Xalapa, Mexico: It could be an English upland scene, except the light is so good the grass looks greener than I’ve ever seen. Small groups of black and white cows are dotted across a rolling landscape. A tiny hummingbird flits like an electric bumble-bee around a roadside conifer.
This is southeast Mexico and we’re at an altitude of 2,000 metres on the lower slopes of an ancient volcano. Our ascent was coloured by the sight of dairy cows eating grass like they should. The contrast from California two days ago is stark; cows grazing naturally versus a land perversely peppered with mega-dairies; industrial facilities with thousands of cows crowded in one place.
We’ve stopped outside the village of Acajete and look toward the Sierra Madre mountain range shrouded in the morning mist. In the distance, the bustling city of Xalape winks in the sunlight. A farm-hand walks up the hill carrying three white buckets. Wearing a blue Ferrari tee-shirt, white wellies and a baseball cap, he waves and beckons warmly. We are treated to an impromptu tour of the farm.
Ana Maria Frauzoni Hernandez, a farmer herself and veterinarian, arrives to take us round. We are taken through a cluster of modest flat-roofed buildings that comprise the farmhouse and the dairy. There’s an unmistakable smell in the air; of baby-sweet dairy mixed with a slight hint of manure. Hernandez explains that this is her brother’s farm. She talks about respecting the cow as a noble animal. We walk past scattered trees to where 20 calves are loafing in the sun. I stand in the inevitable cow-pat.
It’s just one of 34 farms in a local dairy cooperative. It’s a pretty big farm by European standards. There are 500 cows on this farm, but you really wouldn’t know it as the cows gently graze in small clusters across the hillside.
We watch as forty Friesian cows are milked on the hillside. The cows and two farm-hands stand amongst a smattering of silver milk-churns. Hernandez explains that the cows are milked twice a day. Her father used to milk them three times a day but the cows got stressed. When milking is over, a horse carries the churns up the hill. The cows walk up the hill too. It’s wonderful to see them walking naturally; without the bloated bulging udders and splayed back legs so characteristic of what we saw on California’s mega-dairies.
The cows here are kept outdoors all year round. No chemicals, preventative antibiotics or hormones are used. A bit of supplementary food is offered when the grass is short.
Hernandez tells us that the cows here have an average lifespan of 20 years. Again, hugely different to the mega-dairies, where cows are often worn out and sent for slaughter at just 5-6 years. She reflects that cows on mega-dairies are likely to suffer stress from the way they’re kept.
Toward the end of the tour, Hernandez laments at the difficulty of getting a profitable price for the milk. It’s a familiar theme on both sides of the Atlantic. And with all systems big and small; the memory is still fresh of the tears of a Californian farmer, talking about the suicide of his friend, a large-scale dairy farmer.
The milk here is sold under the name, ‘Joyalat’ – Joyal I’m told meaning Jewel. Hernandez sees the milk as “white gold”. She shares customer feedback about how good the milk is here, apparently because the cows graze naturally on grass full of nutrients.
We tasted the yoghurt from the farm; it was full of flavour, very smooth and with no hint of sharpness; delicious. A poster in the dairy window proclaims proudly that “The best milk in the world is produced in Mexico”. Today, I’m inclined to agree.