dairy goats

FARMING | OUR BYGONE HERITAGE

 

My parents were, well, surprised when I told them that we were moving to Vermont to work as kidding interns on a goat farm this spring. It was a big decision closely tied to another, bigger one: the one where we bumped our wedding up from June to January, on five weeks notice, so we could honor our conviction of waiting for marriage before living together. Old-fashioned to some, counter-culture to others—a bit like farming in the twenty-first century. 

Three years ago, I was mucking my way through organic chemistry and a host of other science courses, and the long, long library shifts that accompanied. I was on my way to becoming a third-generation dentist, the de facto family profession. And in the twenty-one years of life preceding, never once did I consider the possibility of farming for a living. In my mind, farms were foreign places. How could I even become a farmer? Farming was not a part of my identity. What I failed to consider then is how farming is actually a very real part of my heritage. Yes, my papou was a dentist whose son (my uncle) followed in his footsteps. But go back one more generation and you will find a family living in the rural Peloponnesian village of Ziria, tending to their vineyards. My maternal grandmother grew up on a small homestead in Wisconsin where she picked strawberries during summer and went door-to-door selling them for twenty-five cents per quart. She had to quit when a neighboring farm undercut her, selling them for ten cents.

Many people have similar tales from the old family farm. Agriculture is at the root of our collective heritage as human beings. But as the sun has risen and fallen over the land—seasons passing,  years and generations rolling by—our farming population has become ever smaller while our cities expand upward and outward. As evidenced by my own upbringing, so many of us have become far removed from the land that sustains us. All is not lost, though.

Upon arriving at Consider Bardwell Farm, I was gripped—rather suddenly—by this overwhelming sense that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. This was in spite of the fact that our first three days were spent (literally) mucking a winter's worth of goat poop in the barn. Truth be told, I don't even mind the act of mucking! I have found joy in using my body, in working outside, in experiencing the elements. I have found greater joy, still, in raising animals who sustain us with their bodies, through the gifts of milk and meat, as they have for millennia. There I was, no experience, no immediate background in farming. Here I am, with some experience. But deeper than that: I feel this connection, through my work & way of life, to my ancestors. I feel rooted in the earth, and the ongoing game of give-and-take that agrarian societies have played with the earth throughout human history. I have come to feel the true presence of my farming heritage. 

This is all coming from someone who grew up in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area; who comes from a family that prizes academics, having generously sent all four children to a private school and on to college; who spent many a summer afternoon playing video games rather than helping his mom in her backyard vegetable garden. I may not fit the image of a prototypical farmer, but this is the point indeed. It is within all of us, because we all come from the same agricultural heritage, whether we know it or not.


—M

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DAIRY GOAT | CONSIDER BARDWELL FARM

 

The sun will rise soon, but not yet. The fog remains settled in the cool embrace of the Indian River Valley before daybreak. The faint glimmer of the stars lingers in the sky above. All is quiet and still, save for a herd of milk goats that has spotted a farmer heading in their direction. With a smattering of yells, grunts, bleats, and other assorted goat noises, the day begins.

From March until December, every single morning at Consider Bardwell Farm starts the same way. 5:30 a.m. means it is time to go get the goats and bring them in for morning milking.  With the opening of a swinging gate, 140 goats spill out of their pasture and march back to the barn, udders full. They are easily distracted along the way: no overhanging branch goes unchecked, un-nibbled; no human escapes his or her fate of becoming a communal scratching post. Eventually the herd makes its way to the barnyard, which quickly comes to resemble a schoolyard during recess. Some in the herd ready themselves to report to duty, while others curl up along the fence line to grab a quick nap. Cliques form and skirmishes ensue—posturing, head butting, more posturing—it’s all in a day’s work for these ladies; all a part of maintaining the proper order within the herd.

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Goats are creatures of habit. They strive for a steady routine every bit as much as we humans do. In that sense, a day in the life of a dairy goat looks much the same as all of the others. There is something of a pecking order to milking — there are a few herd queens, several young bozos yet to learn the ropes, and, ah yes, there are those goats full to the brim with mischief. The order goes unnoticed until it is disrupted, at which time it becomes quite obvious. When we first began our jobs at Consider Bardwell, we were told that the first three groups to come into the milk parlor—54 goats in all—could pretty well be predicted. It seemed shocking, unbelievable almost, that of 140 goats the same few would find their way into the milk parlor first. But it’s true. They do. 

By 9 o’clock, when most people are just getting to work, the milking herd has finished its first shift of the day. The march back to pasture commences and ends with delight as the goats find a new paddock of untouched pasture ready to be grazed. 

Pasture crops like timothy, red and white clover, orchard grass, bird’s eye trefoil, alfalfa, and rye render goat milk very tasteful (which, you know, makes delicious cheese). The fields are good for the goats and good for the business. That said, goats are evolutionarily suited to browse—think shoots, high-hanging branches, sticks and otherwise woody forage. The best paddock on the farm still does not excite the goats as much as a single sumac branch. When it’s possible, we trudge through woods and hedgerows with moveable electric fencing to ensure the goats can have their fun while also eating grass. They happily devastate invasive species and the bark on trees in a day’s time.

This is their reward twice daily, an offering of appreciation for all that they give to us in the milk parlor. The intensive rotational grazing plan at Consider Bardwell Farm ensures that the goats are never on the same piece of land for more than twelve hours at a time. By moving to a fresh, well-rested piece of land after each milking, the goats enjoy truly excellent quality forage and roughage. 

We bring them in once more, late in the afternoon, to give milk all over again. In their mischievous, entertaining manner, these goats work hard for a living, and in doing so allow us to do the same. Healthy, happy animals make for a healthy, happy farm. A day in the life of a dairy goat is simply an exchange between time spent in the milk parlor and out on pasture. While they are being milked, the farmer is setting up pieces of fresh pasture; while they are on pasture, the farmer is readying & cleaning the milk parlor. By design, we hope to stay behind-the-scenes and out-of-the-way throughout the day, only making our presence known when necessary. They may be farm animals with work to do, but as much as possible we leave them to the natural way of life that they love best.


—M&S