A Man, a Plan, Manure

In search of fertilizer, a chef-turned-farmer finds something unexpected.

Peter Osofsky had been delivering Ronnybrook milk to my restaurant, Egg, every Saturday morning for almost four years before I managed to arrange a trip to visit the farm. What drew me there at last wasn’t milk but manure: We’d just begun farming our own land up in Greene County at the base of the Catskills, and we needed manure to build up our soil.

I’d mentioned it several times to Peter, and he’d always encouraged me to come and take as much as I wanted. But I had trouble accepting this offer. I knew how precious good compost and manure were. I couldn’t believe that Peter’s offer was quite genuine. “We have tons of it. Literally,” he’d tell me, as I made out the check for the week’s milk, butter and cream. “Just call me and come get it. Anytime.” “That’d be great,” I’d say, “maybe I will”—and I’d head back to the kitchen, nursing a fantasy of creating a loop: their manure fertilizing our vegetables, which we’d later cook in their butter.

It was the middle of our second summer on the farm when I finally decided I’d take Peter up on his offer. He gave me his dad’s phone number, and after some nervous pacing, I called. Rick Osofsky is the younger son of the dairy’s founders, brother to the eponymous Ronny, and I’d been assured he’d be happy to hear from me. But I called with the trepidation of someone approaching a celebrity, afraid to impose, anxious to make a good impression. When he answered, he was quick and terse, a man with a lot to do. Yes, I could come get manure, and, yes, today would be a fine day. But he warned me his time was tight, so I’d need to be prompt. He had a dinner to get to, and he’d need time to dress. I assured him I’d be quick, threw a shovel in the back of my truck and headed out, leaving the ragtag foothills of the Catskills behind as I crossed the Hudson at the Rip Van Winkle and wound down toward Ancramdale.

I had a lot of ideas about what the farm would look like. I’d driven through the hills of southern Columbia County before, in the neighborhood of Ronnybrook: This was the land of the gentleman farmer, the Manhattan refugee who’d cashed in his young fortune for an Eyebrow Colonial and 200 acres to raise a dozen heritage-breed sheep. It’s breathtaking country, full of beautiful houses, foggy valleys, thoroughbreds grazing on rolling pasture. It’s just the sort of arcadian place you’d expect to find milk in thick glass quart bottles, where you get the impression not quite that time stood still, but that the antiques market is strong.

I pictured Rick Osofsky as a kind of Hudson Valley Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, outfitted by Orvis and presiding over a farm that looked like a spread from the French Laundry cookbook. I imagined he’d greet me on his bluestone terrace, tie half-knotted, and wave me in the direction of his pile of shit. I’d head off and shovel while he showered and called for his Land Rover. Rationally, I knew better than to trust my fantasy. But those glass bottles had stoked it pretty vigorously since I’d first seen them, almost 10 years earlier, on the counter of the Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side. I went in to look at doughnuts, but it was the milk that caught my eye. That bottle sitting there, a drip of cream clinging to the glass, inspired what felt like a fever, and though I normally drank my coffee black, in this case I poured milk in generously and watched, thrilled, as threads of unhomogenized cream floated to the top of my cup. I’d had milk like that only once before, at my uncle’s small farm outside Wilmington, North Carolina. He loved to hold up the bottle from the morning’s milking to show off the thick layer of cream that was clotting the neck. Then he’d stick his finger into it and eat a teaspoon of cream and shake his head with delight.

Growing up, most of the milk I’d drunk had come in waxy cartons and smelled of the school cafeteria. Judging from the number of people who’ve run up to us at Egg to show us that the milk in their coffee was bad—“Look! It’s curdled!”—it’s a rare New Yorker who grew up with unhomogenized milk. So if the bottles evoke nostalgia, it’s for a past few of us have ever actually experienced. The nostalgia, in any case, is only window dressing; the milk needs no help making its case once it’s passed your lips.

We get the milk at the restaurant in huge plastic bags, the sort that live inside giant metal dispensers next to silos of frosted flakes at a college dining hall. There’s nothing charming about them, especially when you’re wrangling one in the middle of a brunch rush, trying to direct a stream of milk from its bag in a crate on the shelf into a pitcher in your hand. The bag flops around dangerously; the nozzle clogs with cream and tempts you to give the bag an angry squeeze, which inevitably results in milk spraying everywhere like a wild hose. But there isn’t a person at Egg who would trade it out for something easier. Like most adults, our cooks come in jaded about milk: It’s for kids, coffee and bachelor party cocktails. But drinking Ronnybrook’s milk—taking the last swig out of the pitcher before it goes into the dish pit—changes everyone. It’s like everything else that we’ve gotten used to eating in an industrially processed form: You try it fresh, less fussed with, and you realize how much you’ve been missing. It’s sweet and rich and clean. You can taste pasture. It changes as the seasons change. It makes you start to care again about something you hadn’t realized you’d written off.

The Osofskys started doing their own bottling at a time when milk—and New York’s dairy industry—was getting written off by everyone, including dairy farmers themselves. At the beginning of the 1980s, there were 30 dairy farms within 15 miles of Ronnybrook. But milk prices dropped so low that the government started paying farmers to euthanize their cows. One after another of the Osofskys’ neighbors shut up shop, killing their cows and selling their land, following what looked like the only sane route available. Rick and Ronny wouldn’t do it. They loved their cows and they believed in their milk, and they were determined to find a way to save them. Building their own bottling plant was an unlikely gamble against doom. It meant new equipment and additional labor, and it meant giving up the stability of selling to a cooperative, where their milk would get mixed with milk from dozens of other farms, then homogenized and pasteurized. It would be many days before the milk reached a customer’s cup. But by bottling their own, they’d gain some control over what happened to it. They pasteurized their milk more gently, which meant it tasted fresher and sweeter than commodity milk. It also meant that they could get their milk to customers as quickly as 24 hours after milking.

They began in 1986 and, encouraged by the reception, soon expanded to Greenmarkets in the city. There they caught the attention of the New York Times’s Florence Fabricant, whose praise solidified their standing among city food lovers. Dairy is still a volatile and beleaguered business in New York: Fewer and fewer farmers are making a living milking cows. Of the 30 dairies that Ronnybrook counted as neighbors in 1980, not one is left.

Ancramdale itself was the first surprise on my trip to Ronnybrook. I think I half-expected a milk-themed village, a Main Street lined with ice cream shops and cow sculptures. I certainly expected a sign pointing the way to what I thought of as the town’s claim to fame. I hadn’t paid much attention to Rick’s directions because I assumed once I got to Ancramdale it would be so obvious, but now that I was here, I realized I was lost: I saw a small café, closed for the afternoon; a sign offering rabbits for sale; a post office, also closed. No indication anywhere that this town was home to the region’s best milk. Nor could I find a cell signal to call for help, and though I’d left myself time to allow for getting lost, I was cutting it close. As I made one blind turn after another I began to imagine a baronial Osofsky checking his watch and making up his mind to dismiss me on sight.

I finally found a road whose name rang a bell and drove what seemed like miles uphill before I saw some barns, some calves’ hutches and a Ronnybrook delivery truck parked by the side of the road. I parked in a hurry under a large tree just downhill from an array of solar panels. To one side was a small ranch-style house that might have been staff housing. On the other side stood an assemblage of large blue sheds. A sign over one door indicated the farm store. I tried to look composed and efficient as I headed through it. Someone there could surely point me in Rick’s direction. I stepped into a workroom, and as my eyes were adjusting I heard someone say “You must be George.” I turned, and there he was: a man, dressed as if for milking, a baseball cap pulled low over his brow, whose every movement gave him away as Peter’s father. I shook his hand and unreeled a deferential greeting. “You can just point me in the direction of the manure and leave me to it,” I said. “I know you’ve got places to go.” “Well,” he nodded. “Why don’t I show you the dairy first?”

Suddenly it felt like it would be ruder to rush than to dally. He took me through the bottling plant, which had grown from a 10- by 10-foot room in the ’80s to a full-fledged operation. I saw where the bottles came in to be washed, the machines that filled and capped them. He walked me into a freezer filled with ice cream, and showed me pallets of yogurt. We stood on the loading dock where our orders were stacked onto the truck every Friday night. We were taking our time, ambling from one room to the next, stopping to speak to employees, pausing to admire machinery that had served them for decades. And when we were done with the dairy, we walked over to the milking barn. I never even saw him glance at his watch. I’d seen milking operations before—a friend worked at the University of Georgia’s dairy, where the machinery seemed to be the main event and cows an afterthought. There it was all gleaming stainless cylinders and rubber tubing; vats of sanitizing chemicals and thick hoses; stanchions to hold cows in place as they were hooked up like heart-attack victims on a defibrillator assembly line. This barn looked like an animal sanctuary by comparison. It was clean and tidy, to be sure, but dominated by wood and straw rather than rubber and metal. The stalls were the size of a Manhattan bedroom, thickly layered with dry straw. Over each of the 100 stalls was a cow’s name and the menu for her day’s meal—the mix of supplemental grain and grass she wanted to stay healthy. The cows’ entrance, at the far end of the barn, opened to where pasture rolled out as far as the eye could see: The farm’s 750 acres span two counties and two townships. The milking cows wander in from those pastures twice a day, coming when called, and each cow heads to her stall and waits to be milked. Afterward, they head back out when the weather’s good and spend the day grazing their way through 250 acres of pasture as long as the grass keeps growing. The dry cows and calves are free to roam as they like, going into their own barn when they want shelter and roaming the pasture when they don’t.

In the city, out of context, Ronnybrook can feel like the juggernaut of the artisanal milk business, an almost ubiquitous presence in better food markets and restaurants. They’re in a dozen Greenmarkets, they have a retail store in Chelsea Market, you can even order their stuff through FreshDirect. They make everything from heavy cream to drinkable yogurt to crème fraîche. But all that food begins here, humbly. Most of it comes from 100 cows they know by name, and who are the offspring of generation after generation of cows who’ve lived there. Three generations of Osofskys romp around the farm now, too. Brothers Rick and Ronny still run things. Their kids—Pete, Kate and Daniel—tend the cows, oversee markets and deliveries and manage the office. Rick’s 11-year-old granddaughter has cows of her own, which she shows at the county fair. Pete’s daughter, Maya, tumbles around the farm, too, all of two years old.

It’d been more than an hour since I’d first arrived, and Rick hadn’t once mentioned his dinner date. I was trying to play it cool, but I was getting more and more anxious about making him late. My anxiety was at a peak when he finally brought up the manure. “Let me show you what we’ve got—I’ll just go get the tractor and meet you up there.” He pointed to a barn up the hill from where I’d parked. I drove up and waited for him to come up with his frontend loader. Watching it bounce along the ruts of the drive, I began to suspect that he wasn’t especially eager to get to this dinner—that he might be just as happy to spend the evening here with his cows.

If you haven’t learned to love at least the idea of manure, you haven’t really embraced the food revolution. Manure is where the rubber hits the road, where all of the things we extract from the dirt to feed ourselves begin to get put back in, a reinvestment in our ability to continue eating well—or at all. Rick showed me manure at three or four stages of “cooking,” from fresh stuff (slick and odiferous) to well-composted piles of it that were sweet-smelling and full of earthworms. I opted for a mix, as though I were at a salad bar, and Rick dug in with his tractor. He dumped a load of each into the bed of my truck, which bounced and sagged under the weight. I thought he looked at me a little pityingly then, when he realized my tiny Nissan wasn’t going to hold any more. “I guess we’d better leave it at that,” he said. I thanked him for the tour and for the manure. I wanted to thank him for the milk, the yogurt, the butter that we eat by the spoonful, spread cold against a slice of country ham. But my effusiveness would have been out of place. He deserved my adulation, but he didn’t want or need it. So I kept it short. He shook my hand from his tractor seat and finally—more to my relief than his, it seemed— headed off to put up his tractor and get ready for the evening.

I drove back across the river toward our tiny farm, one nervous eye on my payload. That manure, from cows with names like Amelia and Cassie who were cared for like pets, would help to turn our sparse and rocky topsoil into something that could produce abundant vegetables for years. The carrots and purple beans and kale, which we’d take later that summer to the restaurant and glaze in butter from those same cows, or gratinée with their milk and cream, would complete a nutritional cycle that touched down in three counties: Columbia, Greene and Kings. And at every point in that cycle, someone or something was eating as well as she or it could dream: The cows feasted on clover; the carrots on composted manure; and we on those carrots, sautéed in butter as sweet as summer.

Ronnybrook rhapsody. Rick Osofsky, right, runs the farm with his bearded brother Ronny and son Peter. “I’d seen milking operations before,” writes Weld, “where the machinery seemed to be the main event and the cows an afterthought. Ronnybrook’s barn looked like an animal sanctuary by comparison, dominated by wood and straw rather than rubber and metal.”

Think outside the jug. Like most adults, Egg’s cooks come in jaded about milk: it’s for kids, coffee and bachelor party cocktails. But drinking Ronnybrook’s milk—taking the last swig out of the pitcher before it goes into the dish pit—changes everyone.

Photo credits:  Moya McAllister and June Russell.

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