It is 6:30 am and I am awake for morning chores and the morning milking routine, moving swiftly but calmly because although the goats bleating could easily wake the neighborhood, my brain is still warming up. As the fog begins to lift, I trek through the dew to the barn, with the washcloths and the milk pail, and open the gate to let Tiny Dancer get her breakfast on the milk stand. After Tiny comes Tink, then Meme, and finally Splish, all in order of age and patience. They know the routine as well as I do and the whole thing takes 29 minutes every morning.
As our society continues to advance in its particular brand of science and technology, I can’t help but think that in our efforts to make life more leisurely and “efficient” we are losing some values that are incredibly important. Farmers today have access to magnificent technology, machines that will allow them to crop hundreds of acres in one day and that will milk 80 animals twice a day without the farmer ever having to touch them. But not having that physical connection with the land and animals, by replacing living creatures with machines, perhaps we are missing an essential emotional connection to the earth. As stewards of the land, each farmer must make decisions every day that force him to choose and reconcile his responsibility to the earth and his financial responsibility to his family. This is the nature of all agriculture. We are domesticating plants and animals, altering the natural way, so we can eat and survive. Making the proper choices is of the highest importance.
Since the Neolithic Era, humans have been domesticating animals for milk and meat. Raw milk is the perfect diet for young mammals and provides newborns with the antibodies and gut flora that allow them to grow and thrive. Most folks consider milk and dairy products to be a staple grocery product in their household, with the thought that drinking milk brings good health. For thousands of years, raw milk was considered a cure-all and was prescribed by doctors (even Hippocrates) for ailments on all ends of the medical spectrum. Unfortunately, nowadays, most people do not have access to this magic elixir of raw milk unless you milk the animal yourself.
Raw milk is not only superior to pasteurized milk in terms of the health benefits, but perhaps just as important, is superior because you are able to gauge the skill of the farmer based on the cleanliness of his animals and the quality of the milk. Today’s culture expects all milk to taste exactly the same, which is easily accomplished by heating the most unsanitary of milk, derived from potentially unhealthy animals on unhealthy farms, to incredibly high temperatures in order to achieve the homogeneous abomination called pasteurized milk. Nobody wins with unhealthy farms.
For me, I am able to judge the quality of all activities on our farm by the health of our goats and the taste of the milk. If the milk tastes right, it means the animals have enough diverse plant life to eat without over-grazing areas making them susceptible to parasites. If they have enough of the right stuff to eat, then their manure will be full of great nutrients to replenish the soil. If the soil is healthy, then the plants are healthy, the forest is healthy and, well, the farm is healthy. The goats also let you know if anything is awry on the farm. If they are bellowing in the middle of the day then you know the dog is loose, if they are bellowing in the middle of the night then you know their head has been stuck in the fence for two hours.
Having animals on the farm seems to punctuate time as well. The day begins and ends with them; regardless of the weather, I have a daily meeting with the goats on my calendar. Even the breeding cycle of a goat seems to dictate time on the farm more than the seasons. Nothing defines spring better than the birth of new goat kids.
Each morning, sitting next to this warm creature, I think about how we were expecting each other. I reflect on a morning when I had been late to the milk stand and could feel her disappointment. Then I think if she were ever tardy or did not show, how terribly sad (and thirsty) I would be. Most importantly, when I think of the dairy animal as a function of my whole farm (which is how a farmer should think about everything on the farm), I realize all the things that would be missing without her. I am sure, when it is no longer there, the bellows would become endearing.
For the past two years, since we began our relationship with goats, we have heard many things about the apparent inconvenience of milking: “You wake up at what time?”, “You don’t make any money from doing this?”, “You mean, you can never take a vacation?!” And it is true, having to be home and awake at 6:30 am everyday can sometimes be a nuisance, but what a blessing that every day at 6:30 am I am reminded of the most important things that sustain the life of me, my family, and the farm.
Knowing I have this marriage with these animals, this mutual dependency between us, allows me to feel a bit more whole and in touch with reality. I can better understand my social responsibilities to my community when I have responsibilities on the farm and I know I can never underestimate the importance of morning chores. I smile at the thought of my future child one day participating in this same relationship with loving creatures and so being enriched by it.