Meet the cows who make the cream: Organic Valley farm visit

IMG_4848Nora and I took the perfect keto kid field trip! We visited an Organic Valley dairy farm just 30 minutes from our house, makers of Nora’s brain-healing heavy cream. We are very good Organic Valley customers and Nora was happy to meet the cows that make “her” cream. She keeps asking to have her own dairy so that she can sell milk door-to-door. I keep telling her that the city will not allow us to have a cow in the backyard. She should focus her attention to her chickens. Visiting cows is the best that I can do.

Double J Jersey dairy farm is run by the Bansen family, Jon and Juli and their four children. Their oldest, Ross, is now a part-owner of the farm after getting a business degree in Iowa and traveling the world for a year visiting dairy farms. Their other children have their own responsibilities on the farm, the youngest is a senior in high school. They moved to the farm with a 2 year old and a newborn, then in 2000 they converted to organic pastured production and joined Organic Valley, a cooperative of 1,800 dairy farmers across the US committed to the economic success of mid-sized family-owned dairy farms along with the environmental benefits of organic production.

Keto families also love Organic Valley because our dietitians tell us that it is the only cream that is reliably free of carbs. The whole milk comes from the cow, and the cream is then separated at the creamery but some of the lactose in the milk could remain with the cream. Many other brands of cream report 0.5 g of carb per serving, some report zero, but in reality might be up to 0.5 g to 1 g of carb after processing. Keto dietitians recommend Organic Valley because in their experience it is all fat, just the good stuff. When we calculate Organic Valley cream for Nora’s meals, we count it as 40% fat, 60% water. Nothing else.

Nora displays her butter. Photo courtesy of Ann Shriver.

Nora displays her butter. Photo courtesy of Ann Shriver.

Our first farm activity was taking those familiar cartons of heavy cream and making our own butter! We poured some cream into a glass jar and shook for about 10 minutes. It got thicker and thicker until it didn’t even seem like anything was sloshing around in there, then all of a sudden it was a clunking chunk of yellow butter! The buttermilk that had separated was thin and I let Nora drink it right from the jar, along with tasting that yellow buttery deliciousness. It was the softest, most buttery butter I had ever tasted. Where else can you take a tour and get perfect high-quality fat for samples? Try it yourself. It’s like magic!

All of the Bansens who gave us the tour were wearing Organic Valley t-shirts that said “who is your farmer?” In this world of industrial food from nowhere, we are privileged to see the origins of our food, and the cows are fortunate to live such a comfortable life. The milk truck comes to their farm every other day and takes it to creameries in Portland, where Organic Valley rents processing facilities from other creameries (Darigold and Alpenrose, in Portland) to process and package the raw milk into the dairy products that we buy at the store. The organic milk is run first thing in the morning when the machines are clean. If you look at the printed code on your milk or cream carton you can see where your milk was processed before being delivered to the grocery store. Nora’s Organic Valley cream has the code 41-33. Put that code into this website: Where is my milk from? It was processed at Alpenrose Dairy creamery in Portland, OR, but it came from an Organic Valley dairy. There is a good chance it came from Jon Bansen’s Jersey cows, but alternatively his cousin Dan and niece Jamie also have their own Organic Valley dairy in Oregon;  brother, Bob, runs the dairy the boys grew up on in Yamhill County, Oregon; and Jon’s older brother, Pete, operates the original family dairy back in Ferndale, California. It is highly likely that Nora’s Portland-processed cream came from a Bansen cow!

Happy cow, waiting to be milked in a few short hours.

Happy cow, waiting to be milked in a few short hours.


In the pasture where the cows would be grazing later in the day.

We walked out to the pasture with Jon, where he told us about his rotational grazing method and his real job: to take care of the bacteria that make a healthy soil to grow nutritional pasture, which in turn takes care of the bacteria in the cow’s gut to break it down and turn it into nutritional milk. He moves the herd through paddocks with movable fencing every day when the plants are just the right height for grazing: healthy long green tender plants up to our shins that let the cows eat their 300 pounds of grass per day (really?!?), but have not become so tall and fibrous that they are hard to digest. He could count 15 different species in the pasture, some of which are “weeds” that the cows eat and many of which he planted with a no-till process that keeps the soil intact and healthy. The cows munch down the pasture so that the plants can spring up again, while working their “nutrients” into the soil to fertilize (I stepped in some of those “nutrients” in the barn!). Cows have 4 stomaches and are “fermentation vats on legs,” as Jon told us. The plants turn sunlight into food to grow, the cows turn those plants that we can’t digest into milk (sugars, protein and fat), and if we take care of the pasture and cows we get the nutritious milk and cream. It’s a pretty sweet deal and we should thank our farmers.

Kids take a walk through the fly vacuum!

Kids take a walk through the fly vacuum!


Ross demonstrates the automatic cow brush.

These cows live a comfortable life. They are out on pasture from the first spring day when the Oregon winter rains break, usually in March. Jon says that the first day out to pasture is the best day of the year, even better than Christmas. When they have to be inside, during the winter or very bad weather, they are sheltered in open air barns with bedding. During the winter they eat silage that was cut from their own fields and stored on the farm. The farm has bird houses everywhere, especially up in the rafters of the barns. They are home to swallows and swifts that feast on the flies and keep the cows comfortable. There is also a fly vacuum that the cows walk through when the go to the milking parlor twice a day. It is a low, gentle suction that takes the flies off of their bellies.

The barn also has a full-body cow brush, which turns on when a cow rubs against it. They can use it whenever they want it. The ladies can come over for a full-body brush/massage when they are in the barn. Ross said that in the winter they even butt heads about getting a turn, so they put in 2 of them. In the spring when they are shedding there is a lot of hair left on the floor.

When the cows are in the barn for the winter, their waste moves into a concrete lagoon beside the barns. There was no mistaking that this was a dairy farm by the smell, but it was a clean rich odor, not a sickening manure smell. The lagoon is managed properly and the waste is spread over the fields in a thin layer 3 times per year to keep the nutrients in the cycle, worked back into the earth where the plants can take up the nitrogen and use it again in the growing cycle.


The milking parlor.

We also visited the milking parlor, a small clean room where they go twice per day. There is a heater on the ceiling for cold winter days, and large fans in the walls used in the warm summer. The cows get about 2 pounds of organic grain when they come in for milking, a mix of barley, oats, and corn. It’s a little “incentive” to come off the pasture. They don’t need the grain but it’s a treat, like “junk food” for cows. Ross told us that they like it and it gives them a little extra quick energy for making all of that milk. Nora really wanted to see how the milk and cream is put into the containers, but we will have to go to the creamery in Portland for that tour.

Nora and a 2 day old calf.

Nora and a 2-day old calf.

We can’t forget that cows have calves, which is the start of the whole milk-making process. There was a group of cows that were waiting to calve, the “dry cows” because they will not make milk until after they give birth and are not given hormones to increase or prolong milk production. When the calves are born, Juli Bansen becomes their caretaker. She sees that they get enough milk and food to grow. The males are sold to a nearby farm who raises them for beef, sold specially as Jersey beef to Portland restaurants. Jerseys are good at making milk, but their small frames are not the breed of choice for large cattle feeding operations. The Bansen’s special breed and organic production make them perfect for specialty beef. The females may be added to the herd or sold to other dairy farms.

Because they are an organic dairy, they may not use any antibiotics or hormones. If a cow gets sick and needs medicine they have to take her out of the herd and sell her to a conventional dairy. The Bansens said that after they switched to organic and gained experience, they almost never have a sick cow. All of the time spent on pasture and nearly 100% pasture fed means that the cows’ bodies are allowed to do what they are meant to do: ferment and break down green plants. They are out in the open and not exposed to excess waste or stress that will tax their immune systems. A happy cow is a healthy cow.

It was a pleasure to see the Bansen farm at work and listen to their experiences. It was clear that they take great pride in their dairy and the health of their animals. Their house was right next to the barns, surrounded by lush gardens lined with bird houses and a chicken run. A blue heron soared across the fields into a stand of trees while we were walking to the pasture. The calves were kept just steps from the front yard. They clearly enjoy their lifestyle and it makes a good living, so much that their oldest son is in the process of taking over the dairy so that his parents can retire. It is a special thing to see people love what they do, surrounded by healthy land and animals, both domestic and wild. It feels good to know that we are supporting their work by buying their milk and cream, which is in turn keeping Nora’s brain healthy and growing. We were there celebrating their success and we thank the Bansens and other Organic Valley farmers for giving us a healthy option for Nora that we can feel good about in every way.

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About Christy Anderson Brekken

In no particular order... Instructor and Researcher, Department of Applied Economics, Oregon State University. Educational background: University of MN Law School, 2005. MS in Ag and Resource Economics, Oregon State University, 2011. Teaches: Agricultural Law, Environmental Law. Mother: brilliant 9 year old boy; brilliant 6 year old girl with benign myoclonic epilepsy on a modified ketogenic diet therapy. Married to: Ted Brekken, OSU Department of Electrical Engineering. Ride: Xtra-cycle Edgerunner with kid seat; 400-pound cargo capacity. Grew up: Devils Lake, ND. Lived in: Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, Pohang, South Korea, Trondheim, Norway, Corvallis, OR. Interests: Cooking, knitting, eating, yoga, laughing, hiking, traveling, staying sane.

2 thoughts on “Meet the cows who make the cream: Organic Valley farm visit

    • Hi Amanda! So sorry to be so late replying.

      Organic Valley offered tours and I get their emails, so I signed up. I should have thought to tell you–so sorry! I can send you the contact information for Jon. He comes in to give a guest lecture at a class in my department at OSU so I know how to reach him. I am sure he would be happy to have you come out, and maybe we can join you and go again! I would love to be there at milking time 🙂


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