Gita Nagari, a 350-acre farm, was purchased in 1975 by ISKCON New York, following Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that every city temple should have an affiliated farm project: “Every center must have a farm so we can get all milk and if possible vegetable, even fruit [and] flowers,” he wrote to Rupanuga in 1976.
At its peak, Gita Nagari cared for and milked a large herd of Brown Swiss cows, but over the years, efforts dwindled. Then, in 2008, Dhruva Maharaj Das moved from Cape Town, South Africa to Gita Nagari to serve as temple president, along with his wife Parijata Dasi.
They were two of the least likely candidates for running a rural community. Dhruva had been a technical engineering specialist for a nuclear power plant, while Parijata had been vice president of organizational development strategy for a technology business.
Cow protection means community
But from the get-go, they embraced the rural lifestyle. Today, their Community Supported Agriculture program produces at least twenty different types of vegetable, and supplies four nearby city temples and 115 families with organic produce. Meanwhile, they’ve revived Gita Nagari’s dairy efforts with the new Gita Nagari Creamery.
As the very first certified slaughter-free dairy in the USA, the Creamery is Grade B (raw milk) certified by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. This means that it is legally allowed to distribute raw milk for public consumption within the state of Pennsylvania.
“When we got here, we started to milk just two cows, then four,” says Parijata. “Then in March 2013, we purchased a herd of 28 Brown Swiss milking cows. We also have 19 retired cows and oxen, and 14 calves, including ten heifers and four bulls.”
The Gita Nagari Creamery is a unique operation in today’s world. It avoids cruel practices used by conventional dairies such as dehorning and tail docking, instead gearing all its practices towards the cattle’s comfort.
In the winter, the cows shelter in a warm barn bedded with straw from Gita Nagari’s own fields. Throughout the year, they graze on certified organic pastures, and follow a nutrition plan based on rotational grazing for their optimum energy and health. And every day, Dhruva and Parijata observe them closely to make sure all is well.
Cows walking back into their pasture after milking
“We check that their hooves are healthy, their eyes are glassy and clear, their noses are moist enough, and that no one is limping or has been hurt,” says Parijata. “There’s constant interaction with the cows. They’re cared for and loved, and we feel so much reciprocation and exchange of affection when dealing with them.”
What’s more, the Krishna Protects Cows Incorporated Trust, a group of concerned devotee investors, has put aside sufficient funds to care for the existing herd and any of its needs should anything go wrong with the project.
The cows are milked twice a day, at 5:00am and 5:00pm, as peaceful kirtan music plays. Initially, when they had only a small number of cows, Dhruva and Parijata would milk them by hand. Now that they have dozens, they use the gentlest type of suction pump machines, and compensate for the reduced personal interaction by spending plenty of quality time with the cows.
The cows, in return, produce six to seven hundred gallons of milk per week. Some is used for the presiding Deities of Gita Nagari, Sri Sri Radha Damodar, and their devotees. Some is turned into yoghurt, paneer, and cheese — a local Mennonite farmer uses vegetarian rennet to make Cheddar, Baby Swiss, Pepper Jack, and Colby.
The rest is purchased by neighboring city temples in just the kind of farm affiliate system that Srila Prabhupada prescribed. ISKCON communities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Potomac, Maryland; Newburgh in Upstate New York; Towaco, New Jersey; and Central New Jersey each collect about fifty gallons of milk per week for their temples and individual members.
The cows in their winter barn
These temples pay $10 per gallon for Gita Nagari Creamery milk, a shock to some devotees. But consider that organic milk from slaughtered cows often goes for $8 a gallon in stores. Consider the costs of taking exceptional care of dozens of cows for life. And consider the sheer quality of the milk produced by such cows. Suddenly, ten bucks seems very worth it indeed.
“To make the milk that’s sold in grocery stores, a milk tanker goes from farm to farm, collects milk, and puts it all into a huge bulk tank at a Dairy plant,” Parijata says. “Then they sterilize it completely, pasteurize it, homogenize it, take out all the fats, and start putting everything back in, to make one per cent, two per cent, and ‘whole’ milk.”
Of course this is beside the tortured lives cows live on factory farms before being slaughtered at least fifteen years before their normal life expectancy, and the artificial hormones and antibiotics that are injected into them and find their way into their milk. Factory farmed cows are also put on horrific diets of excessive grain and feed that can include feces and even animal parts.
“We don’t push our cows to production, and their diets are carefully managed,” says Parijata. “Because they’re well cared for, happy and content, the quality of their milk is more nutritient dense. We’ve even had cases where people who are supposedly lactose intolerant drink our milk and do not have any reactions to it.”
She adds, “The lactose intolerance that is so prevalent now in allergies is not due to milk in its original raw whole food form — it’s due to how it’s handled, and how the cows are treated. But there is a heavy vegan movement that is beating the drum about how milk is not healthy. And the Cancer Association and so many other medical associations are now speaking out against a dairy-based diet. So we try to share with people how our milk is different.”
The pasteurizer at the Gita Nagari Creamery
At the same time, Gita Nagari carefully follows its local laws regarding milk, the most regulated food in the US. The community itself currently uses raw whole milk and distributes it within Pennsylvania, where it is legal. But according to the law, the creamery cannot deliver raw milk across State lines. So it has devotees from neighboring states pick up their milk and bring it home, according to their individual rights.
In order to be able to deliver milk to ISKCON communities throughout the East Coast of the United States in the future, however, Gita Nagari has purchased a pasteurizer, which will be FDA inspected in late January 2014, and will hopefully receive a Grade A Certification.
“We also hope to invest in a cream separator, so that we can make our own butter, buttermilk, ghee, and ice cream,” Parijata says. But she is clear that she and Dhruva, along with their investors, plan to keep their herd manageable and remain a small, sustainable business: “We don’t need large markets — we just want to have a program available for the neighboring states to be able to offer protected cow milk to their Deities and devotees.”
While it will remain small, Gita Nagari Creamery’s influence could be big. Through it Dhruva and Parijata, with the visionary support of their investors, hope to show dairy farms in Pennsylvania and beyond that it is possible to run an economically viable slaughter-free dairy.
Within ISKCON, they advise any rural communities that would like to follow their example to start small and systematically, by investing in a micro dairy system and milking just a couple of cows by hand.
As for devotees in general, Parijata offers this final salient suggestion: “If you can get milk from protected cows, do it. Support those projects. Because farm communities are only as successful as the support they get.”