Vermont Shade-grown Milk

When this reporter was young in the middle of the last century in Morrisville, Greaves Dairy delivered two scratched glass bottles filled with delicious opal-colored cream, floating on fresh whole milk twice weekly.

Today, I stop at Lantman’s in Hinesburg and grab a plastic jug of Booth Brothers “bth-free” milk and split. Occasionally, when we have city slicker guests, I snatch a waxed carton decorated with op-art Holsteins and filled with organic milk.

There is, however, a new trend coming to Vermont’s dairy industry, about which I suspect you have heard little… shade-grown milk.

Much to the surprise of Vermont biologists and even a few hunters, it turns out that farmers on some of the hill farms that died out in the ’50s and ’60s simply left their small herds to saunter off into the wild rather than selling them at auction.  As a result, here and there in Lamoille and Caledonia counties, hunters and hikers have come across individual cows or small herds of Guernseys and Jerseys living in the wild. These long-haired, feral cows are very rare, but their existence has been confirmed by state biologists.

An enterprising entrepreneur from the town of Hardwick has gained their trust and begun taming the long-haired cows by hand-feeding them organic grains and wheat grass in a specific place, at a specific time of day, and has only recently succeeding in making them comfortable enough to be hand-milked.

Todd Tingley, a self-described “naturist” – we suspect Mr. Tingley meant “naturalist” as he was fully clothed the day we interviewed him – who has spent many of his adult years living off the land, has formed the “Fair Trade Wild Milk Company” to capitalize on the extraordinary quality of the milk he manages to harvest from the few cows with whom he has made contact.

“We prob’ly won’t never be able to commoditize th’operation,” notes Tingley’s wife and partner Milky Whey. “There’s simply too few animals living in the woods for us ever to increase production beyond the high-end markets where people will appreciate the flavor quality of shade-grown milk.”

Eminent chefs in Stowe and Woodstock seem intrigued with the concept and compare the arrival of shade-grown milk to the renaissance of artisan goat cheeses being extruded from goats around Northern Vermont.

Explaining the phenomenon, Milky Whey Tingley, often alludes to terroir, the French epicurean concept of flavor being influenced by the land on which animals graze or the soils in which grapevines are grown. “Le terroir” is often confused with the non-epicurean French term “La terreur,” which refers instead to the human abattoir that Paris became during the French Revolution.

Not everyone is enthralled, René Leclerc of Lowell, who milks 650 cows in his free-range, open barns, scoffs at the idea of shade-grown milk. He rejects the idea that milk from these feral woodland cows is any more flavorful than milk from his own herd of Holsteins. “My cows is inna goldang shade all damn winter,” he noted huffily.

Mrs. Tingley describes the milk’s flavor in language similar to that used to describe honey. “The ruminant diet of these cows has a subtle, but very evident impact on the flavor of the milk they produce,” she insists. Chefs who have tried the milk agree. “Cows foraging on ferns, brackens, moss and lichens yield a distinctly spicy flavor in their milk, notes The Food Network’s star Sino-Polish chef, Hai-lee Abramovitz.

Shade-grown milk is expected to be available late this summer in gourmet shops. It will not be for everyone at $14.95 a pint.

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