My Butter Conversion

Why I Stopped Being Vegan and Started Using Butter

I recently discovered the joys of butter. No, Paula Deen didn’t take me hostage and force me to eat deep-fried butter balls.

Butter and I have had a tumultuous relationship. After developing a sort of allergy to it in high school, I cut out all dairy from my diet. Soon after, I become a devout vegan for five years and embraced buttery spread alternatives—non-GMO and organic—to serve as butter’s place-holder when the occasion called for it. Yet, something made me feel a bit uneasy when I used a substitute, regardless of the supposed health benefits.

I consider myself a staunch, sometimes overzealous local food advocate. I grew up in an area with farms. I’ve worked on an organic farm. I write about food. I regularly attend farmers’ markets. I support organic and local whenever possible. I wrote my thesis on local food. I own almost every book and cookbook on local food. It’s an obsession. But it wasn’t until my life as a vegan and locavore came to a crossroads that I began to think about butter: Is it possible to really support my local economy, maintain my commitment to the environment and be vegan?

The answer, to a large extent, is yes. If you make connections with farmers, eat seasonally and local and have access to good fruits and vegetables, you can have a balanced and healthful diet. And, you can live without the extras: the fake cheeses that are known for their non-melting properties and the pseudo-dairy spreads. Yet, when vegan baked good recipes called for these specialty items, I cringed at the lengthy list of ingredients; many had upwards of 10, including soy, corn and sugar-beet derivatives. Where had these items been sourced? How many people did it take to make that one item? How much energy was used to extract and make these products? Not to mention the cost.

Happy Cows

Reading the labels of animal-free products and interviewing small farmers has ultimately changed my perspective on dairy. In July 2010, I visited the nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis for an article on faith and farming. Mother Telchilde Hinckley, who, among many of her jobs, oversees the state-certified raw milk dairy, explained to me the almost spiritual connection between cow and human during hand milking.

“People come today, and many of them have never touched a large animal, and to have the opportunity to hand milk, it’s one of those opportunities that can be life-changing in a certain way,” said Hinckley. “You’d rarely get a situation where you’d have your hands on that cow every single day and get to know the stability of her body. How she responds to you will tell you about your own self.”

Whether it was the beautiful location in which they live or the attentiveness of their caregivers, these cows are among the happiest, cleanest and most gentle-natured I’ve ever seen.

“Everything here is very interrelated,” Hinckley says. “So, all the manure is collected and composted and spread back out on the fields. That’s one of things that’s very unique about our system. Here, I think, what we have both for the community and guests who come is that we provide this experience of the interrelatedness of all the works and the land. And one thing really affects another thing.”

The abbey’s cow’s milk is transformed into cream, butter, cheese and other raw milk products, made in the processing kitchen just a few steps away from those happy, heritage breed cows. I understand that this idyllic image isn’t the picture everywhere. In fact, the current dairy structure in the U.S. makes it difficult for small dairies, including sheep and goat farmers like this to thrive.


Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have become the norm. These indoor factory farm facilities cram upwards of 200 (a very low estimate) dairy cattle into abysmal conditions. Cows are force-fed a diet of corn, soy and even remnants of other animals, defying their ruminant biology. To combat illnesses caused by their unnatural surroundings, they are then injected with hormones and antibiotics, chemicals that we later ingest.

Small-scale, family owned dairy farms just can’t compete with CAFOs and the seven multi-billion dollar, multinational corporations that monopolize the industry. A few statistics from Sustainable Table:

• In 1980 there were 117,313 farm members in milk cooperatives, down from 561,065 in 1964.

• 2004 figures indicate a 75% decline in the number of U.S. dairy farms since 1980. As the dairy industry grows, this number continues to drop as small farms die out and large industrial dairy factories expand herd sizes and milk production.

• In 2005, overall U.S. dairy milk production reached 77.5 tons; by 2006, overall U.S. dairy milk production reached 82.3 tons. Small farms, those with fewer than 100 cows, dwindle, while farms with over 500 cows continue to grow.

• Startlingly, about half of the U.S. milk is supplied by just 3.7% of these mega-dairy farms.

I used to think that by not buying dairy, I would be helping to improve the livelihood of animals and, in a roundabout way, end factory farming. But, for me, this was just too passive. I live an area where I can buy directly from farmers. Those times when I opt for locally produced butter, at least I can have a clear conscience about using it and know that I’m not contributing to the problem.

A Butter Revelation

In an ironic way, veganism led me back to butter. The notion of “ahimsa”—a Sanskrit term meaning avoidance of harm or injury—that is central to vegan thinking forced me to evaluate the environmental impact of my diet. I was already eating very low on the food chain, supporting responsible food producers and growing my own food. While the majority of my diet remains vegan—except, now, with the integration of some dairy—I learned so much from this way of life and learning.

Farmer and celebrated writer Wendell Berry once famously said “Eating is an agricultural act.” It’s also a political, social and environmental one. The thought of what to spread on your toast in the morning can seem a bit mundane. But in its minutiae, there’s an enormous cultural implication.