Food by VICE

The Dairy Farmer Who Wants to Make Milk for Vegans

More than 1,600 of New York’s dairy farms have shut down in the past decade, but Nimai Pandit wants to sell ‘ethical milk’ to forge a new path.

by Bettina Makalintal; photos by Victor Llorente
Nov 18 2019, 3:17pm

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Seven cows sunned themselves in a patch of grass in New Paltz, New York, relaxing in the early autumn breeze. When Nimai Pandit, the owner and chief farmer of Gopal Farm, stepped into their enclosure, a slim, tawny cow approached. Her name was Yogamaya, and she wanted a head rub. “They can’t massage this,” he explained as he scratched deeply behind the rough tuft of hair at the top of her head. When he stopped, Yogamaya nudged him with her nose. “Oh, they love petting. They like human touch.”

On 90 acres of land in the Hudson Valley, Pandit and his wife, Ashley Scott, started Gopal Farm in April 2016 with one guiding principle: love for the cow, something they found lacking at other farms. But selling milk requires permits, infrastructure, and money, so the couple started Gopal as a vegetable farm first, in order to establish themselves and raise funds to take on milk production. With the 2019 growing season over, Pandit is moving his efforts toward dairying.

By June 2020, Pandit expects to sell Gopal’s “ethical” milk. To him, that’s milk that circumvents even the concerns of vegans and which, he said, people already request from him more than anything else he produces. “We want to target people who would understand the time, effort, and the thought and consciousness [we’ll put] into bringing ethical milk to them,” Pandit said in a phone call in September. Gopal is a no-kill farm where, under Pandit’s guidance, the cows will graze freely into old age, newborns will drink from their mother’s teat, and male calves will grow into strong oxen.

This will be made possible by a “401(k)” for cows, as Pandit described it, with 10 percent of the dairy’s earnings going toward the cows’ future care. He’s betting that people will pay premiums for Gopal’s ethical milk—and they’d better, because the whole project relies on it.

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Pandit arrived in Kentucky from India in 1994 with plans to work in IT, which he did until his roommate had a nervous breakdown. Confused about his own life, Pandit returned to India in 1996 to join an ashram. He hadn’t been religious, but in the ashram, he converted to Hinduism. As a new follower of a faith with reverence for cows at its foundations, he gave up meat and trained in Indian temple cuisine.

In 2000, he moved to New York City. After his time in India, Pandit became more critical of his food. “I started to think about food as something you have to worry about: the quality, sourcing, and ethical reasons. I wanted to have good food, not just the flavor but the quality of it,” he said. He met Scott in Union Square Park and they bonded over their interest in food. The two of them now sell vegetables at the park once a week.

Spurred by Scott’s suggestion to start a farm, they began visiting dairy farms in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008. “Even if they were good, conscious farmers, unproductive cows are sent for slaughter and male babies are sent for slaughter. When we were face-to-face with it, we knew we could not farm,” Pandit said. To him, the cow was treated like a machine—used until broken and then fixed or tossed. Though cows can live up to 20 years naturally, the average life span of an American dairy cow today is four to six.

The financial realities were similarly alarming. With food, housing, veterinarian bills, milking, processing, and human labor, having dairy cows is expensive. Those costs are weighed by opportunities to make money: the milk the cows produce while they’re alive, the meat they become after slaughter. Keeping unproductive cows isn’t feasible in an industry in which sinking prices and low wages force the steady closure of farms nationwide. New York State alone lost more than 1,600 dairy farms between 2006 and 2016.

“I knew that in India, people do ethical farming,” Pandit said. Several states and territories in India prohibit the slaughter of cows, with punishment including fines and imprisonment. In 2009, Pandit and Scott went to India. But getting firsthand experience on farms was a nonstarter. Within India’s caste system, the couple were more educated and monied, so people from classes deemed lower wouldn’t hire them, Pandit said. The next year, the opportunity arose to take over a nonprofit dairy in Jaisalmer, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan where Pandit was raised.

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Many dairy farms sell male calves into the meat market, but at Gopal Farm, Nimai Pandit plans to keep them, like the now one-and- a-half-year-old Karan.

In his new role, Pandit could ask farmers to teach him. Though he had followed Ayurvedic practices since childhood thanks to his mother, it wasn’t until then that he learned the methods of Ayurvedic farming, such as using cow urine to enhance soil, cow dung to preserve seeds, and neem oil to prevent pests. But, he said, “The most important thing I learned by staying with these cow herders was the personal love for the cows—that the cows are like family members. She is also considered a mother and in the same status as one’s mother.”

Pandit isn’t alone in rethinking the dominant system of milk production. As people become increasingly aware of the environmental, animal, and human toll of animal products, milk is being reconsidered in every way. Sales of nondairy milk rose by 61 percent between 2012 and 2017, which has led even longtime dairy farmers to opt for cashews instead of cows. One Bay Area startup is even hoping to make cow’s milk without the cow by using fermentation to create milk proteins in a lab.

In the United States, yearly per capita milk consumption dropped from 197 pounds in 2000 to 178 pounds in 2010. Last year, that number went down to 146 pounds. There are many reasons why people are giving up milk or consuming less of it, and there are just as many suggestions on how to change that.

“The most important thing I learned by staying with these cow herders was the personal love for the cows—that the cows are like family members.”

For people who already think critically about milk, Pandit wants to offer a better option. “A big part of why we are doing it is that I would very much like to see this kind of ethical dairying become a kind of dairying adopted by other dairy farmers,” Pandit said over the phone. “This is a reality that farmers are facing. Many, many are going out of business. If the vegan people do not want to drink milk and so many are doing it for ethical reasons, why not provide them with ethical milk?”

But the ethics of eating are a complicated tangle of individual values. When I contacted the Northeast Dairy Producers Association to understand how Gopal’s model fits into New York state’s dairy farming industry, the executive director, Tonya Van Slyke, wrote, “Dairy farmers are ethical.” Unlike the organic or fair-trade designations, there are no set criteria for “ethical” and no official certification. That frustrates Pandit, who takes issue with the use of “ethical” and “humane” when those terms are used by farms that still engage in slaughter.

Since Pandit and Scott returned to the States in 2012, everything they’ve done has been in preparation for this milk. Even the Ayurveda distribution company Pandit started in 2008 was intended to raise funds for the farm. In 2016, they bought the land in New Paltz. There’s a house, a barn, a greenhouse, and a small building for the Ayurveda business.

Next spring, Pandit and Scott will build a milking parlor and a space to pasteurize and bottle in the final steps toward bringing their milk to market. Because of state permit laws, all the raw milk they’ve produced so far has been for personal use only.

During my October visit, the herd was lounging on the grass while it was still plentiful. America’s dairy industry has relied almost exclusively on Holstein cows, and to a smaller extent Jerseys, but Pandit wants to work with breeds on the Livestock Conservancy’s watch list instead, like his Dutch Belted and Guernseys, to avoid the genetic problems of more popular breeds. Soon, he’ll pick up three Milking Devons from a farm in Vermont.

Pandit has received offers of animals as donations, but because of the environmental stressors and health problems of industrial dairies, he only accepts cows that have lived their whole lives outside factory farms. “For us, it’s a big issue, because in a normal factory farm, if there is any problem with a cow, they just send her for slaughter, and we would never do that,” he said.

Working with heritage breeds has downsides. Holsteins have taken over the industry for a reason: They produce about 2,674 gallons of milk per year, compared with a Guernsey’s 1,600. Plus, according to Pandit, with mostly Jersey farms nearby, not only is the local knowledge base smaller, but ready bulls aren’t available. His cows must be artificially inseminated using semen from registered flocks.

Impregnating cows is integral to dairy farming because cows produce milk only after birthing a calf. Mating can happen naturally, but more commonly, cows are artificially inseminated, a practice that some animal rights activists find unacceptable. While sorted semen allows some farmers to play God, natural breeding results in female calves and male calves. With no use for males on dairy farms, farmers usually sell them as meat.

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The two males at Gopal were unintended additions, but keeping them is a testament to Pandit’s mission. Bhima, a three-and-a-half-year-old ox, was born to Kunti, the leader of the herd, shortly before she arrived at the farm. “[Her previous owner] asked me, ‘You’re buying the cow. Do you really need this?’” Pandit recalled. Now, he said, “He’s my favorite. He’s my first son, I feel like.”

Bhima gained a brother in March 2018 when Scott decided to rescue a calf now known as Karan. When Bhima and Karan are fully grown, Pandit sees them pulling rides around the farm or powering a ghani, the traditional Indian system for extracting oil from seeds. As nature goes, there will surely, eventually, be more males.

Pandit takes issue with what he sees as a lack of compassion. Instead of separating calves from their mothers immediately, which is done in part to reserve the cow’s marketable milk, he keeps them together for 15 days, after which the baby nurses twice a day for around six months. One argument he said he’s heard from vegans is that a cow’s milk is meant only for its babies.

To that, he pointed to the time when Bhima drank as much as he wanted, until he had diarrhea from the glut of milk. To Pandit, that’s proof that the mother makes more milk than needed. After he gives the calf its fill, he said, there’s plenty of milk left over from the three other teats.

Once the dairy is set up, Pandit will have 10 cows producing an estimated 40 gallons of milk a day. That’s small-scale—one Holstein yields close to 9 gallons per day and one farm may have thousands of them—but Pandit thinks sales will even out the operation. A single gallon of his milk, which he’ll sell in the city, will be around $17, with 10 percent put aside for the cows’ future. That’s not something that just anyone is going to pick up at the store.

As good as Pandit’s intentions are, there’s skepticism from experts on both sides.

The goal might be to make milk that appeals to the ethics of vegans, but on that point, the vegan-feminist theorist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, was wary. “The presumption that vegans are looking for ways to drink the nursing material of a cow, it’s a false assumption,” Adams said. “The idea that we vegans are looking for an ethical out… we are perfectly happy.”

In championing the idea that using animals as business is fundamentally unethical, Adams is certainly more radical than most. “Let’s acknowledge that everything he is attempting to ameliorate identifies some of the problems with the dairy industry,” she said. “The assumption is that dairy can be mitigated. Why mitigate it? Why aren’t we just walking away from it?”

On the other side of the equation, dairy insiders shared their own concerns. Thomas Overton, a professor of animal science at Cornell University, noted some potential management challenges. One reason calves are separated from their mothers, for example, is so the mother can be milked for her immunity-giving colostrum, which a calf should drink four quarts of in its first four hours. That can be guaranteed if the calf is fed by a farmer, Overton suggested, but it doesn’t always happen if the calf is left to feed on its own.

Whether a model like Gopal’s can work financially will be for the market to decide. “We live in a country and a place where if someone can create a niche market, and they have a product that consumers are willing to pay more for than regular milk, then more power to them,” Overton said.

Though some consumers may be willing to pay extra for “attribute-rich” milk, the market is limited, wrote Marin Bozic, an assistant professor of dairy foods marketing economics at the University of Minnesota, in an email. Organic still accounts for only approximately 5 percent of total milk sales. He wrote, “There might be a sliver of the populace that would be willing to pay a much higher price for milk advertised as ‘ethical,’ but that market is very small.”

In the meantime, Pandit takes pleasure in caring for his cows. To him, they’re like children—all with their own preferences and personalities, and smart, but in need of a little guidance. Sitting in the garage at his home, he explained that it’s a rare occasion that he’ll drink conventional dairy or eat anything made with it. “I don’t like to. I can see in my mind the whole process of what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t like to support that industry.”

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