When you think about winemaking, you might imagine sweeping vineyards tended lovingly by farmers who view themselves as shepherds of the earth. Animal agriculture, on the other hand, could conjure visions of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, factory farms and methane pollution.
There’s some truth to both visions, but neither presents the whole picture. Small-scale, biodynamic and organic wineries are often rooted in environmentally friendly practices that renew the soil. But industrial wineries also exist, and some use an array of chemicals to produce and preserve their wines.
Meanwhile, most animals in the U.S. food system live cramped, unhappy lives, says Leslie Cooperband, a soil scientist who left academia to start Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery with her husband in Champaign, Illinois. “That’s the reality for 98% of livestock in the country.”
However, ecologically minded cheese producers can treat the land and animals more responsibly. They capture methane emissions, track and reduce their resources, and embrace regenerative agriculture, a land management technique also used by some wineries.
“Animal agriculture can be a problem when it comes to climate change,” says Marshall Webb, carbon drawdown coordinator at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. “But it can also be one of the big solutions when it’s done well.”
Shelburne Farms and Oregon-based Rogue Creamery have both instituted measures in hopes of becoming carbon neutral in the next five to 10 years. While carbon neutrality can be difficult for consumers to discern, ecologically minded wineries like California’s Fetzer Wines have also made it a priority.
As in wine, cheesemakers have to educate themselves, their employees and the public about how they embrace sustainable farming.
“Animal agriculture is being lumped into a single category: industrial,” says Cooperband. “We’re trying really hard to educate people about this other option, pasture-based dairying.”
The Importance of Grass
Andy Hatch, co-owner and cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin, says there are a variety of issues encapsulated in sustainable cheesemaking. Among them are soil quality, the impact of the animal on the landscape. “These concerns all look better through the concerns of grass-based animal management,” he says.
Healthy grasslands are integral to environmentally friendly cheese.
When cows graze, they pull the grass up by the roots and leave their manure. To keep the grass healthy and nutritious, farmers can split their pasture into sections and rotate the cows within them to allow for optimal grass regrowth.
“My dad will frequently say he’s not a dairy farmer, he’s a grass and dirt farmer,” says Jessica Little, co-owner of Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia. “If you have nutritional grass, the cows take care of themselves.”
Humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2), whereas plants take in CO2 and release oxygen.
“Ruminants [like cows] take carbon out of air and sequester it in the soil better than anything humans have invented,” says Little. While overgrazing can strip the soil and erode the landscape, carefully managed grazing does the opposite. It creates healthy grasslands that sequester carbon.
The soil isn’t the only thing that’s healthier. The cows at Sweet Grass live three to five times longer than the average dairy cow, according to Little.
Beyond the Pasture
To reverse climate change requires a multifaceted approach, so environmentally conscious cheesemakers adopt many tactics.
Some, like Rogue Creamery and California-based Cowgirl Creamery, farm organically. “In doing so, you eliminate 750 chemicals out of that process of producing food,” says David Gremmels, president of Rogue Creamery.
California’s Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. and Italy’s Quattro Portoni purchased methane digestors, which capture gases from manure placed within the system and turns it into simple organic matter and usable biogas. Shelburne Farms enrolled in a program, the Green Dairy Cohort, through the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. It tracks expenditures of water, electricity and other resources, and then provides strategies to reduce their environmental impact.
A crucial way for people to reduce their environmental footprint can be to consume fewer animal-based products. But if you want to enjoy cheese responsibly, seek out producers committed to limiting their impacts on the climate crisis.
Six Eco-Friendly Cheese Producers to Try
Sweet Grass Dairy
Try: Green Hill. Pair with sustainably-produced Gloria Ferrer NV Sonoma Brut Méthode Champenoise (Carneros).
Try: 1-Year Cheddar. Pair with a bold red, like the Domaine Bousquet 2019 Virgen Organic Malbec (Tupungato), which is made from organic grapes.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
Try: Chevre Frais. Pair with Barker’s Marque 2019 Three Brooms Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), a zesty, certified sustainable option.
Uplands Cheese Company
Try: Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Pair with the organically growth The Eyrie Vineyards 2016 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley).