For Your Thanksgiving Pie, Make the Whipped Cream Organic (A Farmer Will Thank You)

November 20, 2012 | 10:15 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

What with buttery mashed potatoes, cheesy macaroni, and pies begging to be topped with whipped cream or ice cream, Thanksgiving turns out to be a pretty dairy-heavy holiday. Which makes the findings of our new report, Cream of the Crop: The Economic Benefits of Organic Dairy Farms, particularly timely.

Holidays are all about tradition. The Thanksgivings of my childhood never varied — cousin Joan always hosted and cousin Dayna always built the same (disgusting) mashed-potato-creamed-corn-and-gravy volcano, year after year. And it’s a similar story at my in-laws’ Thanksgiving table, where cousin Audrey always makes the pies, my mother-in-law always claims the turkey neck, and the non-turkey eaters in the crowd never let me arrive without a big pan of baked macaroni and cheese. More on that in a minute, but first let’s take a look at the report.

Organic milk: Job creator

This first-of-its-kind study by my colleague, agricultural economist Jeff O’Hara, found that organic dairy farms generate more economic opportunity and create more jobs in rural communities than conventional dairies.

Pumpkin pie’s best friend.

Jeff notes that over the past 30 years, dairy farmers have had a choice: either get big or get out. Many went out of business, while others expanded and industrialized, turning their farms into CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) to try to stay afloat. But in recent years, the market for organic milk has offered farmers another option — one that is better for the environment, produces a healthier product, and leads to greater levels of economic activity.

Based on 2008 – 2011 financial data from two major milk-producing states — Vermont and Minnesota — the report evaluated the economic impact of organic dairy farms. Vermont’s 180 organic farms contribute $76 million annually to the state’s economy and support 1,009 jobs. In Minnesota, 114 organic farms add $78 million to Minnesota’s economy annually and have created 660 jobs.

The report also compared the economic value that would be generated by conventional and organic farms in the two states if both experienced the same hypothetical level of increased sales. In Vermont, organic dairy farms under that scenario would be expected to contribute 33 percent more to the state’s economy than conventional farms, and employ 83 percent more workers. Similarly, in Minnesota, organic dairies would increase the state’s economy by 11 percent more and employment by 14 percent more than conventional dairy farms.

Consumers just can’t get enough

Consumer demand for organic milk has jumped dramatically over the last decade. Organic dairy farming is now a $750 million industry, and annual U.S. organic milk sales increased 12 percent in 2010, 13 percent in 2011, and 5 percent in the first seven months of 2012. In some regions, consumer demand is outstripping supply, and retail grocery chains are having a hard time keeping organic milk in stock.

Despite organic dairy farms’ benefits and rising consumer demand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (UDSA) farm programs and taxpayer subsidies favor big CAFOs. The Farm Bill, which reauthorizes USDA farm programs every five years, currently provides relatively little support for organic dairy farmers. Worse, Congress failed to act on the now-overdue 2012 Farm Bill before the election, putting programs that currently help dairy producers and organic farmers at risk.

More about how the Farm Bill can address such inequities after the holiday. Meanwhile, read the report and meet three successful organic dairy farmers in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Oh, and think about making my ever-popular macaroni and cheese. You won’t regret it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, Vintage Books, 1972

In her cookbook, Thomas calls this “an old Roman dish.” My in-laws and I call it “delicious.” I can’t always find organic versions of these cheeses, but organic milk and butter (and pasta, for that matter) are much easier to come by.

For the sauce:

  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 3 cups hot milk
  • 6-8 whole peppercorns
  • Several sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Grated nutmeg (to taste)

For the macaroni:

  • 1 pound mostaccioli noodles or elbow macaroni
  • 4 ounces Parmesan cheese, fresh grated
  • 3/4 pound Fontina cheese, coarsely grated
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup buttered breadcrumbs

To make the sauce, heat the butter in a large saucepan until bubbly, add the minced onion and cook over very low heat for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the flour and continue cooking a few minutes more, then begin adding the milk bit by bit, stirring with a whisk as you do. The sauce will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Add the peppercorns, thyme and bay leaves. Sprinkle in a little salt and nutmeg, let it cook slowly for 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scalding. Strain through a sieve into a large bowl or saucepan.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until just al dente. As soon as it is ready, drain it and add it to the strained sauce, mixing well to coat. Place 1/3 of the pasta mixture in a buttered 2-1/2 or 3-quart baking dish. Cover with 1/3 of the Fontina and Parmesan cheeses. Grate on plenty of black pepper. Make two more layers like this, then sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs all over the top. Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, until well browned and bubbly.

Serves 4-6 as a main dish, or 10-12 as a Thanksgiving side.

Feature image: Courtesy of medea_material; Flickr Common