Big Isn’t Bad and Small Isn’t Superior: Why Food Choices Based on Size Make Little Sense

By Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND
National Dairy Council Ambassador


As I’m writing this I’m enjoying a few pieces of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, a cheese I was introduced to recently during a tour of The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. Founded by brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill is well known for producing high quality artisan cheeses with a sense of place.

Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, which accounts for 50 percent of their sales volume, is produced by Jasper Hill in collaboration with Cabot Creamery. Cabot produces the cheese and Jasper Hill then takes possession, ages the wheels for 10-15 months, and sells the cheese. The cheese is aged in underground hillside caves, which are part of a multi-million dollar facility.

Jasper Hill produces many different types of cheese under their own brand and they also work with collaborative partners, typically smaller artisan cheese producers for whom Jasper Hill ages and matures cheese, a process the French call affinage.

Wheels of Clothbound Cheddar weigh 32 pounds after the aging process. Compare that to wheels of Willoughby, a washed rind cheese made from pasteurized cow milk, aged at Jasper Hill for 6-12 weeks, that weigh just 8 ounces. Does the size of the wheel affect the quality of the cheese? Is Willoughby better than Clothbound Cheddar because it’s smaller? No, and that’s a silly question to ask, right? But sadly, in today’s food conversation, size is often used to judge quality, sustainability, or other factors we may use to make our food choices.

Our tour was led by a lovely young woman with a master’s degree in food studies who’s worked for Jasper Hill for two years. During the two-hour tour she shared extensive information on the founders, the modern facility, and the processes for producing and aging cheese. Throughout the tour she also made references to the size of the operation, often intimating that due to the small size of the dairy operation and cheese production facility, their practices and products were superior.

Superior to what, I pondered? We were told they started with a herd of 50 dairy cows. Today their original herd is down to 45 cows, but they recently purchased another herd of 150 cows. According to USDA, the average dairy herd size in the United States is 40 cows. The largest herd is 30,000 cows. Does the size of a dairy herd influence the care the cows receive? Or the sustainability of the dairy? It depends.

Smaller dairy farms may know their cows by name while larger operations identify their cows by numbers indicated on tags placed on one ear. Does a cow care if called by name? No. She cares about being with her friends. Cows are herd animals who like to spend their time with other cows. She also cares about her comfort, meaning she wants to be milked when her udders are full, and she wants to have access to food and water throughout the day.

She also wants to have to a comfortable place to lie down and rest. This may mean a Vermont hillside of grass, softened by a recent thunderstorm. Or it may mean a comfortable “bed” inside a climate controlled barn. Many dairy farms use hay as bedding in dairy barns while others may use sand or water-filled beds made of thick rubber.

Cow comfort is a big topic in the dairy industry today. Ensuring cow comfort also ensures greater milk production. Dairy farms in warmer climates like Florida have water misters and fans in their barns to help keep dairy cows cooler during hot, humid summer days.

One issue that I hear many people talk about is the environmental impact of large dairy farms as it relates to manure management. Smaller dairy farms that have integrated crop and livestock production may choose to apply manure to fields as a form of fertilizer.

One of the benefits of being a larger operation is having access to capital for investments like anaerobic methane digesters that can convert cow manure—as well as food waste from local food producers or restaurants—into energy. In some parts of the U.S. methane digesters can provide all the energy a large operation needs for heating, cooling, refrigeration, and lighting as well as supply energy for the local power grid. But with an initial investment that often exceeds $1 million, this innovation is out of reach for smaller farms.

So as I sit here enjoying my last piece of Clothbound Cheddar, I’m still pondering this issue of size. And I’m thinking bigger is better…because if the wheel of Clothbound Cheddar had been larger, I may still have a few more pieces left to enjoy.


About the Author

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota. A registered dietitian nutritionist, Amy runs Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc., a privately held consulting firm that works with food companies, commodity boards, seed companies, and restaurants. In addition to her client work, Amy also serves as a National Dairy Council Ambassador who works to educate the public about issues related to dairy farming and dairy foods as part of healthful dietary patterns. She and her husband Scott Miller live in Carmichael, California where, if allowed by her neighborhood’s CC&Rs, she would keep a couple of Jersey cows in her backyard.