Not photographed: A long talk with Joel’s sister and a 4-wheeler tour of her hillside beginning farm with four kids in a wagon in back; pie and rhubarb crumble from Joel’s sister and mom; a great interview with Joel’s dad about how farming has changed; and dinner back at Jim and Rebecca’s including two varieties of cheese curds, burgers, Madison farmers’ market vegetables of many kinds, and cherry pie.
One of the many things I’ve learned on this trip — as I suppose reporters have been learning for years — is that people like to talk about themselves and show off their lives. For me, this has meant that as someone is showing me around their farm, they’ll say, “So, you ever seen how one of these works?,” “You even been in a combine?,” “You just gonna watch or you gonna actually milk cows?”
The right answer, obviously, is “No, show me!” And so I’ve milked cows, sat up in a combine (it was parked, but still impressive), finally understood how a silage feeder works, checked out inside grain bins, stood in the middle of beef calves coming in to feed… (And had more bad drinks than I care to admit at the Golden Ox bar at the former Kansas City Livestock Exchange, but I suppose that’s another story…) Most of the most memorable and educational experiences of this great journey have been because my host is showing off a little. I love it.
Today I got back to Jim and Rebecca’s magical farm (not its real name) just before chores. I’ve stayed here twice in the last month, and have been so looking forward to coming back at the end of my trip. Jim’s original email inviting me to stay enticed me with: “We have … plenty of quiet places, nice cows, good food and a patio behind the house that is a great place for an evening gin & tonic or a beer,” and it’s been just like that and more.
I drove past the barn while they were moving the cows in for milking; I parked at the house and walked back down the road, where Jim and Rebecca were loading their two freezers in the van for the Madison farmers’ market tomorrow. When they were done, I went with Rebecca to move the pasture fence, as I did two weeks ago.
“You ever driven an ATV?” she asked, as we walked towards the barn. Somehow I hadn’t, despite growing up in a farming community. Always too timid as a kid, maybe; not like my adventurous reporter self these days… She showed me how to turn it on and back it out of the barn, and said I was a natural as we drove through the pasture to the fence. Even after putting nearly 3,000 miles on my rented Corolla this month, bumping over clover, burdock, and cow pies at 15mph in the open air was exhilarating.
We moved the fence — if I were a cow, I’d be pretty excited about the new patch of pasture we opened up, full of flowers and tall grasses — and I drove us back to the barn. Where Jim’s regular milking help was away, and so he seemed glad to have me help prep cows for milking: dip the teats in iodine solution, milk each a few times into a discard cup, clean and dry them off for attaching the milker. The milking equipment in his barn is a little too big for me, so the prep work is easier.
After so many hours in dairy barns and around cows, even more hours talking and thinking about dairy farms, and trying my hand at milking several times, tonight I finally felt comfortable with it. Not good or fast, but comfortable with the animals, as huge as they are; with stepping confidently between two cows (they’re really very big); with kneeling on one knee and leaning my head into them while cleaning them as the farmers all do; with paying attention to their hind legs but not skittishly avoiding them; with shaking it off when their tails hit me in the face (Jim finally taught me a couple of tricks for moving tails out of the way)…
Several farmers I’ve spoken with have talked about how much they love milking. They talk about it as meditative, as a time to reflect on the day and think about what needs to be done tomorrow. I don’t want to be a dairy farmer, but I’ve been lucky enough to glimpse the peace of milking time. Tonight, the milk lines clicked, the cows rustled in their stanchions, and the fan at the open end of the barn hummed, as the cats milled around in the early evening beam of angled sunlight. The barn is clean and smells of milk, grain, hay, cows, manure, and pasture.
Dairy farming is hard work, but if you can figure out how to do it right (and I’ll be writing more about how much harder it’s getting…), it looks to be a pretty exceptional life. I’m grateful to have been shown just a little taste.
After being in Wisconsin for almost two weeks (plus a beautiful weekend in Minneapolis), I’m heading to the southern Midwest (SoMiWe, it would be called if it were an NYC neighborhood) for a week: Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. After a few lovely hours with a rabbit farmer south of Madison this afternoon, I’m spending tonight at the Super 8 in Mendota, Illinois, in the middle of basically nowhere and oceans of corn. Naturally, I’m fascinated.
I was expecting strip malls and chain stores when I got off the highway, but instead there are crickets out the window, over the sound of the interstate a half mile off. It’s a pretty nice town of about 7,400, with an actual, if slightly shabby, downtown, though everything was closed on Monday night, and some beautiful houses on the side streets. I’ve passed through other towns of this size and smaller not looking this good, but I imagine there’s decent employment here, given the Archer Daniels Midland plant (“supermarket to the world,” ADM used to call itself, not liking to talk about how it was convicted of price-fixing, to say nothing of how its commodities trading almost certainly contributed to the 2009 food price crisis) and enormous Del Monte facility, which sponsors the annual Mendota Sweet Corn Festival, and maybe processes a lot of its canned sweet corn right here. There is also a whole mess of railroad operations in the middle of town, including apparently three Amtrak stops a day (!), and connections to the two plants. Driving around here, you almost feel like railroads matter — like it’s the ’50s (from my dad’s stories of a Central Illinois childhood punctuated by steam engines) or some alternate reality that still includes huge agribusiness but has at least developed a sensible transportation system.
The hotel here is surrounded on two sides by McDonalds, Taco Bell/KFC, a small truck stop and weigh station, and so many trucks. One parking lot up the street a bit was full of empty animal-transport trucks, like for chickens or hogs; I’m so curious where they came from, where they dropped the animals, and where they’re headed.
The other two sides are bordered by corn, of course. I got dinner at Ziggie’s Family Room diner, and after accidentally getting my order to go (standard vegetarian road food: grilled cheese and a milk shake; this was a solid version, if no doubt also made almost entirely of corn products), I finished my shake out by the edge of the field. I had brief visions of old ball players emerging from the rows, but no such luck. With my food systems-focused brain and driving past millions of acres of corn, I interpret, “If you build it, they will come,” as being applicable more to ag policy than baseball dreams anyway.
Back in my room after dinner, I watched the sun finish setting beyond the fields and the Mendota water tower and listened to the swallows. I started out today having breakfast with Jim, a brilliant and soft-spoken Wisconsin dairy farmer and writer, and my host for much of this trip. Over cereal with garden strawberries and his milk, we talked about skyrocketing land prices, pesticides, and soil quality. Some of the rich river bottom soils out here are so good, he said, “I bet you could take a trained monkey and get a pretty good corn crop out of ’em.” And so good that they’re still holding up after having chemicals poured on them for decades — at least for now, at least sort of. I’ve had moments in the Midwest in the last two weeks of almost forgetting that there’s so much environmental disaster out here. There are birds and racoons and trees (sometimes) and just so many shades of green that it’s hard to remember that there’s also so much poison and monoculture killing any diverse life. Here in Mendota, the soil’s still allowing this patch of northern Illinois to maintain a semblance of quiet chirping country nighttime, but thinking about ADM up the road, it’s also hard not to wonder for how long.