Saturday, August 11, 2007

Local Food: Got milk? The many paths to local, organic food

There are areas of this country where finding a local organic dairy is not a problem in the least (northern California, for instance), but San Diego is not one of those places. I'd almost given up last week when one of my leads finally came through! If you're on a similar quest for organic local items, you may like to see where this hunt has taken me. Many of these sources are good for more than info on dairies:

1. Local co-op, natural food stores, and farmers' markets. No luck. All the organic milk on the shelves comes from elsewhere in the country, and none of the farmers' markets I’ve attended have had any milk or cheese stands.

2. San Diego-specific chat sites. A query online to my fellow San Diegans at the Yelp site received plenty of people eager to help, but no leads I didn't already have.

3. Local non-organic dairies. I contacted some local dairies, Hollandia Dairy in particular, and exchanged emails with one of their salesmen. They are a family-owned operation and a San Diego mainstay, but they aren’t organic, so I kept looking.

4. Organic dairies elsewhere in the country. Going a little more afield, I contacted organic dairies around the country to see if they had any partners or contacts who run similar operations in the San Diego area (eventually “San Diego” became “southern California”). It was at this point that I became incredibly jealous of the northern California folks and the numerous organic dairy farms at their disposal. A great example of organic dairy done right is the Straus Family Creamery. I chatted with one of their salespersons, but he didn't know of any similar dairies in southern California.

5. State government. I contacted the State of California Department of Agriculture Inspection and Compliance Branch of the California Organic Program for help. No response.

6. Online directories. I used the directory at Local Harvest and the Eat Well Guide, both which allow you to search by item and location. No luck.

7. People in the know. The San Diego Farm Bureau couldn't help. I sent an email to the southwestern region Forager at Whole Foods, a newly created position that I heard about on the Whole Foods podcast. Foragers are devoted to tracking down local sources in their region for stock in their area stores. No response. A phone call to the chair of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Tony Azevedo, did not yield any suggestions either.

8. Organic certifying agencies. I contacted the California Certified Organic Farmers Association, a third-party certifying organization that provides a directory of organic farms in the U.S. (not just California). I exchanged several emails with the San Diego/L.A. regional contact, but she confirmed that there are no organic dairies in San Diego, although there is one in Downey (near L.A.) called Rockview Farms.

Los Angeles is further than I had hoped to go, but I gave them a call anyway. They are not a strictly organic operation, although they do produce an organic line called GoodHeart Organics. According to the customer service agent I spoke to at Rockview, Trader Joe’s in the San Diego area carries their organic milk, but a call my closest Trader Joe’s came up with only Rockview chocolate milk. I tried another Trader Joe’s and spoke to someone who told me that the manifest that comes with the Trader Joe’s brand organic milk delivery says Rockview Farms on it.

I dropped Trader Joe’s corporate an email to confirm that Rockview Farms supplies their Trader Joe’s brand organic milk in the San Diego stores, but the response I received was cryptic at best:

Thank you for taking the time to contact Trader Joe's. We are sorry that we cannot forward the vendor information to you. The organic milk is a private label product sold exclusively by Trader Joe's and all recipes, formulations and contact information are kept strictly confidential, per our contract agreement with the manufacturer.

We do apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause and appreciate your understanding in this matter. Please be assured that Trader Joe's organic milk is sourced from a local dairy farm.

Thank you for your time and thank you for shopping at Trader Joe's.

Nearly a month and a half in, and my best leads turning up empty, I have decided to take Trader Joe’s word on it – and the word of Rockview Farms – that there is local, organic milk in those bottles. My biggest concern is that Trader Joe’s could switch vendors without me ever knowing. I'll just need to check back regularly with Rockview Farms to see exactly where I can buy their milk in San Diego.

Truthfully, I'd rather support companies such as the Strauss Family Creamery, but my loyalty is to the organic AND local for the time being. The search continues, and I may very well turn up a dairy closer to the Strauss example. For now, Rockview Farms will do the job.

[Update: see my follow-up post with what I found out later about Trader Joe's and Rockview Farms that made me change my mind here]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post re. Straus -- LOVED their website and know that I've seen their bottles before. Also, it's amazing that they are powering their farm on the methane produced! Thanks for the research -- keep it coming.