Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback “Shaping My Way,” was written by Erica Romkema for the Spring 2007 edition of Rootstock.
I’m not a farmer’s daughter. I have lived the majority of my life in rural areas, from an Ohio valley to Minnesota lakes to the most agriculturally advanced county in northwest Iowa. And since my father is a large-animal veterinarian, I spent much of my childhood following him around to “help” treat sick animals. I know farms and farmland. But there’s a difference between visiting farms and depending on one. There’s even a difference between the hobby farm we had (which met our own needs) and the working farms my friends had (which met the needs of hundreds). So when my interest in both agriculture and the environment deepened during my early twenties, I decided to become pro-active about my education. I was already reading voraciously, but books only teach up to a point. I needed some hands-on experience.
To my delight, the staff at Organic Valley connected me with Martin and Loretta Jaus, Organic Valley dairy farmers who run a 60-cow dairy in south-central Minnesota. When I reach their farm I drive from yellowing stretches of corn into the soft green of a tree-lined lane. Beyond the tree trunks, Holstein calves peer out from white hutches. An ear twitches away a fly. A nose lifts in curiosity. I grin—I’ve missed cows during this year in the suburbs. I drive past a wooden calf barn that reeks of manure (I later learn it’s in the midst of a good cleaning) and reach the house, a stucco building trimmed with red petunias. Maggie, the black lab, comes loping out from the back, seemingly eager to meet this stranger to the farm. Loretta and Martin welcome me with smiles and cold milk.
I’ve brought old clothes, a pair of rubber barn boots, and reams of questions. During the next few days I bombard my hosts: “What’s the point of that clear ball-shaped thing on the wall in the milk room?” “What kind of trees did you plant in this windbreak? Why?” “How often do you rotate the cows? Does it matter what kind of grass you sow in their pasture?”
Loretta and Martin do their best to respond, and most of their answers are satisfactory—however, one of the most poignant lessons I learn is that while we don’t always understand every aspect of nature, we do know there’s a reason for her amazing biodiversity, which proves itself time and again. So we—and the Jaus’ are a prime example—ought to cultivate wildness in the midst of the routine and order of a farm. Bluebird boxes on the fence posts. Wetlands between the fields and pasture. Three brown-and-white goats out with the heifers. And sometimes even a few “weeds” in the crops.
I notice these weeds when I cut the hay. Martin shows me how to run the tractor, then rides patiently with me for several rounds to make sure I know what I’m doing. After lunch I’m on my own with the alfalfa and machinery. I’m hesitant at first but I climb up—the tractor starts, we move forward, I lower the haybine—and the hay falls into place. I’m bouncing along and the haybine is whirring; the alfalfa smells heady-sweet and the sun is hot and birds and insects are flying up from everywhere.
There aren’t many weeds poking through, just some tall grasses, but I’m still surprised to see them—and pleased to remember this alfalfa I’m cutting isn’t sprayed with carcinogenic chemicals. Good for the cows and good for me, who drank the milk from those cows this morning, richer sweeter milk than I’ve ever tasted in my life. The alfalfa looks better for those weeds. I know I’m in the euphoria of new experience but I’m still thinking this is life, this closeness to nature, this awareness of self and of doing right in the world.
In the evenings I feed calves with Loretta. The black-and-white calves come eagerly to the fence to suck our fingers. I’ve always wondered if they really know they’re not going to get anything from our hands but simply like the sucking and the taste of the salt in our skin. I scratch their ears and rub their noses and they seem to like the attention. After a moment we start pouring real milk into the pails, fresh from the mothers. It seems like an appropriate exchange, somehow; the cows provide so much milk to support this human family that it’s only reasonable to allow the calves their fair share.
The Jaus barn is yellow brick and the way they milk, according to Loretta, is “antiquated”—with long pipes for milk and air above the stanchions, running down the length of the barn. I don’t mind. I like the old. Though it’s middle-of-the-summer hot and inside is hotter even with the fans running. I love Minnesota but does the temperature have to range from forty-below to one hundred and one in the same year? The milking needs to be done regardless of the weather; as sweat coats my neck my respect for farmers raises yet another notch.
Loretta and Martin remain remarkably patient with me as I learn how to milk. The cows are patient, too, as I fumble for their teats and work at getting the first few squirts of milk out. I’m more nervous about learning this skill than anything else—because here’s the real product, the Jaus’ livelihood, the reason for all their work. But I want to try, and when I finally seem to have all the steps in place I’m a little bit thrilled. Later, as I watch the milk coming through to the bulk tank, I feel a strong mixture of delight and gratitude. There’s something wondrous in seeing milk this way, something almost hallowed in the whole process.
Finding my way back to the West Metro, I merge onto the freeway and consider: Beyond the obvious applied skills, what else have I learned during my week on the farm? First, that we need to appreciate and work with nature in her amazing diversity. Second, that the most significant difference between organic and conventional farming is the farmer’s chosen relationship with animals and the environment, and the actions that follow from that choice. And third, that those actions result in strong animals, beautiful and viable farms, a wholesome product, and satisfied families. Is this something I would consider doing? Without a doubt.