Whenever people asked me the requisite lineup of Questions About Plans for the Future, I would deadpan “Oh.  I don’t know.  Maybe, I’ll be a farmer?”  In this scenario, farmer was interchangeable with other professions like acrobat, pirate and zookeeper.

But, fate is the mistress of awkwardness and, as she would have it, the joke became a reality. I am still forced to explain this at parties- “Well, yes.  Technically, I was joking before, but somehow I ended up in a broken down station wagon with a bearded, shirtless guy named Matt on my way to a farm…”

The summer after I graduated, I spent a month on an organic vegetable farm in Massachusetts living in a tent and subsisting on bowls of foraged dandelion greens.  While this is doubtless some people’s “thing”, it is certainly not mine.  Born and raised in New York, I don’t easily grasp things that aren’t blanketed in concrete.

Furthermore, I like to eat.  The family who owned the farm did not.  This, unfortunately, was an irreconcilable difference in character.  Where most people use salt, they insisted on the pickling vinegar of Japanese Umeboshi plums.  Protein only came in the “textured soy” variety and they treated my coffee drinking habit like it was leading me straight down the path to Betty Ford (they might not have been wrong). If I remember correctly, we ate pebbles because they were full of minerals.

My first farm experience was too much too soon so I did what any person with no sense of equilibrium might:  I came back to New York, gorged myself on hamburgers, then got a high-stress job with an event planning firm. But, after a year, my hair was falling out in clumps and my left eye twitched while I was sleeping. So, when an opportunity to do a cheese making apprenticeship on a Vermont dairy farm presented itself in early May, I jumped at it without giving much thought to what I was doing.

Things had changed, though.  Where my first farm stint was an act of post-college bewilderment, I was genuinely interested in cheese making.  I found working with my hands soothing and after a year behind a desk, I was ready for a wavelength change. I was also in the beginning stages of a gastronomical obsession- collecting cookbooks, reading food blogs and eating strange things from carts in the outer boroughs.  This seemed like a good way to explore the production angle.

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I sublet my apartment, packed my things and set off in early June.  The farm was beautiful. Driving down the road that led to the house, endless pastures rolled out before me and great green hills swelled in the distance. By the time I arrived, I already felt an affinity to the farm that had been absent from my last experience.

There are a few things that no one warned me about cheese making.  First, it’s like a chemistry project.  Each step of the process needs to be completed at an exact time and temperature.  That said, it also takes great intuition. You have to be able to look at a vat of curdled goat’s milk and know that it should be stirred for five minutes longer than the recipe calls for. Our head cheese maker was a guru.  A favorite of the American Cheese Society, he could adjust a recipe to perfection based on the humidity in the air and protein in the goats’ diet.

Because cheese making calls for a depth of knowledge that comes from experience, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of it. Instead, I performed the other major component of cheese making- I cleaned.  A lot. I spent my first month on the farm scouring 15 pound milk cans and other cheese making paraphernalia for eight or nine hours a day.

There was a learning curve for this type of work and sometimes, after hoisting the tenth milk can into the sink or washing the a hundred and fiftieth cheese mold, I could feel the tears start to well.  But after a rocky adjustment period, I actually started to enjoy it (there are some people among my friends and family who still don’t entirely believe this).  I nestled into a comfortably predictable schedule where my roommate and I would wake up, eat breakfast, work all day and pass out around nine. I started to love the earthy smell of heating goat’s milk and the warm, animal squish of cheese curds in the vat.

Over the months, I gained an appreciation for the staggering amount of work it takes to produce farmstead cheese.  Our head cheese maker woke up at four thirty most mornings to make the hour long drive to the farm and pick up ten forty pound cans of milk along the way, all of which he lifted onto the bed of his pick-up truck by himself.  He sometimes worked ten-hour days.

More remarkable still was the love and generosity with which he did his work.  Despite the long hours and grueling physical labor, he retained a vibrancy and enthusiasm that was infectious.  It was impossible to feel achy and tired when Peter recounted his travels through the Balkans as a cheese consultant for USAID.  I couldn’t complain about being cold in the aging caves, while he so tenderly cared for each wheel of cheese wearing nothing but shorts and a sleeveless Grateful Dead t-shirt.

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For the first time, I also became intimately acquainted with the extraordinary challenges facing America’s small farmers.  Despite the amount of work undertaken by every employee at the farm, they just broke even every month.  Without government assistance, the only way to make the cheese financially realistic was to market it as a specialty product at cheese shops and upscale restaurants in the city.  The couple that owned the farm came from high-profile jobs in New York and had the connections to implement this plan, but many small farmers don’t have this option.

My roommate came from a family of fifth generation dairy farmers who were constantly in danger of losing their farm.  She wanted to learn cheese making as an alternative to selling her family’s milk to a big regional dairy cooperative that paid wholesale prices for milk with full-retail production costs. Another girl who worked on the farm saw her family’s dairy converted into an ostentatious summer home for a couple from Boston.  It took me a full two months to have a conversation with her because she so resented city people.

If the hardships were enormous though, the reasons for persevering were equally compelling. We worked a lot, but we also ate ridiculously well, biked down sun-dappled country roads, had late night jam sessions, drank too much wine and fell asleep early.  I have been blessed in my life with many wonderful relationships, but I’d never felt this type of workplace comradery. We may have had very little in common, but we felt a closeness bred out of shared exhaustion, frustration and love for the work.

I left the farm in early fall because my subletter moved to California and my family was troubled by my tendency to take unpaid work over salaried jobs (to their chagrin, I moved back to New York only to accept another unpaid internship.  Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I’ll apply to law school next year…).  Leaving was bittersweet. I could already predict my nostalgia for the work, the country, the people and even the goats, but I looked forward to the city.  I’ve never been a country girl after all, and New York needs people who care about food too.

In a time when nutrition related illnesses grip the inner-city and some kids can no longer make the connection between apples and trees, it is more important than ever to be involved with food education, urban agriculture and farmer’s markets.  It may have started as a joke, but food has become something I take very seriously. Seriously is a word that limits how I feel-its also something I share with friends, something that keeps me connected to the earth even when I’m riding the subway, a vehicle for my family’s traditions, a thing that makes me humble and keeps me creative.  Now, if only I could explain to people how I got here.

Consider Bardwell Farm

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