A raw dairy near Victor, Idaho, takes organic farming one step further.
By: Lex Nelson
Source: Boise Weekly
The website for Paradise Springs Farm, a raw dairy set against the Tetons on the Idaho-Wyoming border, is less an advertisement for its product than a biography of its cows. The resident bull, Justin Timberlake, is caught in his profile photo with his massive head at a jaunty angle, mouth open in what is unmistakably a grin.
Weighing in at 2,400 pounds, JT is “one of the most amazing beings in the cosmos,” according to the paragraph that accompanies his photo. “He loves hugs and scratches, expects kisses, chews on your clothes and wants to just hang.”
The rest of the herd, including Glinda Good Witch, Shirley Temple, Cricket, Leila and Auntie Em, among others, are described in equally affectionate detail. Take a closer look, though, and it becomes obvious that dairy cows being treated as pets isn’t the only—or even the most—unconventional thing about Paradise Springs. Those who manage to find its unmarked drive in the network of dirt and gravel backroads outside of Victor, Idaho, will get a crash course in the Biodynamic lifestyle, which has led dairy farmers Mike Reid and Tibby Plasse to give up sugar and caffeine, bury cow horns filled with ground crystals and produce the Grade A raw milk, whey and cheese that prompted the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, to name Paradise Springs Farm among the top 10 organic dairy farms in nation.
“Paradise Springs would be what we consider true organic,” said Marie Burcham, J.D., the general focus livestock policy analyst for the institute. “They have both the spirit and the letter of the law, let’s say. It’s not just trying to meet minimum benchmarks…They’re going above and beyond with their practices. With their superb grazing, their treatment of their animals, their dedication to organic. That’s why they’re top rated.”
On their 420-acre farm, Reid and Plasse run an operation that has little in common with a conventional dairy: certified both organic and Biodynamic, they raise a dozen Brown Swiss cows on 190 acres of prime mountain pasture, grow all of their feed on the farm and deliver raw milk, whey and cheese to roughly 85 families in the local community on a route Reid drives himself. Their cheese is also available online, and as of 2009, Paradise Springs Farm was the first legal raw milk dairy in Idaho under the Idaho Raw Milk Ordinance, snagging permit No. 001.
Yet driving up to the farm, it’s hard to tell it’s a dairy operation at all, let alone an acclaimed one—the largest building on the property is the family home, and the air is crisp and clean, with no manure smell to speak of. According to Reid, this is largely due to the diet he feeds his cows, and the standards of cleanliness the farm must meet to retain its Grade A rating.
“There are milk inspectors here at our place more than any other place in the state because we have a cheese plant, a bottling plant and a dairy farm, and we’re raw,” Reid said. “So we take a lot of time to make sure that everything is spot on so when the inspections happen, because you never know when that might be, we never have a problem.”
Reid, who once studied botany and microbiology at Colorado State University, now spends his Monday and Friday afternoons in the bottling room, a sheet metal and concrete construction dominated by the growl and hum of machinery, decanting raw milk into glass bottles. On one windy afternoon in mid-October, he multi-tasked, slotting full bottles into coolers while he held forth on what it means to practice Biodynamics, a style of farming (and living) that takes organic one step further. By feeding his cows entirely on pasture and home-grown grains, and never using any kind of pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics, Reid said he’s able to sell raw milk and cheese with its “fat-soluble vitamins” intact. He also uses “homeopathic crop preparations” laid out by the founders of the movement, Drs. Weston A. Price and Rudolph Steiner.
“There’s preparation 500, [which is] cow manure that’s been buried in a cow horn over the winter to absorb all these cosmic forces that the earth is sucking in during the winter, as Dr. Steiner would say,” Reid said. “…You use a quarter cup of this horn manure and it get stirred into a vortex back and forth for an hour. Then it’s what they call ‘dynamized’ after you stir it. So the cow horn acts as a radio receiver would, it’s absorbing these…energies that are coming in from all over the place and it’s acting as a receiver to transfer these energies into the manure…[when] it comes out, it’s the most humusy-smelling, energetically charged fertilizer that you’ll ever smell. We use a quarter cup per acre.”
Preparation 501 is the counterbalance, requiring “quartz crystals ground into a fine dust. You bury that in the summer in a horn, so you get the summer light forces into these tiny little pieces of crystal, and then a pea-sized amount is what we apply to an acre,” said Reid.
“It takes years to see the effects, but you can see them,” he added. “From a scientific standpoint, you find more microbes, more worms, the soil takes on a totally different texture that’s like it’s been through the stomach of a worm five times.”
Plasse, standing in the doorway, chimed in. “Food is not supposed to be stomach filler, it’s supposed to nourish the mind, body and spirit…All of the energy is circular. So if you’re giving your cow your best possible feed she in turn is going to give the best possible milk and you’re going to get the best possible nutrients.”
The Biodynamic lifestyle is practiced at Paradise Springs with a faith akin to religion, although what’s holy isn’t a supernatural force—it’s simply good food. Their bible, which Plasse and Reid referred to repeatedly as “the book,” is Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Dr. Weston A. Price, a guide to “holistic dentistry” that details the connection between diet and dental health, comparing the perfect smiles, healthy bodies and broad faces of natives without toothbrushes to the crooked teeth and malnutrition of city-dwelling westerners. In addition to practicing what they preach, Plasse and Reid lead a local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, one of four in the state and hundreds worldwide.
“All this voodoo that we do with burying a horn, burying manure in a hole, burying crystal, all of the stuff, it seems like witchcraft more than farming at some points, but in fact it’s simply practical,” Reid said. “Because here you have something that you have on your own farm—a cow horn and cow manure—and you can transform your entire place and essentially, what we all say in Biodynamics is that we’re out here healing the earth.”
Out in the pasture, where snow whipped down from cloud banks hovering over the Tetons, were the dozen or so cows that reap the benefits of the Biodynamic philosophy. The cattle came when called, each one responding to its name by trotting up to the couple, nosing at their clothes and licking their hands and ears. The cows are all extended family, tracing their lineage back to two cows Reid purchased from a Biodynamic dairy in Montana when he first started Paradise Springs in 2001 as a way to “heal” himself after years of struggling with celiac disease.
“I love my cows, I want them to be as healthy as possible, they’re my friends,” said Reid, scratching JT, whose massive head was the nearly size of Reid’s whole torso, under the chin.
“Milking is the glory time for us,” he added. “Basically we do all this hard work to get all the crops and pasture and all this stuff together for them, and the reward is the milking, the reward is the time spent with your friends. Of course when you do something twice a day for 365 straight days it can get dreary at times, but it’s never as dreary as going and sitting in an office or working on an assembly line.”
In the past, Reid has had streaks of more than 1,500 milkings in a row; just last month, he took his first days off in over three years to attend a good friend’s wedding. As a Grade A dairy, the cows must be milked with machines rather than by hand, but Reid has never stopped giving them the personal touch, even training his tiny herd not to defecate in the milking barn.
“You just say ‘Hey, we don’t do that in here,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, right!’ No one likes being crapped on,” Reid said with a chuckle.
Dedication to the Biodynamic lifestyle extends inside the family home as well, where Reid and Plasse are committed to practicing what they preach, and raising their son Loren—a cherubic, towheaded four year old who climbed immediately into his father’s lap—on a 100 percent Biodynamic diet that’s a sharp contrast to their own conventional upbringings.
“We’re zealots,” Plasse said, taking a seat at the wooden table that fills a corner of the family living room. “Our son has not had processed sugar, wheat, caffeine or conventional food to our knowledge yet, and he’s almost five.”
Reid nodded, adding, “When he was born we gave up all sugar, honey, maple syrup, any kind of sweeteners. There’s no caffeine, there’s nothing that’s going to affect him badly…You can already see what the Dr. Price effect is with him drinking the [raw] milk,” he said, gesturing to his son. “He has my nose, but my nose is much narrower than his is developing, and his face is going to be much broader; he’ll have all the room he needs for his teeth, [whereas] I wore braces when I was a teenager.”
Reid and Plasse exchanged a smile. “It’s an experiment that we’re living,” Reid said.