Mindful Milk: A collaborative project to improve milk quality for dairy farmers in northern India - Straus Family Creamery

Mindful Milk: A collaborative project to improve milk quality for dairy farmers in northern India

During a visit to California in 2011, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the globally renowned physicist, environmentalist and food-sovereignty activist from India, spent an afternoon at Albert Straus’ dairy in Marshall. According to Pankaj Uttarwar, “She remarked that the activities on the farm and at the creamery were pioneering, and asked him if he would come visit and help support organic dairies in India. We spent a great deal of time researching and planning a trip, aided by my friend Abhijit Maid, who was looking for a sustainable business opportunity in India. We left for a three-week trip to Northern India in October of 2013.” Uttarwar is Director of Research and Development & Quality Assurance at Straus Family Creamery, and is a native of India.

Our previous story, Mutual challenges among dairy farmers in Northern India and Northern California”, described the discovery of the similarities of issues faced by dairy farmers in Northern India and Northern California. As Uttarwar, Maid and Straus visited dairy farmers, suppliers, veterinary clinics, an organic certifier and feed mills, many of the challenges seemed to be universal to dairy farmers around the world, such as high feed prices, low prices for milk, the struggle for economic viability, and concerns about animal health.

“The first time I took my 18-month-old son home to visit my family in India, he refused to drink the milk. My father found a small dairy farm not too far away and went every morning to get fresh milk and would then boil it for him. In India, we have blamed the farmers for watering down their milk– even I used to think that. My eyes were opened when I went on the trip back to India with Albert Straus,” Uttarwar shared.

“Traditionally in India, everyone used to have 2 or 3 cows to provide milk for their own family’s use and a little extra milk to sell or trade in the village. You wouldn’t buy packaged milk unless you were in a city. With agricultural land reform by the government and dramatic limitations on the size of farms, there has been a very fast migration of young people into the cities and an increased demand for packaged milk. Unfortunately, the government sets the prices very low and dairy farmers aren’t gaining enough income from the milk their cows produce. The price for milk would have to at least double to allow them to cover the costs of production and allow them to make their primary living as a dairy farmer. In order to make enough to survive, many farmers cover the gap by watering down their milk. We know that there is a desire for higher quality milk that mirrors what has happened in America with the demand for organic milk. Our challenge was how to help make that happen,” Uttarwar explained.

It was inspiring to Uttarwar to see how eager people were to talk about how their families were connected to farming and how much that connection meant to them. “When we first started speaking with the farmers about organic practices and how providing organic, good quality milk could make them more money, we realized that it was easier to just say “natural farming” or use the word “natural”. They would say, ‘Oh yes, that’s how we used to do it before.’ In India, even young people in cities are really only one generation removed from the farm.” That further fueled their drive to find solution.

“Abhijit, Albert and I began and ended every day at a table in our hotel going over data and possible solutions. We got to know the hotel staff — they were excited by the work we were doing. Our table was like a magnet to them. Most of them were young people who had come from rural areas to find work.” Uttarwar explained they approached challenges with a holistic view, so even the presence of so many young people lacking an opportunity to work in their villages informed them. Taking ample time to gather information sparked insights and good ideas. “To have so much concentrated time together to work on solutions was “mind shaking”. I could see that, in many ways, India is where America was 10 to 20 (or more) years ago, in terms of organic. Right now in India, organic is something only the very wealthy know about or have access to, but it is clear that people want better milk. Many still remember milk produced in their village or by their family’s cow,” Uttarwar said.

Uttarwar expressed his realization that, “In order to create positive change in the midst of a difficult situation, you have to go beyond activism and advocacy and figure out the root cause first, then offer viable solutions. There are fundamental challenges to producing safe, quality milk. In the villages and small farms, you find unsanitary milk handling practices, lack of refrigeration, and no consistently accessible pasteurization equipment. Once all of those issues could be solved, you would still need a distribution solution that could make the endeavor economically viable.” In one of their daily sessions they concluded that by using a CSA-type model, where you could have farm-to-consumer direct sales, and cut out middle levels like processors and distributors, farmers could profitability provide safe, high quality milk.

“As the trip progressed we were going deeper than we ever expected and it was exciting. After a year of working on making the trip perfect, all three of us were inspired to go further. We challenged ourselves with how to extend the 2-3 day shelf life, how to pasteurize on the farm, how to have sanitary milking, and how to sell direct to the public. This is how we came up with the idea for a small-scale, community-based milking unit that could provide sanitary milking, pasteurization, refrigeration and have a milk vending machine. It would be something that could truly empower the villages,” Uttarwar shared.

A small-scale community-based milking unit could be stationed near the middle of any village and farmers would bring their cows to this milking station– and get paid a higher price for their milk immediately. Equipment would include a meter to measure the amount of milk from each cow. The unit could offer low-cost, low-energy, cold pasteurization that uses ultra-violet light to destroy all harmful bacteria in milk, using new technology from SurePure, a South African company. A milk chiller would also be part of the unit.  Milk would then be transferred into a small, commonly used type of vending machine for beverages, mounted on a small truck. Customers would bring their own containers and buy milk dispensed from the vending machine.

In this CSA-type model, subscription agreements would be offered for consumers along the truck’s route, in neighborhoods and among apartment complexes that are willing to pay more for the high-quality organic milk. This is the basic model for Mindful Milk, which was born out of this trip and founded by Abhijit Maid. He is in the process of securing funding from local investors to build a prototype of the small-scale, multipurpose unit and is currently working with farmer Bharat Nehra and an expanding network of Indian dairy farmers. Uttarwar and Straus continue to be advisors to the project, which is led, funded and managed by locals of the New Delhi area.

Created from the spirit of Straus Family Creamery’s mission of supporting family farmers, the Mindful Milk project seeks to create a win-win situation of improving the quality of milk, the quality of life for farmers and the quality of the environment by practicing  sustainable farming methods. We will continue to update you on the progress of Mindful Milk and other endeavors related to the trip to India.

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