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Want Milk?

Posted: May 7, 2011 - 2:38pm  |  Updated: May 7, 2011 - 9:39pm

Editor’s note: This is the final piece in a three-part series on raising urban farm animals.

My family is fueled by dairy products. Our Irish/Scottish/Swedish/French blood mix seems to require milk fat to keep pumping. In one week my family of four can go through six half-gallon cartons of milk, one pound of butter, one ball of mozzarella, one two-pound block of cheddar, one quart of yogurt, and probably another pound of butter. Some weeks we add to that a pint or two of ice cream, a pint of sour cream, and, well, a spare pound of butter (yet our cholesterol checks are excellent — gotta love genetics).

So, because I try to buy organic, hormone-free stuff, a huge percentage of our weekly food budget goes to many forms of milk. For a family with no milk allergies or lactose intolerance, reducing our dairy intake to save money means a significant reduction in family nutrition, with nothing less expensive or local, and equally nutritious, to take its place. With every pint and pound of it shipped in, and vulnerable to rising fuel costs, my milk-fat hook-up has become insecure — and I’m getting nervous.

You see, I can remember back to Juneau’s 1970s when many families drank powdered milk, mixed in pitchers. Until the mid-1960s there were local dairies, but milk from Outside got cheaper, and Juneau’s land more valuable, so the dairies closed. Imported milk wasn’t cheap enough for everyone, though, and powdered milk continued as a local staple. With fuel and food prices rising, and no local dairies, many families won’t be able to sustain all of their dairy-based nutrition over the long term, without reverting, once again, to powdered milk.

Unlike the recent discussion about reviving the AJ Mine — which happened because the mountain and the ore are still there, and the price of gold high enough — any discussion of reviving Juneau’s dairies has a major hurdle: even though the price of milk and shipping might make locals competitive, Juneau’s agricultural and grazing land is long gone; covered by buildings or protected by wetlands regulations. Any dairy in Juneau would now have to rely on intensive land use and imported feed. Possible, but less inviting for potential dairy-owners.

So what’s a family to do if they’re getting priced out of the dairy section? Unfortunately, unlike for other urban farm animals (like rabbits and chickens), I can’t list out tried and true steps to creating a home dairy. The real solutions require enough land and/or motivation, and far more information than I can outline here. But there are a few guidelines and ideas I can offer, if you’d like to ponder the possibilities:

Check your zoning: Farm animals, other than chickens, are only currently allowed in RR, D-1, and D-3 zones. In these zones you may have up to three farm animals without any permits if the stable and running areas are more than 100 feet from the nearest neighboring residence. For less than 100 feet, or more than three animals, a permit is required.

Idea: If you can’t have farm animals in your zone, see if a friend can. Set up a goat or cow-share with them or use/lease some of their land.

Check your taste buds: Make sure your family can happily make the switch from pasteurized milk to raw, whole milk. Or, more radically from cow’s milk to goat milk. Young children usually make the switch easier than older children and adults.

Idea 1: In many places people are clamoring (and joining lawsuits) to have access to raw milk because they feel it has higher nutritional value and better taste than pasteurized. On your next vacation, see if you can find a dairy that will (or is even allowed to) give you a taste.

Idea 2: If you enter an animal share with others, and your best efforts don’t result in a happy dairy home life, you can sell a share easier than you can sell an animal.

Check your schedule: Animals that produce milk must be milked, and on time. Any nursing mother knows what it’s like if her baby misses a meal or two. The va-va-voom factor is quickly eclipsed by the “dear God, find me a baby, now” effect. Bossy and Nanny are the same. Milking must happen regularly and daily, along with other care, to maintain milk production as well as animal comfort and health. Make sure your family, or animal-share group, has a full understanding of the responsibilities, and a detailed plan for how to live up to them.

Idea 1: If you can’t commit to regular responsibilities, maybe you can agree to pay more for your share of an animal to reimburse your partners’ for their time.

Idea 2: A few folks in town have the land, the facilities and the know-how to keep and care for a cow or goat. With a clear agreement and payment they might be willing to do some of the work for you. A good place to start asking would be Swampy Acres — they have connections to many agriculturally able folks in town and could help you make inquiries.

Check with the experts: If your zoning, land, family, motivation, and schedule look to line up, call the Cooperative Extension for the best information on how to get started. They have experts, publications, and connections throughout Alaska. The folks at Swampy Acres are also an excellent resource for information about where to get animals, how to prepare for their arrival, and how to keep them healthy and productive.

Check out City Community Development: Less than a year ago, most Juneau neighborhoods couldn’t have chickens. The city lumped chickens into the same zoning category as cows, goats, horses, etc. Local chicken enthusiasts got busy and advocated for poultry-appropriate zoning regulations and Juneau responded. Now almost every zone in Juneau allows small flocks of hens with no permits. The city planners intend to update all of their domestic livestock regulations. If you have an interest in having a goat, for example, and your research shows that your property is large enough but you can’t meet the zoning requirements, call the city Community Development office and offer to help them with their efforts.

Dairy insecurity may never be fully solved in Juneau. So, until a dairy opens, or cow-shares become more realistic, I’m shopping more carefully, buying in bulk and freezing, and trying to moderate our consumption. But I’ll say it right now, I’m not sure life is worth living without enough butter.

• Lewis is an architect and member of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. For butter lovers, she has the following tip: thoroughly blend a pound of butter with two cups of canola oil and refrigerate. Tasty, cheaper, healthier, spreadable “better butter.”

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