I hate waking up late. I never seem to catch up, even when it is just the first 30 minutes. Allan agreed to teach me how to milk, making it very clear that I needed to be on site and ready to go at 6:45am. The night before, I set my alarm clock. The morning of, I awake with a start. It seems just a little too bright out. I turn to my clock to see that it was well past time for me to still be in bed. Great. Late on the first day of a new assignment.
Milking at Kreeky Tree begins at 6:45am. The goats are milked twice a day on a 12 hour cycle. This is what is best for the goats. Millie is the first to go in. Next comes Maggie, and last is Pippa. They have a regular schedule, and they have a regular order.
I race up to Kreeky Tree as the sky continues to lighten, half asleep and drinking my coffee as quickly as possible down winding roads in a stick shift. I find Allan already in the milking room, after he calls out my name. I was going to Target's barn. Not enough coffee. My brain is still trying to catch up to my body.
Dragonfly, The Billy Goat, is still at Kreeky Tree for breeding, and Allan shouts a warning to avoid contact. Dragonfly is quite fragrant, and his scent on me will affect not just the does, but the milk as well.
I successfully avoid the musky male, and make my way into the milking barn. It is a high wood shed just on the other side of the stalls, with a fenced off entrance area. Shelves on the left, food bins in the back left. A small platform the goats stand upon is on my right when I enter. A feed bucket is at the front end of the platform, on the other side of a brace to hold the girls in place. Millie is munching her breakfast, and Allan is almost finished milking. I walk past the milking stool and say 'Good morning' to Millie. She stops munching long enough to give me a look that asks, "Why are you here if you cannot be on time?" Allan was more forgiving. He only made fun of my travel mug.
Allan talks to me of hand milking as he finishes Millie. At the heart of it is the bond and relationship you develop with the goats. You learn their moods, you smell their health. I learn about adding kelp to their feed, and mint balm after milking. Allan tells me of Dan who milks 30 does twice a day. Dan who milks two goats at a time. My brain pictures a caped Dan in a mask at milking time. Where is my coffee?
Finished with her morning meal, Millie is let out to run in the yard. Dragonfly is after her before she makes it past the gate. She wants nothing to do with him. Allan shoos them away from the stalls, so Maggie can be brought in for her turn.
My presence is more distracting than the billy, and Maggie is reluctant to come into the milk barn. Allan reassures her, and she makes her way past me to climb up for breakfast. She will be my first trainer. Allan explains the process: Wash, Dip, Clean, Clear, Milk, Dip, Balm. Wash the udders and teats; Dip the teats in antiseptic; Clean the teats of excess antiseptic; Clear the teats for milking; Milk; Dip the teats in antiseptic; Mint balm for the udder. Ok.
Allan talks to me of the process of milking, and of the does. He tells me of motion and movement of hand and palm and fingers for good milking, and of the differences in temperament, udders, teats. If the udders are not emptied, and the teats are not cleared, mastitis can develop. The girls will let you know when they are done, both eating and milking. Maggie eats a lot. Pippa is always distracted and takes forever to eat. You have to watch their feet, because they will change their stance. You want to have your arms placed in such a way that your forearm can catch their back leg before they knock over the milking pail. You use your thumb to catch the milk at the top of the teat, and use your palm and fingers to push it out. You need to gently message the udders to get them ready for milking. You need to talk to them. They will warm up to you. Don't worry.
I watch as Allan begin the process: Wash, Dip, Clean, Clear. I see the placement of his thumb and fingers, and watch as he clears the teats. My brain is still trying to catch up to my body as I sit down at the milking stool. The bucket in place, and then my first try.
Understanding and doing are two different things. Maggie was very patient with me, but my first attempt was not successful. Allan takes his place on the milking stool, and I watch Allan make it look simple. Eventually, I am able to express a little milk from Maggie, but I will starve and she will be ill if I can't figure out how to do this properly. Allan finishes milking, and Maggie finishes her breakfast.
Pippa is banging around in her stall. I am making everyone late, and that is not okay with Pippa. Maggie is out, and Pippa is in. Again, reluctantly, due to my presence. The chickens run away from me. The does make me feel bad for interrupting their life.
The process repeats, but this time I actually get some regular streams. It's a beginning. Allan finishes milking Pippa, and then we wait for her to finish eating. We waited for Millie and Maggie, too, but Pippa really takes her time.
There is that, on a farm. Waiting during the time between things. The waiting between things provides a time for conversation or reflection, a time to clean up from the thing just past, a time for preparation for the thing to follow. I have so many questions that I fill any time between with conversation.
Time on a farm is not set by humans. It is set by the animals and the crops and the weather. It is a decidedly different time than that of the human world. This difference in time and action makes a life different in kind. This difference in time is one to follow and plan according to the needs of that time, not necessarily according to human desire. The best plan is to align human desire to the pace within the frame of the natural time.
The time is dawn and dusk, the cycle of the seasons, the fertility and birthing schedules. The actions are caretaking and stewardship. There is purpose behind everything, and consequences are great. Large scale industrial farming ignores these realities, imposing human desire on the natural world. Small scale sustainable farming requires the human to work with the non-human in the natural world. You listen and learn, paying attention to the smallest details while planning months in advance for the repetitions of cycle that are to come. Success or failure depends on wether you are ready or not. The animals live in their own time, the crops grow and propagate, the weather comes in and out. The human follows.
Animals and crops do not care what our deadlines are. They do not care about economic trends, or wether or not you personally believe in climate change, the negative effects of industrial farming, of fracking. Nurturing the soil to create an environment where life can thrive, nurturing non-human lives to sustain the human is within a time nature owns and creates, not one humans own or create. It feels good to be immersed in that other time. My head feels clear, and my body feels good at the end of each farm day.
I was late my first and second day of milking. I realized the next week that I set my clock for PM, not AM. Luckily, my internal clock is somewhat reliable. When I had a desk job, I would set my bedside clock and my phone, across the room, to make sure that I awoke on time. That is just what I did my second week milking, and I made it on time.
I was relatively successful milking my second week. I did not get any dirty looks from the does, and other than the initial clearing with Maggie, I was able to get the milk moving with only minor cramping in my hands. Allan had to finish each, however. I am a long way from being a competent goat milker, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Allan transforms the milk from Millie, Maggie and Pippa into beautiful cheeses, and a truly luxurious dulce de leche.
I turned to cooking as therapy after completing my MA in Literature. Determined to learn how to host a formal dinner, I read cookbooks from the 60's and 70's and researched my area for local farmers and producers. The research and the process restored my belief in formal education, and the positive impact education can have on a life. What I took away from my time studying literature can not be diminished by others, but I had to learn that.
I turned to farming as therapy after leaving jobs in the human world that broke my heart and shattered my optimism. Finding the slipstream that is the time outside of human desire through those whose lives are within that has healed my heart, and restored my optimism.
I asked Allan if he ever missed his former life. Without hesitation, he said, "No."
I give much thanks to Allan and Chris for sharing their home and life with me each week, and for teaching me more than they realize.
Until next time, Peace.