Chapter 5 – raw milk and death

After realizing that my future as a fully self-employed soap maker was not too likely to happen, I looked into what other potential farm based businesses there might be that could involve my love of goats.

Despite having been a vegan most recently, I knew raw milk was a BIG deal for those who believe in it’s nutritive powers. I also knew that those people will pay big bucks for carefully produced raw milk. I knew because I had a friend who did so from a dairy in Minnesota. She wanted to start farming too, but we knew we’d need a bigger pasture base to produce enough milk if we were to become farmer partners. We went on drives in the country together, looking at farms for sale, while using the dashboard to pencil out big plans for our micro-dairy business. We visited a couple nearby farms who were distributing raw milk through private farm share clubs. We talked about operating ours as a private goat club where the members actually owned the goats and we just milked their goats for them. The notebooks full of calculations piled up on my kitchen table: if I had 6 milk goats then I’d have this much milk, and if so many people paid this much per month then….no wait, we’d need 12 goats, and this much refrigeration space and how exactly would we distribute or deliver all of this? There was this nagging feeling that raw milk is technically illegal, and while “power to the people” has always been a part of my core beliefs, and rebelliousness is my second nature, I really did not care for the idea of going to jail over raw milk. We never did anything with our joint farming plan because of this, and for many other reasons.

I dabbled a bit in distributing clandestine raw dairy products from my goats, just taking donations. I kept track of my farm expenses and I kept selling my soaps, and I kept my day job. There seemed to be no way I could make it into fulltime farming. Goats continued to come into and go out of my life. The first 2 I had were diagnosed with a goat specific virus which causes extremely early-onset arthritis, called CAE. I was heart broken. I bought a pregnant nanny goat and witnessed my first goat delivery shortly there after, which was amazing. She had a girl and a boy. What do you do with a boy goat? I tried to sell him, he was beautifully colored purebred Nubian, but boy goats are everywhere. You can’t milk them, so no one knows what to do with them. This was my second understanding of how the full circle of life on a farm would affect my decisions. I didn’t want to butcher the boy, but I couldn’t just keep every boy kid born either. I had limited space, limited funds….so I gave him to a dear friend who would come and butcher him on the farm. I didn’t eat meat at that point. Not many Americans eat goat, but the more I read about it, I was intrigued, but not ready yet to participate hands on. I was wrestling with my vegan past, but I had a feeling I’d come to embrace meat as part of the farm products I was engaging in. If I wanted milk, there had to be goat babies born, and usually half of the babies will be boys.

The natural world involves constant death, and in fact we will ALL die. I remember talking with my mom on the phone one sunny afternoon, I was wandering around the yard as we chatted. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I saw something appear to fall straight out of the sky. I turned and looked to see a tiny peregrine falcon on the ground, sitting on top of a struggling blue jay. They were nearly the same size. I didn’t know if I should try to stop the falcon from attacking the blue jay or not. As I described what was happening in my front yard to my mom, the little falcon attempted to take off with the jay. He didn’t get very far, but he didn’t let go as he and the jay landed in the gravel of my driveway. I knew it was not only none of my business to try to protect that blue jay, but that this kind of thing happens all the time in nature. It was my first reality check against veganism- nature isn’t vegan. The vegans animals actually are the ones who get eaten.

I continued to learn homesteading skills as I practiced on my micro-farm. I took a more prestigious and higher paying job farther away, where I was in charge of all purchasing decisions, so I was once again meeting small scale farmers in my office as they pitched their handcrafted products, like vegetable ferments and farmstead pizzas. I just loved hearing their stories and what their life was like, asking them more questions and having longer meetings than were probably necessary. I went to visit many of them on their farms and these visits invigorated my farming dream beyond words. I really felt the call to become a farmer! The new place I was working was in organizational upheaval and managerial turmoil, leaving me exhausted and stressed out on my 2 hour drive home, where I’d milk my goats and do it all again the next day. It wasn’t going well, this pursuing more money via my day job thing and it certainly was not taking me closer to becoming a farmer in any way shape or form. My mother was so patient during our weekly phone calls, as I struggled through this debate between a solid and lucrative career and a dream of making a living as a farmer. So after many, many hours of discussions with her, I quit that job. I was blessed with the opportunity to return to the smaller store I’d been at previously, so that I could better focus on figuring out how to make my farm dream a reality.

Then in July 2007, my  Mom passed away, a month after her 50th birthday. The breast cancer had spread through her body and just shut her down very suddenly. My mother was such a giver, and she definitely hid from us how the cancer had been affecting her. She’d been through chemotherapy at least 4 times since 1998, had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy, but when the cancer went into her bones and brain, there were no more tools to fight the disease. My Mom  was very religious and I know this was of great comfort to her throughout her life and as she faced her end. My sister and I were there with her when she died. There is nothing like watching the spirit of your most precious one and only mother leaving her body to make you realize how short and precarious this life is. Through my mourning period, I was reinvigorated by this demonstration of the fragility and impermanence of life. I had to pursue my dreams because I didn’t want to have any regrets, and as far as we know- you only have one chance.  Her death breathed the urgency of life into my dreams. My mom had been my number one cheerleader, not only because I was her flesh and blood, but because I was living the dream she’d raised me up in, her dream. And now she was just gone. That meant it was all up to me to make this farm dream happen. She’d been there as I laid the foundation, and she would watch from above as I took the next steps.

That summer as I grieved the loss of my Mom, it was like cataracts had been lifted off my eyes. Life is so short! Such a gift! I need to get going in the direction I want my life to go! To keep busy and distracted from my grief, I delved into the world of teaching. Part of learning homesteading skills is just doing them. You will make mistakes, but you have to try anyhow. Once you have a learned a skill, not necessarily mastered it, it draws people to learn from you. I began with a few workshops held at the co-op where I worked, demonstrations and instruction in fermenting vegetables, simple cheesemaking and how to make soap. I hadn’t even planned on this, but these workshops gave me a platform and a window of time to talk about my farming adventures, my ethics and goals to an excellently suited  group of people who were interested in not only learning these skills, but in solidarity of supporting small scale agriculture. I made some life changing connections, friends and customers during these workshops. Preparing for these classes helped me focus the energy from my grief into something proactive and rewarding. And in the case of soap making, I was getting paid while I made a batch of soap that I would be selling as well- talk about super value added!

I also sought out friendships with and learning experiences from those farmers who were doing something similar to what I hoped to be doing soon. I read their blogs and wrote articles about some of them for my co-op’s newsletter, basically hoping to absorb as much as I could from their experiences in order to gain new understandings and knowledge. I knew from my investigations into running a raw dairy and visiting the farmers who were doing it, that this interface was an invalueabale and encouraging experience. They had been so kind, open and welcoming.

There was a young couple, Josh and Rama, who were running a vegetable CSA , as well as raising pigs, sheep and chickens. This couple probably had no idea what my deal was, but they were so kind to let me come over and talk to them, see how they’d set things up and were growing their business. They never wanted any help because they were well staffed with their own farm interns- I remember reading with astonishment they actually PAID their interns a stipend each month! I had such a long way to go in achieving success like these two. As they showed me their first litter of piglets, I remember looking over at the two of them peeking in the sow hut and they were just glowing. I told them they were farmer rockstars, my heroes.

There was a woman farmer, Angelica, I’d met when placing orders for the refrigerated department at the co-op. She grew organic produce and had a commercial kitchen built into a separate section of her family’s home where she made fermented veggies and pickled delicacies from her produce to sell to the co-ops. That fall, she invited me out to “Garlic Day” on her farm, where a bunch of people sat around busting up the heads of her cured garlic, sorting out the biggest cloves that were best suited for passing on their supreme genetics by being planted for next year’s crop. We were going to be planting the cloves into the soil afterwards, but a fine drizzle kept up all day so instead we sat in the house and ate hot bowls of chili. It was like being around celebrities! I sat there listening to her talk with one of her local neighbor farmers about beet varieties, and wondered if I’d ever get to this point, on the other side of the equation.

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