The best boss I ever had once told me that "We influence people every day in ways we will never know." I am occasionally reminded of this truth. During this season of giving and thanking I'd share how our CSA members influence a couple people who are extremely grateful to them. These are people you've probably never met, although they are our neighbors.
Members can optionally make a donation when signing up for a CSA share. The idea is that these funds go to help others who could not otherwise afford to get good, local food each week. Thanks to their generosity, we’ve been able to assist a few families over the past couple years we’ve offered sponsorships. But none of them have touched my heart like a local grandmother raising her granddaughter. Whenever we are in funds, I keep signing them up! In her own words, this is how your kindness affects them:
“I can’t begin to tell you how much this gift means to us. I mean it when I say that [my granddaughter] has grown several inches and no longer looks tired and stressed! I really think the fresh raw milk and good food has contributed in a big way! Until COVID, I was working four 10 hours days, commuting each way. We were up at 4 and not getting home until after 6. It was really hard for a kindergartener as well as this old grandma. Even though financially times are tough, we are so happy to spend this time together. She now loves toast and butter along with the milk. We’re excited for the veggies too. As vegetarians we enjoy all of the awesome local veggies. I can’t possibly thank you enough for this. I am humbled by the generosity. We promise to pay it forward.”
And more recently, she wrote: “Thank you so very, very much. I think the delicious milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt and veggies make all the difference in our health. It is deeply appreciated. [My granddaughter] is back in school. I had surgery again in March but hope to be able to work a couple days per week soon. I also hope that one day we will be able to visit the farm so she can see where her delicious milk comes from. Again, thank you with all of our hearts.
So as you go about this holiday season, remember that you're influencing people, touching their lives. And remember the spirit of the season, because you can so easily make a meaningful difference -just open your heart.
The matriarch of our herd is Charisma, a stubby, black-faced Jersey who is bigger around than tall. At ten and a half years, she is the oldest cow in our herd. No one messes with her, even though most weigh more. She’s not usually bossy but this is a cow with a mission. When the girls go out to fresh pasture she is the first one in line. No one -bovine or human- stands between her and her food! She's such a good cow!
One of her daughters, Yoohoo, was born eight years ago last week. I was in the milkhouse putting the milkers together for the afternoon milking while Lisa went to bring the cows in. They were still on pasture, but we’d gotten some snow earlier in the day. Suddenly, I heard yelling and raced outside. Lisa was stumbling down the hill towards the barn carrying a very wet, floppy calf in her winter jacket and hollering “Yoohoo!” to get my attention. We eventually got the calf, momma, and numerous ever-so-curious cows in the barn. She's always been a special cow.
Another one of Charisma’s daughters is Lil Hef, which is short for Little Heifer. She was an itty bitty thing, but is now a Hef(ty) 1050 pounds and looks exactly like her mom. So much so that I confuse them occasionally. She’s still just as friendly, loves to get hugs and rub her neck up and down you. The other day I went out to the barnyard and stopped to give Hef some pets (one of my favorite things to do). I then moved closer to the water tank to watch it fill. Quietly, Hef walked over and stopped, just barely touching me. She got some time with her human; I got some time with my cow. Life is good. Lil Hef just had her first calf, Emo, and has now joined the milking herd. She's my favorite cow.
Charisma is a grandmother a few times over. One of her granddaughters wore a cow bell when she was younger since she would not stay where she was supposed to! Ella has always been an independent gal. Never rowdy or troublesome, but she has never cared about arbitrary rules and does her own thing. If the grass was greener two paddocks over that was where she would be. Electric fences meant nothing to her. The bell helped us find her. I admire her independent streak. She’s my favorite cow.
Last week I waxed poetic about being ready for winter. Ha! It’s so easy to delude yourself. And even quicker to discover the truth. The snow and cold weather that arrived a couple days ago reminded us that we’d forgotten to do a few things. So we’ve been busy.
Lisa used her tractor to remove the pile of manure from under the ramp. We should now have enough space for all the manure coming out of the barn this winter. I dug a shallow drainage ditch to divert water, which bubbles out of a small spring every winter, from flooding the driveway. It seems to be working so maybe this winter we won’t have a sheet of ice covering the parking area. I also put the barn windows back in, which will keep the snow and blustery wind out of the barn (next time). And we hooked up the small heater in the walk-in cooler. This time of year, the challenge is not to keep products cool, but to keep them from freezing. The walk-in was 32 degrees one morning when I went to fetch some broccoli, which is too cold. And while not really a get-ready-for-winter task, we also finished remodeling a section of stanchions in the barn. We now have room for an additional six cows -which we need.
So I’m not going to say that we’re now ready for winter, only that we are more ready.
The cows are off pasture. They are back in the barnyard eating hay. Inhaling the stuff it seems. Slow down girls! Ya’ll got another 191 days before you go back out on fresh grass. (That’s just over six long, dark, cold months, btw).
The summer toys are put away. Last year’s plastic bale wrap has left the farm. The automatic waterers have been replaced with water heaters so the water tanks don’t freeze. The temporary fencing has been taken down. The posts are in little piles on the floor of the old Horse Barn. The reels on their pitchforks are lined up against a wall. I even remembered to take in the forgotten reel and posts from the large pasture way out back.
Chains are on the tractor. One chain took over an hour to get hooked on. The other one took six minutes. No, I don’t know why. There are a lot of things I don’t understand. Sometimes it’s best not to disturb the equilibrium of the universe. Better to accept your ignorance and get on with the day.
We are now in that late autumn period when summer has departed, fall is almost behind us, and winter looms ever closer. The fallen leaves crunch as you walk. The hills are blurry gray with splashes of evergreen. Frost awaits in the morning. Sun and warmth seem sluggish as they struggle to rise, cresting briefly mid-afternoon before falling swiftly in the shade of the ever-encroaching dusk.
You can hear the quiet. There is a stillness as if life can sense the coming darkness and cold. A few birds still play. Do they not understand what is coming after this short transition period? Or are they determined to live to the fullest while they can?
The cows know: their winter coats are starting to grow. Although still grazing, they seem to understand the grass isn’t as fresh, or nutritious or plentiful. Do they look around each new paddock with resignation, as I do, noting the yellowed grass, the shorter length, the lack of new growth? Do they know that this is the last time they will be in these pastures for several months? Not until the sun is again high in the sky, the west breeze is refreshing, and all the birds sing and play will they see these fields again.
Be like the birds. Enjoy each day as much as you can.
It took 8 months, but the new raw milk bottles are finally here. The ubiquitous half gallon Mason jar has been unavailable due to COVID. We’ve slowly been using up our surplus pallet of jars. Numerous notices and, to be honest, unabashed begging to return jars has kept us in milk. The last couple months have been nip-and-tuck, though. Sometimes we had a small surplus; other times there are not enough. Early last week we ran out entirely.
It takes time to source the jars, get specifics, pricing, and to verify that are actually available. Then there is the back-and-forth with the graphic designer to get everything just the way we want it. The design then must get approved by the Vermont Agency of Ag. Next on the approval checklist are the folks at Vermont Organic Farmers, who certify our farm. Now we need to incorporate those changes and get the design to the manufacturer, who promptly tells us they don’t have the specific ink colors we use on all our labeling. More delay as we explore options. Finally, we are good to go -or will be as soon as they receive our check. We can do that: what’s the total? You want HOW MUCH for shipping? You’re out of your minds! I don’t care if there is a truck driver shortage and rising fuel costs. Take a deep breath. Just let it go and write the damn check. We’re now on the manufacturing schedule! It will only take another 4-5 weeks before they actually make the jars. Aarrrgghhh!
Finally, after months, they arrived last week. Serendipitous timing since we didn’t have even a single Mason jar.
Same Cost, New Jar
Raw milk is the same price as it has been. There is still a $2.00 deposit on the bottle even though they cost us more than twice that. Please, please wash and return. Feel free to keep the plastic snap-on top as a souvenir as it’s one-use only.
Last week I reported that Danone, a multinational who owns Horizon Organic, announced it will terminate the contracts of all their organic dairy farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (plus a few in New York) so they can focus on cheaper milk from western CAFOs.
Can we as consumers and community members do anything to help? Should we, for instance, boycott Danone? I think it's a tough call. Hitting these multinationals in their bottom line is probably the only way to get their attention. However, if everyone stopped buying Horizon Organic milk then the company could drop yet more small farms. It's insidious, isn't it?
You could send a letter to Danone. You could sign online petitions that probably exist. Politicians in the affected states are forming commissions to figure out what they can do to help these farmers. There is a lot of appropriate outrage and strong words of support right now, but I'm not convinced even the politicians have much influence or options in this. This decision is not personal. It’s simply the never-ending drive to procure raw products at ever cheaper costs. That a few dozen farm families will pay for this decision is perhaps regrettable, but irrelevant.
I fear that local, family dairies will continue to be squeezed out of business until a handful of mega corporations own a handful of mega dairies. This has been going on for over 50 years. We just happen to be reaching a critical stage when there simply are not many dairies left. The only chance I can see for family dairies is to sell local and to brand themselves as better quality than "factory milk." But even that has limitations as communities can absorb only so much milk. Even if the more than two dozen small- to medium-sized Vermont farms who received notices of termination were to process and distribute their own milk and dairy products our state couldn't handle that much influx in supply. They could perhaps join forces to create a regional processing and distribution operation to get products more efficiently to bigger markets such as Boston and New York. But then they would be up against the big players -although without the cash and marketing clout. Aaggghhhh!
It may be an imperfect model, but I still believe small farms should feed their communities and let other farms feed theirs. That means staying fairly small. That means the community needs to support their farms (and other local businesses). That's all Lisa and I have tried to do: feed people within a one hour radius. We're not interested in making and selling products to the rest of the world. We're not interested in shipping milk or ice cream to Texas, California, Washington DC, etc. although we are asked to frequently.
One of my favorite quotes posits that “It may be useless to try, but it would be cowardly not to.” So please, send your letters to Danone and our elected officials. And buy locally. Opt out of the multinational, share-price-is-everything, screw-everyone-who-gets-in-our-way, default consumer model. They clearly don’t care about you, only your money. So make sure they don’t get it.
Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, just cancelled the contracts of 89 organic dairies in Maine, Vermont and New York. Why are they doing this? Because bigger farms out west, many flaunting the National Organic Standards, produce cheaper milk. Driving trucks around all our dirt roads is not as cost effective as pulling up to a few mega-dairies.
So what will happen to these farms? They are being given a 12 month notice so the impact may not be immediate, but it could be dire. The few other organic processors like Organic Valley and Stoneyfield are not bringing on more producers. Maple Hill is letting producers go and Upstate Niagara is slowly reducing volume and pay price. Other options seem…. elusive.
Does this affect Kiss the Cow Farm -or you? Not directly, but yes, this does affect all of us who live in small, rural communities -communities that have been based on agriculture for over 200 years.
The Walk-In Cooler
If you think of farm equipment, what comes comes first to mind is probably a tractor or pickup truck. Yet most equipment, even tractors, are specialized for particular jobs and generally not used that often, sometimes not for months. The walk-in cooler, though, is used every day of the year.
A walk-in cooler is standard equipment on most farms, although no one ever thinks about them. But it’s there, a few steps from the farm store, or in the processing shed, or tucked around back. Even farmers don’t think about the walk-in much. Hearing the condenser run is just part of the constant background noise.
There are two options for getting a walk-in cooler. You can buy a one with insulated panels for the walls, floor and ceiling. These are powered by large condenser units. There are many manufacturers and models. Even found used on Craigslist, for example, they cost a few thousand dollars. Worth it, but a lot of money for a small farm.
The other option is a D.I.Y project. The farmer builds the box from plywood and foam insulation. (The more insulation the better). Instead of an expensive refrigeration unit, a cheap electrical component (called a CoolBot) and an air conditioner keep the walk-in cool. The electrical gadget tricks the air conditioner into running longer than normal so it cools the temperature down to 35-40 degrees. It works well, is a much cheaper option, and is easier to repair.
This came in handy this past week when our walk-in cooler stopped cooling. Of course it is was a 90 degree day, because that’s just how these things go. Thankfully we had a spare (and more powerful) air conditioner we got last year at a yard sale -just in case. It took a bit to install the larger unit and wire it up, but this morning the temperature in the walk-in is a chilly 37 degrees. Aahhhh.
It must be August.
Huge barn spiders sit dormant in their webs waiting for the carless trespass of another. The goldenrod is tall and yellow, the milkweed purple. Little round knobs fill the apple trees. The blueberries are plump from all the rain. The orchard and timothy seed heads sway slowly on top of their long, spindly stems.
The air is hot, humid. Still. There is an earthy, dirt smell. Clouds fill the pale blue sky, yet they are harmless today: no ominously dark towers rise on the horizon this afternoon.
Leaves are turning yellow, though surely it’s too early? A lone bird chirps his song but receives no reply. A chipmunk stutters in the shade behind the shed. A far-off crow caws.
The lazy days of summer. All that’s needed is a hammock…