Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Lecheros: A Successful Cooperative Story

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Lecheros: A Successful Cooperative Story

Article excerpt

The mountainous region that lies to the north of Medellin is often referred to as the Switzerland of Colombia, and for good reason. Jagged peaks that reach 10,000 feet pierce the clouds, dwarfing the tiny hamlets that nestle in their shadows. Waterfalls rage through dense foliage, feeding the headwaters of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers. And, at virtually every turn of the road, visitors can see one of the area's most distinctive ongoing rituals played out as small herds of dairy cattle maneuver sure-footedly on steep, verdant slopes that appear to be all but impossible to traverse.

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In mid-afternoon, another chapter of this real-life saga unfolds as farmhands appear, pails in hand, to begin the twice-daily task of milking in the open air, just as it's been done in this part of the world for centuries. Stainless steel cans of the still-warm milk are then lashed on to the pack saddles of horses, donkeys, and steers, and the next phase of this timeless routine begins. The lechero (milkman) leads his pack animal to a rendezvous point where the raw milk begins the next stage of a long and complicated journey that ends several days later when a variety of pasteurized dairy products--milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese--reach the shelves of supermarkets and bodegas throughout the country.

At a time when dairy production in most countries has become highly mechanized and where huge herds of cattle are confined to increasingly small spaces where they subsist on processed feed, most Colombian dairy producers continue to do their job the old fashioned way. Relying on a labyrinth-like system that depends on the efforts of thousands of small producers who may own as few as a dozen cows, they survive and prosper while sustaining a system that generates economic stability. It also produces some of the highest quality dairy products in the world.

The municipality of Santa Rosa de Osos, one of several jurisdictions in the northern high plains region of Antioquia, is a place where the region's traditional dairy production is thriving. The familiar black and white Holstein breed makes up the vast majority of the municipality's estimated 26,000 dairy cows which are distributed among 2,600-some privately owned herds.

Edwin Orrego, a strapping, good natured lechero who has been milking cows for over two decades, says he loves his job and wouldn't dream of doing anything else. It takes him over two hours twice a day, at three in the morning and again at three in the afternoon, to milk by hand the two dozen cows in his herd. "This is Careta," he says as he milks the first cow of the afternoon, shielded from the threatening rain by only a small, open-sided canopy. "That's Mariposa," he adds, pointing at the next cow in line. The cows know their order of seniority and queue up in the same sequence every time. "They all have names. After so much time together, we become very close," he adds.

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A few miles away, Alberto Vasquez is a small producer who has taken the next step up in the industry, installing both a mechanical milking system and a cooling tank. "It's more expensive," he notes, "but for producing high-quality milk, it's better." He comes from a family of fourteen sons and has four of his own. All of them are in the dairy business. "It's the tradition of my father," he says proudly. "And, we've been associated with Colanta for 35 years."

It's not surprising to hear Vasquez and many other small producers in places like Santa Rosa and Yarumal boast of their loyalty to the Antioquia Milk Cooperative, better known by its acronym Colanta. …

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