid ammonia-filled air inside; they were generally isolated from other buildings; they sometimes had roaming livestock nearby to give the illusion that what existed inside would not be abhorred by all who saw it.
After a highway lined by a variety of farms, both factory and small, we turned up a long road and arrived at Keswick Creamery. We were greeted by Mel and her five year old daughter, Madeline.
Roaming nearby were the cows, all with ID necklaces, not ear tags as most cows have. Their ages ran the gamut from two to nine years old. A typical dairy cow is sent off to slaughter for hamburgers at the ripe old age of four, as she will probably have infections in her utters, be too sick to produce enough milk, or has been milked to capacity.
Meeting the cows.
We went into the pasture, and Mel started introducing them. She knew every cow by name, and Madeline was in search of her favorite cow, Ikea. The cows are named with the first letter of their mothers' names, so they were clearly running out of "I" names.
As we walked among the cows, Mel would whisper comments to me about the different cows, as Alex and Madeline went on the search for Ikea.
"This one is really pushy," she would say. "This one doesn't like Madeline for some reason, and that one loves attention."
We strolled in the pasture, petting the cows and talking about why Mel and her husband Mark ran the farm as they did. How they got rid of a vet who couldn't understand why Mark would go through the trouble to numb the horns before debudding a calf. How they make sure their "family cows" are going to a good home and how they make sure their male calves are not going to a factory farm. How they work 12-15 hours each day, seven days a week. How they have chosen this lifestyle.
Mel thinks her cows are different.
While learning about Keswick, I also learned that Mel thinks her cows are different. She told me about all the times that Mark had to rebuild the stalls in the barn where the cows stay during the winter. "They kept knocking them down because they wanted to be close to each other. I don't know if it is just my cows or all cows, but Mark stopped rebuilding the stalls, so now they just lay together."
She also told me about how her cows are sad when the weather is too cold to graze. They stare longingly at the pasture and don't seem to understand why they can't go out there. It was hard not to think about the majority of farm animals who never get to see pasture, except maybe on the way to slaughter, and only through the slotted holes in a truck.
Keswick cares for the cows after they leave the farm.
One of the most cruel and hidden elements of the factory farming system (in addition to the short, painful life of a dairy cow), is what happens to the male cows and the post-milking life of a dairy cow. It is no secret that the dairy industry supports veal, and there have been numerous investigations leading to public outcry regarding the inhumane treatment of baby cows. It is also no secret that dairy cows are over-milked for their two most productive years to maximize output, and then slaughtered- some are too sick to stand, or "downer cows," but are slaughtered nonetheless.
Mel is keenly aware of this and only sells her males to farms that pasture their cows and let them graze. Mark, when delivering the cows, investigates the environment to make sure it's suitable for a cow. They also sell their old dairy cows to families to become family cows, since they can still produce some milk and can then live out their lives with a family. My ears perked up like Winston's when I heard about the chance to buy a Keswick family cow. Luckily for Alex (and our landlord), there is a long waiting list for a Keswick cow.
As we continued on our tour we saw where the cheese is made. It was funny that I wasn't as interested in the cheese, given that I buy it every week and love to cook. But this tour was about the cows. Yet, I would be remiss not to mention how the cheese is what makes Keswick such a successful business. And at the end of the tour, we were treated to delicious delights: a melted cheese and salsa dip, roasted potatoes with feta cheese, and hot apple cider.
Back to reality. As we drove away from the farm, I spotted another "grower shed" that advertised having natural chicken. Yet it stands in stark contrast to Mel and Mark's farm.
And that is what HumaneFoodFinder is all about:
Because all those "animal units" (another industry term) in the "grower houses" are local if you are from Pennsylvania. And according to the propaganda on some properties, they are natural. And if you talk to the operators, they may even try to tell you the chickens are happy. But unless customers are allowed to visit the farm, inside and out, you will never really know.