Microbial Sovereignty and Panchal Dairy

Trevor Warmedahl reports on the marginalised Rabari community in Central Gujarat, India and how a dairy there is working to help support value and autonomy in their pastoral ways through cheesemaking.

Two young Kutchi goats are left at home while the larger herd spends the day out grazing. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
Two young Kutchi goats are left at home while the larger herd spends the day out grazing. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

A man with a thick moustache, dressed in hand-embroidered white cotton cloth, whistles to a herd of goats and sheep, bidding them to follow him. I follow as well, as we move into a post-harvest cotton field with noise and dust from a nearby rock-crushing facility filling the air. Along with two younger herders, we take the herd to drink from a trough on the side of a busy highway, then head back to a village where families keep livestock outside their homes, or in corrals made of thorny brush. This man and the families in the village are Rabari, one of a collection of pastoral groups found across Gujarat, India. 

The Hindu Rabari are considered a marginalised community, and the government refers to them as an OBC, “Other Backward Caste”.

The Hindu Rabari are considered a marginalised community, and the government refers to them as an OBC, “Other Backward Caste”. This title betrays the dominant, negative view in India of mobile pastoralists who graze their goats, sheep and camels on fallow fields and common lands, often partaking in seasonal migrations to secure food and water for their herds. They are seen as resisting progress, and their grazing is considered ecologically destructive. I came to the town of Sayla to learn about a project called Panchal Dairy that is pushing back against this stigma, working to return value to pastoral lifeways, using artisan cheese as the medium. The approach of this company counters a problematic trajectory in a globalized, industrial model of cheesemaking. 

A large truck from the local rock mining industry passes a herd of goats, a common sight in this region.  Image © Trevor Warmedahl
A large truck from the local rock mining industry passes a herd of goats, a common sight in this region.  Image © Trevor Warmedahl

The plains of Central Gujarat have a food system undergoing rapid transition. The region has a long history of use by an array of pastoral groups, whose lifestyles vary from seasonally or fully nomadic to sedentary. Some Rabari families still move their camps by camel, or contract other groups to care for their camel herds while they focus on sheep and goats. The involvement of these groups with crop agriculture continues, as the scale and methods of production intensify and take up more of an increasingly industrialised landscape. The milk-focused foodways of these pastoral groups also continue, with the current model being to sell cow and buffalo milk at village collection centres dispersed in a wide network across rural areas. From these centres, the milk goes to regional chilling units and is shipped to large facilities where it is pasteurised and sold across India as liquid milk in single-use packaging. There is no formal market organised for goat and sheep milk in the region, meaning there is little outlet for this milk.

A herd of Kutchi goats, a spiral-horned breed seen across Gujarat and beyond. The young age of this herder is uncommon.  Image © Trevor Warmedahl
A herd of Kutchi goats, a spiral-horned breed seen across Gujarat and beyond. The young age of this herder is uncommon. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

Panchal Dairy is exploring a novel approach to addressing these issues. Goat and sheep milk is taken from nearby village collection centres and immediately turned into cheese. The milk is fermented with a starter culture cultivated from microbes indigenous to local raw milk. This practice is similar to maintaining a sourdough starter, which can produce breads with greater depth and range of flavour than those made with industrial yeast. This is a somewhat radical approach for a commercial enterprise to take. I’ve seen similar projects in many countries that are aimed at providing a value-added outlet for the milk of pastoral people. They almost always follow the model endorsed by Western consultants and development projects. The model is based on the immediate chilling of milk, pasteurisation, and fermentation via packaged starter cultures. Microbial diversity is treated as a negative, and the milk producers are encouraged to “modernise”. Panchal Dairy exemplifies a different approach by maintaining the uniqueness of the milk, and enacting microbial sovereignty while providing financial incentives to the herding community, whose foodways and culture are in limbo. 

Hajabhai Kalotara of Panchal Dairy (centre) along with two Rabari herders from Sayla.  Image © Trevor Warmedahl
Hajabhai Kalotara of Panchal Dairy (centre) along with two Rabari herders from Sayla.  Image © Trevor Warmedahl

Panchal Dairy exemplifies a different approach by maintaining the uniqueness of the milk, and enacting microbial sovereignty while providing financial incentives to the herding community

The milk is unique as it comes from small herds of heritage breeds, which are fed mainly through extensive grazing on local landscapes. The mixed herds (sheep and goats) are hand-milked by the families who keep them. The Rabari’s cultural knowledge of animal husbandry and its impacts on local ecosystems is embodied in the milk. When milk is chilled and stored cold, its indigenous microbial ecology degrades, making the milk less resilient to infiltration by undesirable microbes. This degraded milk is typically cultured with strains of bacteria propagated by one of two transnational corporations whose products are used in the majority of the world’s cheeses. This model attempts to compensate for milk produced in the broken system that is modern industrial dairying. But when milk is produced in a much less intensive manner, other approaches can be employed that in my opinion have greater potential for delicious cheese. These approaches, referred to as natural cheesemaking, push back against microbial imperialism, and encourage a dialogue about food sovereignty.

A local herder named Devshibhai milks goats before they leave the village for the day. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
A local herder named Devshibhai milks goats before they leave the village for the day. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

These approaches, referred to as natural cheesemaking, push back against microbial imperialism, and encourage a dialogue about food sovereignty.

Panchal Dairy was founded by Arpan Kalotra and Bhimsinhbhai Ghangal in 2022. They are members of the local Rabari community and collaborated with multiple organisations to establish the business. As Arpan explains, “The objective is to help pastoralists get a better price for their milk, while creating an identity for goat and sheep milk cheeses.” An NGO called Sahjeevan and the affiliated Centre for Pastoralism are involved, as part of their efforts to support pastoral communities across India and their sustainable lifeways rooted in traditional ecological knowledge.

Another main player is a social enterprise called Access Livelihoods (ALC) that incubates and consults businesses established by marginalised communities. ALC was brought in to train pastoral youth and help them set up viable enterprises. Asma Sayed was crucial in establishing the business, as part of a fellowship she did with ALC. She shared how local young people were given entrepreneurial training, and then allowed to work with dairy colleges to pilot various milk-based products. Cheese was seen as being an ideal route, and the Panchal Dairy project moved forward. The third important stakeholder was Käse Cheese. Namrata Sundaresan and Anuradha Krishnamoorthy from the Chennai-based cheesemaking and distribution company were brought in to help the young entrepreneurs develop artisanal cheeses.

The dairy is run by a local Rabari family who I spent four nights with on the winter Solstice of 2023. Arpan makes the cheese and operates the business along with his father Hajabhai, supported by other young men from the community. The team is working with around 100 litres of milk daily but hopes to increase to 500 once they have an outlet for the cheese. Asma explained to me that the lack of a market for artisan cheese in India, especially from goat or sheep milk, is the crucial missing part of the puzzle. 

The lack of a market for artisan cheese in India, especially from goat or sheep milk, is the crucial missing part of the puzzle. 

The cheese styles being made by Panchal Dairy are not ones historically made in India. Aditya Raghavan, an Indian-Canadian chef and cheesemaker explains that the cuisines of India have a strong dairy element, but paradoxically, there are few traditional cheeses. Milk is more often cooked with, boiled for tea or drinking, made into yoghurt, butter and ghee, or used as a base for sweets. These are not the most shelf-stable foods, which is where aged cheese has a large advantage. It is cheeses modelled on those of Europe that are being made in the fledgling Indian artisan cheese scene. 

Arpan (left) and Hajabhai (right), the father-son duo who runs Panchal dairy. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
Arpan (left) and Hajabhai (right), the father-son duo who runs Panchal dairy. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

The Panchal lineup is progressive and sets a precedent for India and other countries. A small puck of goat cheese that develops a natural rind is a beautiful expression of the unique approach of Panchal Dairy. As is a young pecorino, with the small eyes often seen in microbially diverse cheeses. These cheeses respect the dignity of the milk, the animal breeds, and the local culture. They are an edible embodiment of what the future of cheese and pastoral culture can be. 

These cheeses are an edible embodiment of what the future of cheese and pastoral culture can be. 

The Panchal cheeses feature colourful rinds of yeast and mould, an uncommon sight in India. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
The Panchal cheeses feature colourful rinds of yeast and mould, an uncommon sight in India. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

Back on the land, walking with the herders, I witness a regional agro-pastoralist practice where herds of livestock are brought into agricultural fields, after harvest, in this case of cotton.  The livestock feed on the crop residue and deposit urine and manure as organic fertiliser. The fact that this cycling of nutrients is done onsite by ruminants who also provide milk is highly efficient. This time-tested practice of moving large herds across landscapes seasonally avoids the unsanitary conditions of year-round confined feeding. The herds also browse on the margins between the fields and uncultivated areas that contain thorny trees and shrubby plants. The importation of grown feed and grain concentrates is increasing as well, as this agropastoral system experiences pressures to intensify and follow the industrial approach being imposed around the world. 

The time-tested practice, of moving large herds across landscapes seasonally, avoids the unsanitary conditions of year-round confined feeding.

Devshibhai runs to cut off his herd as they enter a cotton field. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
Devshibhai runs to cut off his herd as they enter a cotton field. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

The work of hands and hooves on the land can receive the value it deserves.

I find the model of Panchal Dairy encouraging because it represents a middle path of participating in the modern economic context, making Western-style cheeses but maintaining respect for the base materials: the milk and the microbes that ferment it. For these eroding traditional foodways to continue, and for young people to carry them forward, the finances have to make sense. Artisan cheese can be a vehicle for that. The pastoral traditions can remain relevant, embodied in a wheel of concentrated milk. The work of hands and hooves on the land can receive the value it deserves.

The Panchali-Dumma sheep is a local breed that the Rabari have adapted for a migratory life in arid lands. Image © Trevor Warmedahl
The Panchali-Dumma sheep is a local breed that the Rabari have adapted for a migratory life in arid lands. Image © Trevor Warmedahl

Trevor Warmedahl is a nomadic cheesemaker, fermentation educator, and writer who studies grazing and milk-fermentation practices all over the world. He publishes on Substack as Milk Trekker. Read his article for The Common Table about his journey through the Caucasus Mountains searching for a very special kind of ancient cheese here and traditional rennet-less cheesemaking in Norway here.

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