The Big Cheeses at the Land Grant State University

By Will Winter, DVM

The Big Cheeses at the Land Grant State UniversityThe story you are about to read is true. It is not a pretty one, rather graphic actually, but therefore all the more important to tell. It all took place last week on the campus of a large land grant university in an agriculturally important state in the Midwest. It was not my own state and it really matters not where it happened because this story (and worse) could occur at just about any agricultural university in the American heartland. Biodynamic gardner Hugh Lovel stated in a recent Acres, USA interview that “universities are going to be the last place where you will see agriculture change.” He also observed that “science advances one funeral at a time.” I have seen living proof of these facts.

I was there to lecture an assembly of graduate students in the Dairy Science Department, a group that also included stray undergraduates and members of the faculty.The large auditorium, which could hold several hundred people when packed, filled slowly, the students electing to sit as far back from the front as humanly possible. Except, that is, for one rather large professor who sat on the aisle in the front row. As I was waiting for stragglers to be seated and before being introduced by the dean, I greeted the prof and commented on his bravery for sitting so close to the action. “I’m sitting here because I forgot my hearing aids,” he replied with a smile. When I replied with another joke, he said, “Huh?” He wasn’t kidding about the hearing aids. He told me that he was in the field of dairy microbiology, a good thing I figured since my topic for the day was probiotics. I assumed he would be quite interested in what I had to say. Well, we shall see.

But before I tell you about the lecture experience I should back up a little and share what I had learned from the dean earlier in the day. I’d arrived several hours early and hoped to get my bearings and see a bit of the facility. The dean was very kind and gave me the bulk of his afternoon. Since I knew nothing of this school, other than their long history of excellent dairy judging teams, much less the politics of the place, I inquired about the university dairy herd. That should be a safe starting place I figured, except, you see, the dean is actually from the manufacturing end of the dairy business, that is, the processes that happen to milk once it enters the bulk tank, so even though he was in charge of everything, he really couldn’t tell me a whole lot about the production operation. Humm. . .

The herd itself, which consists of 160 cows, mostly Holstein, is under the direction of the production team and I was soon aware of the fact that under this one roof we have the potential for controversy especially since each team is often in competition for the same grant dollar. Much could be said about whether or not these departments should be combined. In our own state, for example, the manufacturing team is actually in the college of Food Science so, while they never have to compete for grant dollars, it’s quite odd for such an information gap to exist. You would think that they would want to speak to each other.

I began to ask the dean some simple questions to ascertain what their stance was on “alternative” dairying, first inquiring about the amount of organic production in his state, to which he informed me that there was “no market” for organic milk. This was the same answer I got when I asked if any research was being conducted on grass-fed dairying. No market. After these first two questions, the dean was starting to get a glassy-eyed look on his face almost as if he were about to go to sleep. Getting a bit, uh, braver, I ventured a query about the school’s official line on the use of synthetic recombinant bovine growth hormone. He told me that rBGH is “fine when you can get it!” As it stood they “couldn’t get enough” due to some sort of “quality control problem” at the factory. I thought about making some sort of statement regarding the oxymoronic nature of that comment but I stuffed it. I had come to observe, give my little talk, but not criticize. A tough goal, indeed.

Sensing trouble, I mustered up a ball of good cheer and asked the dean to tell me what he considered to be the Crown Jewel of their university’s production-side research. He also perked up a bit and told me there is tremendous interest and research at their school in using distillery waste products from ethanol plants as dairy cattle feed. Then he looked slightly alarmed and cautioned me that “this area is not without problems, you know,” to which I heartily agreed. He then stated his concern, which was that since dairymen are showing such great interest in swill, they expect the prices to rise soon. This was what he meant by possible problems.

Apparently the news of the horrible scandal created on the East Coast back in the late 1800s when whiskey corn swill was fed to dairy cows, had not yet reached this college. (Those readers who are unfamiliar with this issue should read The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid. This is not a happy story either. It is one that led to problems with TB, infant mortality, sharply increased somatic cell counts and lots of sickly and infected cows. It is probably the main reason that we now have mandatory pasteurization of all commercial dairy.) Even in centers of higher learning, history is sometimes doomed to repeat itself.

But, on to hopefully brighter topics, the dean next asked me if I would be interested in touring the college production facility, something I wouldn’t have missed. Coming in from the parking lot I’d noticed quite a few students sitting in the Dairy Bar where college-produced dairy products were sold. It brought back happy memories of my own college dairy bar back at Kansas State when I was an ag student. In this happy place, we hungry students found wholesome milk, meats, cheeses, sausages and other good foods, which we blissfully consumed and purchased. Ours was by far the happiest and healthiest place on the campus and illustrated the ripe fruits of a rich land and creative people.

As we donned our funny hair nets and entered the terra cotta room filled with familiar stainless steel vats and plumbing, I got the feeling that the plant might be severely underused. It was an old plant from the 1960s, and there was only one employee. I soon learned that only a tiny fraction of the herd’s annual half million pounds of milk actually got processed on-site, the majority going into the bulk tank truck to be hauled to a commercial plant.

Where to begin. First of all, and deeply shocking, came the news that the production of whole milk here was zero. Mostly skim (for health reasons, of course), with some 1% and a bit of 2%, then quite a bit of chocolate skim milk. All milk product was packed into 5-gallon plastic bags resembling breast implants for Amazonian women, but really for use in the dormitory cafeterias. I asked about ultra-pasteurization and the dean told me this plant was too old but they hoped to have it in a new plant someday. Oh, joy.

Still hopeful, I was escorted to the cheesemaking room where I asked about production of kefir and yogurt. “Oh, we have none of that, no market for it, you see.” O.K. The cheese room was basically a room where artificially orange mild cheddar was made, and then-the Crown Gem (dare I say creme de la creme?) of the production plant-Processed Cheese! Of course. The majority of the cheese made in this school was converted into a squirt-tube processed cheese-like substance. As I peered into the large walk-in cooler of cheddar and processed stuff, I saw something I will never forget as long as I live. The dean was beaming as I saw it. . . there it was, brick after brick of day-glo colored cheese. . . orange, and get this, RADIOACTIVE BLUE! The cheese was sold locally and very popular, but I swear, the only time I’ve ever seen artificial colors this intense was in globs of Play Dough! This fake cheese, like some sort of leftovers from the kindergarten playpen on the planet Krypton, was perhaps the most obscene food-like item I’ve ever been exposed to, and I’ve seen some bad junk food. Help! S.O.S.! Get me out of here!

But, it wasn’t over yet. The next stop on the tour was the ice cream area, another area the dean was particularly proud of. As it turns out, ice cream is just about the only thing that is sold in the “Dairy Bar” and he proudly told me that they have experimented with over 100 flavors. Huge barrels of artificial flavoring and pallets of sugar backed up his claims.

My tour was over at last, and it was almost time for my lecture. A dish of ice cream (on the house) came to me as we departed the dairy bar, and the sugar rush was hitting me by the time we got back to the dean’s office (please, pancreas, don’t let me crash while lecturing). Perhaps sensing this, the dean took me back to the large faculty and grad student break room behind his office. “Coffee?” he asked. Sure, I said, surreptitiously dumping the last couple of scoops of ice cream into the trash.

The next question is another I will not soon forget, “Cream or sugar?” Well, of course, CREAM, I said eagerly, adding playfully, IF it’s good, of course! You should have seen the dean’s face drop at that point as our eyes met upon the shelf behind the coffee pot. My stare froze upon what was there, and, I’m serious, a monster-sized container of NON-DAIRY CREAMER . . . . Sheepishly, the dean steered me to the table saying, “Well, uh, it’s what everyone wants, do you, uh, still want some?” No, I said, I’ll just have it black as I stirred my cup, trying not to stare at the ceramic cow creamer on the table, also stuffed to the top with the fake creamer. Here I was in the “inner sanctum” of a large four-story edifice that was all-about-dairy, a building designed to teach and send graduate students out into the world, shaping nutrition habits, views about dairy products and food science around the world. . . and now THIS. . . my head was spinning.

And then it was time to give my presentation. By now the auditorium was half full, the back half, that is. The posture of the students was disturbing, however, although anyone who teaches now knows this body language all too well. Since I frequently speak to students at many veterinary schools, I should be used to it, but I still find it haunting and unsettling. The goal seems to be to slouch as low in the chair as possible with at least one arm supporting the head, a heavy, perhaps overfilled object, obviously not able be held up without props. The look on the face is very close to cod on ice in a meat market cooler, only less vibrant. Since this was not a required course, no one had notebooks.

I also know from speaking as an “outsider” to veterinary and medical schools that professors attend lectures like mine in a basically hostile stance. They eye us “necessary evils,” nervously and fearfully, as if we might be there to stir up trouble (yes), perhaps there to make people think (guilty as charged). We are, in reality, a challenge to their fiefdoms, Scary! Whatever, it’s blatantly clear that they are threatened and they will make every effort to undermine our credibility and, by doing so, attempt to restore their own prowess in the eyes of their students. It’s not uncommon to be heckled by them, often merely a shout: “Where’s yer scientific proof?” Fortunately, in my case, for almost 12 years I used to be part of the university system, making scientific proof, as it were. Scientific proof is another whole can of worms, but I digress.

As I said, I’m sort of used to this overt hostility. In this case, the professors sat in groups of two or three, often nudging each other and making funny jokes about my presentation. On this day, one of them made his mid-lecture statement by dramatically huffing his way out of the room. There is an illusion made that these are “centers of higher education” and that they are open to new ideas and thoughts but, HAR, HAR, HAR!! It is strictly a ruse. New ideas, especially if they might rock the boat, will be crushed.

After a few attempts at humor to “warm up” the audience I continued, trying to maintain my lecture stamina, but merely functioning on previously gained confidence. I was not getting as much as a chuckle or smile today. If I was a stand-up comic and had this crowd I would either stop performing forever, or go kill myself. By now a couple of students had fallen completely asleep. Automatic pilot got me through the introduction and after briefly reminding people of the nature of probiotics I was ready to dip into the science of my topic. I jokingly asked the front row microbiology professor how I was doing so far (I hadn’t really started yet, but I was trying to get some audience interaction going). “Well, actually, I disagree with most of what you’ve said so far, but other than that, fine.” Alrighty, then.

My presentation was about the latest scientific breakthroughs in the field of probiotics and I was sure that nothing I’d brought was particularly controversial, anecdotal or conjectural. Just a review of science. So when the lights came up and many were rubbing their eyes and stretching, I let it be known that I was open for questions or reactions. After a very long pause one graduate student raised her hand. Her statement was that everything I’d said was very nice, almost like a commercial for probiotics, but she wondered “where was my scientific proof for all this?” Now mind you, virtually every word I’d said had consisted of quoting science, so I was a bit unsure how to answer. What I decided to do was answer the question that I think she was REALLY asking, which, to me, is “If all your stuff is true, as you say, why aren’t we learning it here in our school?” This is a serious question, though, and certainly not a safe area for an interloper to broach. I did my best to reiterate that EVERY WORD I spoke, every slide, was documented and referenced and just left it at that. Not too surprisingly, there were no more questions.

After some relieved applause (it’s finally over!) the dean came up, thanked me for my wonderful talk, and said, as per college tradition, the department had a gift for the speaker, a small token and reminder of the event. Now I don’t know whether I created the energy that chose the gift, or whether all visiting teachers got the same thing, but, when I opened the crinkled brown plain paper bag, there it was: my own personal brick of their pride and joy, the RADIOACTIVE BLUE AND ORANGE processed cheese!

He was right, I’m going to keep this cheesy reminder forever! Higher Education, thank you, so very much!

This article appeared in the Fall 2005 edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

About the Author

William G. Winter, DVM, graduated in veterinary medicine from Kansas State University in 1975. He also received a degree in animal nutrition and completed post-graduate studies and conducted research in veterinary toxicology. After graduating he moved to Minnesota, specializing in surgical referrals, and opened an emergency clinic. In 1980 he created what became one of the largest and most successful holistic veterinary practices in the United States.

In 1983 he co-founded the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. He writes for several veterinary and agricultural journals and websites and has served as the veterinary advisor to the International Alliance of Sustainable Agriculture since 1984. He is the author of The Holistic Veterinary Handbook (2nd ed. out soon) and manufactures and markets Rescue Animal Products as well as Restoration Raw 100% Grass-Fed Pet Food. In 1999 he sold his practice and the Sojourner Farms Pet Food Company to become a free-lance journalist and lecturer, teaching about holistic veterinary livestock issues, sustainable agriculture and traditional nutrition. He has recently founded the American Holistic Livestock Association.

He is the chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation for Minneapolis-St. Paul and distributes farm-fresh dairy products, pastured pork, grass-finished bison and farm food in the Twin Cities area. He moderates several web discussion groups such as Traditional Foods MN and in 2008 opened the Traditional Foods Warehouse and Buying Club. He works as a free-lance independent holistic herd heath consultant for grass-based livestock producers and since 2005, has been the herd consultant for the Thousand Hills Cattle Company of Cannon Falls, MN.

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