Farmers in Training: A City Dweller Gets Lessons in Harvesting, Milking and the Meaning of Life

Reader Contribution by Staff
article image

The wall above my head tells a story. Days of the
week are written in German, a generations-old milk tally in faded looping
cursive: Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag . . . . Which of the farmers
who came before me wrote it is a mystery, but their ghostly white script
remains stark against the dark siding of this 200-year-old barn, recalling a
once-familiar way of living that I’m only recently getting acquainted with.

I’m crouched down, fumbling around between the
legs of a 1,000-pound cow, a Jersey named Patience, trying to get the 2 gallons
of milk from her bulging udder into a steel bucket at my feet. Until now, I’ve
spent my days in Boston working as a freelance photographer. Compared with the
cold mechanics of lens and camera, this exercise feels intimate and mildly
inappropriate. I clumsily squeeze her left teat and then her right, but the
milk mostly dribbles down my arm and disappears into my sleeve. Patience, who
is living up to her name, stops chewing to glance back at me, eyebrows raised,
hay poking from the corners of her mouth. As if to say “good luck,” she swipes
her muck-crusted tail across the back of my neck and returns to her munching. I
bury my head deeper into her flank, squeezing again and again hoping for a
different result. Eventually, as the first light of morning begins to fill the
stall, my bungling gives way to a rhythmic hiss, hiss as the bucket slowly
fills with frothy milk. Maybe I won’t miss breakfast today, I muse.

The place I call home these days is The Farm School, a fertile 180-acre strip of ridge top in Athol, where 15
student-farmers are spending a year learning the ins and outs of growing food,
managing forests, and raising animals for meat. I arrived at the farm in
October, just as the leaves were reaching their peak brilliance. The Farm
School — which offers three-day programs for schoolchildren, a summer camp, a
full-time middle school, and the apprenticeship program I’m in — takes us
through all seasons of farming, weaving together class work and on-farm
training.

Throughout the year, we will manage the 150 acres
of forest, grow food for a 175-member Community-Supported Agriculture group
(CSA); and husband a variety of animals for the 50-member meat CSA. I, like
many who have gone before me, have traded in my career, left family and friends
behind, and delved into the inner workings of this farm to see if this is a
life I can really live. I’m here because I want to be a farmer but don’t yet
know whether I can handle both the physical and the economic realities, the
simplicity and the ruralness of farm living.

In our city life, my wife, Dina Rudick, and I
would spend as much time in the garden as possible. And although we were once
flattered by a neighbor who asked if we sold our vegetables at Whole Foods,
we’re otherwise hard to confuse with farmers. For years, we doted over our six
backyard hens, all of whom we named Dorothy. When their supply of eggs slowed
and then stopped, I have to admit I shed a few tears as we plucked them from
their roost and headed for the “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign in Cambridge.
I’m also keenly aware of our attachment to late-night sushi and walking to the
movies, all of which leaves us with a conspicuous lack of dirt on our
white-collar existence.

But farming is what happened when I woke up one
morning and realized that the life I was living was no longer rooted in what I
find most meaningful. I felt a growing sense of despair about the future of our
natural world and frustration at the hurried, consumptive nature of our lives.

Add to that the simple pleasures Dina and I find
digging in the dirt, turning compost, and cooking for friends, and what you get
is a photographer trying to milk a cow.

On Day One, my Farm School classmates and I were
put straight to work in the fields digging potatoes. We’re a nontraditional
farm family in the broadest sense: a former lawyer, a handful of teachers, Ivy
League graduates, and an artist, ranging in age from 18 to 53.

We quickly learned our scuffle from our collinear
hoe, acquainted ourselves with our various knives, and for the next month we
raced around in slow motion applying our untrained bodies to the task of
harvesting spinach, carrots, and leeks to fill the farm’s final CSA shares of
the year.

Since then, we’ve driven teams of draft horses,
practiced the basics of timber framing, and are beginning to grasp the complex
miracle that is dirt, the living substrate that makes all life on this planet
possible.

But first we had to confront death – and lots of
it.

On the farm we call it “graduation,” the
euphemistic term for sending an animal to the butcher. And for a couple dozen
turkeys, a deer, and a pig, that butcher was me.

In the time I’ve spent observing the rhythm of
the farm, it’s now more plain than ever that life is a loop that begins and
ends with some living creature’s death. Microorganisms break down the freshly
dead into building blocks for new life, which sprouts heavenward from the soil.
Plants give up their lives to hungry animals, who in turn give their lives to
other hungry animals — often us humans. But in the end, we all go back to the
microbes in the soil, “trading corporeal forms around the gaming table of
existential matter,” as farmer-philosopher Gene Logsdon puts it.

When I zoom out to this hawk’s-eye view, death is
a sacred, essential link that makes the renewal of life possible. And that
realization has gotten me halfway through the process of killing our animals.
But once I’ve put the turkey upside down in the blood-covered cone, I still
pause, knife in hand, struggling with my role in this cycle.

At least, I’ve stopped crying over it. Instead,
in my roles as animal husband and executioner I’m filled with both reverence
and a vast sense that there is still much I don’t understand. This duality
became more real during a recent visit to the kill floor of our local
slaughterhouse. As we stood, awestruck, watching giant animals die and become
tidy packages of meat, my phone rang. I ignored it. It rang again. On the third
ring, I answered and heard the voice of my 16-weeks pregnant wife on the line.

“I felt the baby move!” she exclaimed
breathlessly.

I tried to hold both realities in my brain: The
hour I just spent watching life literally drain from vital animals and the fact
that a child was summoning a similar force inside of Dina.

From that hillside overlooking Athol, I could
touch both ends of the incredible continuum and feel grateful to be a part of
the fleeting middle.

To view Erik’s and Dina’s weekly photo updates from the farm, go
to www.PloughAndStarsProject.com.

Photos by Erik Jacobs