When a little boy pointed at the brown calf at the county fair and said, “That’s where we get chocolate milk!” 16-year-old Jolene Griffin, who was showing the calf, knew she had her work cut out for her.
She went on to earn a degree in agriculture communications at Michigan State University, and loves educating people about dairy farming as the director of industry relations at United Dairy Industry of Michigan.
The organization represents nearly 1,200 dairy farms located throughout the state, 97% of which are family owned and operated. Michigan also has nearly 90 processing plants that churn out all varieties of pasteurized milk and other dairy food.
There are as many reasons to enjoy Michigan dairy as there are flavors of cheese, yogurt and ice cream. Here’s what Griffin, who still helps out on weekends at her family’s dairy farm south of Grand Rapids, calls the top five:
Dairy is delicious
Dairy foods are a staple in the kitchen, especially for cooking. Families across Michigan rely on milk and cheese for a variety of recipes, from smoothies to macaroni and cheese to desserts.
White and chocolate milk may still be the most popular varieties, but connoisseurs have an increasing number of flavors to choose from when they’re choosing milk. “There is something for everyone,” says Griffin, noting some of the more interesting new flavors like coffee, peanut butter, and — in homage to the popular Easter candy — Peeps.
That’s true for cheese as well, which U.S. dairy farmers offer in more than 600 varieties. “The cooperatives and processors who buy our milk make it into delicious dairy foods and are always experimenting with different flavors,”
she says. These days it’s not uncommon to find cheese flavored with ingredients as diverse as horseradish, bacon and blueberries.
Cheese also makes wonderful snacks, especially paired with fruits or nuts. It enhances vegetables, perks up rice and is practically mandatory on just about any pasta dish.
It’s nutritious, too
“Milk provides the essential nutrients that we need and some that we don’t get enough of elsewhere,” says Griffin.
Indeed, milk provides 13 nutrients, including protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, vitamin B12, riboflavin (B2), niacin, phosphorus, pantothenic acid, zinc, selenium iodine and potassium.* Cheese contributes calcium, protein, phosphorus, and vitamin A to the diet.
Naturally aged cheeses like Swiss, Colby and Monterey Jack are well-tolerated by many individuals with lactose intolerance, and most natural cheeses are also gluten free.
It’s environmentally sound
Virtually all of Michigan’s dairy farmers live on or near their farms, so they take great care of their natural environment.
“We are drinking the same water and breathing the same air that our cows are, so we know we have to keep the land healthy,” Griffin says. “Dairy farmers are always looking for ways to make sure the next generation has what they need in natural resources. That means using less water and producing less greenhouse gasses.”
In fact, a 2020 study in the Journal of Animal Science found that between 2007-2017, U.S dairies used 21% less land, 30% less water, and produced 19% less greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, cows are “upcyclers,” which means they eat food that would otherwise clog landfills, such as corn cobs and stalks and grains that are a byproduct of distilling.
It’s good for the community
Many Michigan farms have been in the same town and the same family for generations.
“We are members of the community,” Griffin says. “We serve on local governments and school boards, send our kids to local schools, and contribute to the local economy by buying groceries, using local tradesmen like plumbers and electricians, and paying taxes.”
Dairy is the ultimate farm-to-table product. “When milk leaves our farm, it is on the store shelves or in school cafeterias within 48 hours,” Griffin notes.
Michiganders can be proud of their dairy farms, she adds. “We are continuously improving how we care for our cows and our land. I would love to take everyone out on a farm tour.”
*Based on the 2019 DRI for potassium established by National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
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