This weekend in Indianapolis marks the halfway point of the Yogurt Pedaler trip. I’ve ridden about 400 miles, and I’ve visited two farms and two farmers markets. I’ve learned a lot, and the project has evolved in many ways.
One key lesson has been the real, inescapable prevalence of corn and soybeans to the agricultural – and physical – landscape of these two states. When this project was born, I had dreams of biking from farm to farm, learning about one farm from another and building my route as the days passed. Luckily, I decided to plan a little more – there really aren’t enough dairy farms to fly by the seat of my pants and make any real progress – but I keep finding out about great people and places a day or two after I visit them. And I’m certainly still building my route as the days pass.
Another key discovery has been that milk and yogurt are really heavy. As are a big glass jar, ice, and a cooler. Halfway through week two, after a couple of days of incessant headwinds, I seriously considered leaving my yogurt-making supplies in Indy and continuing on my way purely as a documentarian and yogurt ambassador. I was forbidden to give tastes of my yogurt to curious passersby at markets in both Urbana and Indianapolis – as the law states, to be fair – but it’s frustrating to make a big jar of yogurt and only be able to point to it when people wonder how it turns out, then toss it down the drain after hauling it around all weekend.
But the essential missions of the Yogurt Pedaler have also become much clearer to me on the road. The project is about getting people excited about making things, and it’s hard to do that if I am not even making yogurt. Sure, it’s about visiting the farms, but it’s also about getting to know the farmers and the animals and the products that are produced. I’ve tasted Kilgus ice cream, and I’ve tasted Traderspoint ice cream, and they are two completely different products from two completely different farms.
I’m sure I’ll visit even more diverse farms – but even visiting these two has made me ask lots of questions about the missions of these “sustainable” dairies, whether third generation and newly grass-fed like Kilgus, or new organic farms with missions that far surpass producing dairy products, like Traderspoint.
Kilgus is a third generation farm, but only recently did they refocus their market to the grass-fed, bottled-on-site niche. They’ve always been a responsible dairy, but this change in marketing has meant their survival, now that restaurants and speciality shops in Chicago are drawn to their product for its unique appeal.
Traderspoint, on the other hand, was founded in 2003 by a couple whose background and startup capital are found far from dairy farming. Their operation is beautiful, their herd of Brown Swiss is attractive and healthy, and their farm is bustling with activity from visitors to the farm, customers at the shop, and diners at their restaurant. Their marketing is so successful, spreading demand for “Fresh. Simple. Organic.” dairy nationwide, that they’ve had to bring in milk from other organic, grass-fed dairies to produce enough product to sell. They’ve done wonders for the organic movement, which I support and am frustrated by in equal measure.
The inescapable fact of the comparison I have just described is that the economic position of Traderspoint’s owners (they inherited the land, he is a plastic surgeon) allows more publicity and a greater reach of the message and products from grass-fed, sustainable, healthy food. But what are the real advantages of marketing over a family farm like Kilgus, with deep roots in the community, and with wisdom and a connection to the land and a way of life that is truly entrenched in the region’s economies and social networks? Would Kilgus be aided by investment in marketing to the higher-profile niche to which Traderspoint’s customers largely belong? Or by going organic? Or would they lose a valuable local connection, one that they have relied on and which has supported the dairy for decades?
As I ate lunch before leaving Traderspoint on Friday, I overheard Fritz Coons, one of the owners, say to a potential product supplier that their desire was to “express the brand through glass.” This gets at the essential difference I’ve been expressing here – through words and pictures – and I’ve become comfortable with the two dairies in their own ways and niches. I am attracted to Kilgus’ community connection at such a heartwarming level, and I truly believe it’s important to furthering American culture’s agricultural foundations. But I’m also convinced that what Traderspoint is doing to advance the “Organic” movement in this country, while I’m incredibly frustrated by its class limitations, is important to creating healthier and more balanced food systems. There is no perfect dairy, and I hope I continue to discover diverse models in the coming weeks, but these two welcoming places have provided me with plenty of calcium-rich food for thought.