By Ivan Barnes
My assignment for this newsletter is to discuss, in my usually humorous and candid way, what it entails to take a product from “farm to fork”. While there is much humor in farming, it takes serious time and work to put any farm product on a plate.
Like all things farm-related, my story began with a seed — just an idea of providing raw milk for our food-sensitive child. We discovered the sale of raw milk was illegal in our state. With our get-it-done attitude my wife and I decided to make our first attempt at farming by taking on a family milk cow.
We visited an off-grid farm where a great family showed us how to milk and care for a family cow. But our education didn’t stop there, we learned how to produce 85% of household consumption on-farm, and they introduced us to the glories of kombucha, nutrientdense foods, and Weston A. Price. My wife and I agreed their straw-bale house was fascinating, their solar/wind powered system was responsible, and their chickenheated greenhouse was ingenious. We took great notes and lots of photos in case our children ever wanted to tackle that noble lifestyle. For us, we just wanted to have a cow.
Time goes by and BAM! — we are milking our own Guernsey. The milk is tasty and life is sweet, except for the part where you have to clean up the cow before milking. FYI(TMI?): cows like to lay in piles of warm dung, especially in cold weather.
Now let me tell you a funny story. Our first spring in Oregon was one of the wettest on record. My family was watching closely for the birth of a calf. The birthing was fairly easy, despite the consistent straight-down rain we were having. In the hands-on manner that makes or breaks a farmer/rancher, I found myself carrying a wet, gooey, baby calf through a soaked pasture to the dry barn. The calf is not 10 minutes old. The birth was over and the fight to stay alive was on.
I’d never lost any animal, but this was the toughest I’d had to fight to keep one alive. When I cradled up the black newborn for the 100 yard stretch to that dry and warm space where mother and calf would ride out the storm, it was my intention to make the trip without a stop in stride. In any weather livestock will make a trench of clay mixed manure on every threshold of the barn where they like to wait for meals. That is great for making soil, but not for making strides. I stepped deep in a trench that was just outside the particular pen I had left open. Under the weight of a slippery newborn calf, I calculated a few more strides and we’d be out of the rain. Mama cow could see the plan now too, as she was trailing me and nosing me the entire distance. And then it happened. Two strides shy of that dry threshold, my boot got stuck. With arms full and momentum moving forward, my sock was now squishing us through the muck while my empty boot was held captive by the trench. Luckily mama cow didn’t step into that boot.
And that’s one of my favorite stories to tell over dinner at our family farm. That birth was victorious in a year where I was hearing stories about losing calves in the muddy conditions of fields and pastures. On a night when we could all see our breath, I dried him with a towel, warmed him with a propane heater and blanket in the barn, in my bare feet, while his thousand pound mother patiently let me assist her baby with his first nursing. With the same hands that cradled the newborn, I’d later make him a steer. Still later I’d make him into delicious, nutritious dinner.
We’ve gotten into and out of animal and crop projects. We’ve done laying hens, broilers, rabbits, turkeys, and even had our own purebred Dexter bull. The years have given us memories and experience beyond our imagination. Hopefully some of it has churned into a wisdom-butter of sorts.
It takes a lot of love, as you may know, to make anything grow strong and true. Some think it’s odd that I used vacation days from work this summer so I could work on my family farm. It’s that time of year. Feed is on the ground and it’s got to be put into the barn. The production cycle from farm to fork goes on.