Thursday, March 01, 2007

Living in the White House

Climax, Days 2 & 3

The Lay of the Land:

Wednesday. My first day on the Tate family farm. Steve and Ginnie are off in Greensboro taking care of personal business and Lee, Steve's wife is taking care of the goats at Sammy's farm, where their herd now lives. I was given the day to sleep in and get settled. My roommate Carrie doesn't arrive until around 4:00, so having some time to myself is nice.

I live in the White House, here at Goat Lady Dairy. The White House is next to the Blue House, downhill from the Barn. Across the street is the steer pasture and tucked behind a knoll is the house where Ginnie and Grandma live.

The White House has two small bedrooms, each with a twin bed, and a living room which has also been converted into a sleeping area for visiting guests. There is a full kitchen with an avocado-green fridge and a mustard-yellow electric stove. Unfortunately, the fridge doesn't seem to work. A pain, but we have run of the commercial kitchen up in the Barn, so life is pretty good. The living area has an old sofa, coffee table, table/desk, bookcase, and a sideboard.

Steve says they spent the winter remodeling the White House. There are new double-pane windows, fresh paint, new carpeting, and vinyl floors. It smells of paint, but I also smell mold. Hmmm. This could make my allergies go nuts. Hard enough with all of the dust and straw that makes me hack. I possess city-girl sinuses that protest when exposed to fine particulate matter around a farm. Fortunately I came prepared. I have a drugstore in my bag and have been popping allergy pills. So far, so good. But the paint and mold smell has got to go. Perhaps I'll go over the bathroom with a bleach solution and kill every spore I can find.

The floor in my room has a distinct tilt to the South. As I walk to the closet, I tend to lean forward and stagger like I'm drunk. The carpeting also has a couple of ripples in it, as it doesn't lie totally flat, thus adding to the staggering drunk effect. I find it funny, but for 90 days, I can deal with it. The twin size bed takes some getting used to. It is cozy.

The view out of my window is to the West. I can see a small pond and a couple of pole barns for sheltering non-existent animals. Beyond the pond is a forest of tall, mixed hardwoods. The trees are mostly bare; dark grey silhouettes standing beneath a clear blue sky. They are strong and silent, waiting for the right moment to wake up and stretch out their leaves in the Spring. There is a small plum tree behind the Blue House that a few tentative blossoms on it, as if it is testing the air to make sure it is OK to bloom some more. The daffodils are up and about to bloom.

There are several garden plots between the White House and the Barn. Some are dormant, others are covered in violets and pansies, brussel sprouts, kale greens, and netting. I see some weeding in my future. "Everyone pulls weeds around here," according to Nate. There is a compost pile. It receives scraps that the chickens don't eat.

There is a chicken coop near the barn. Farm fresh eggs! Nothing finer.

Room and board is included in this internship. The board part means I have full run of the kitchen and the larder. Nothing is off limits and if I want something they don't have, they'll get it. Very accommodating. Ginnie prepares lunch everyday for everyone working on the farm. It usually consists of things grown on the farm, including grass-fed beef, whey-fed pigs, eggs, a variety of green veggies, and fruit when it is in season. Oh yeah, there's also a lot of cheese. The family truly believes in sustainable agriculture and living in balance on the farm.

Their diet is totally tied to their land. Sure, they go to Costco and buy bananas, grapes, spinach, oranges, etc., but the majority of the food consumed comes from the 60 acres under our feet. I must say the eggs I had for breakfast this morning were bright yellow and really, really good. Yesterday's lunch was braised slab of pork with carrots and onions and a salad. Yes, Jim. I ate pork. It didn't taste porky! It was very tender and tasty. Perhaps the whey really gives the pork a mild and milky quality. I dunno. It was good. As I have mentioned in the past, my family doesn't eat much pork, except in the form of bacon or barbecue. But since I am at their mercy, I will eat their pork if they are serving it. Today's lunch: homemade manicotti, stuffed with chevre and covered in a homemade tomato and sausage sauce (more pork.) Spinach salad. Grandma Norma made a chocolate zucchini bread. I gulped it all down.

Not sure if I'll lose any weight while I'm here, but I'm sure my diet will be very healthy.

Today started early. Steve said that I can help pick up the fresh cow's milk over at Wilderness Trail Farm a.k.a. Sammy's place. By early, that means he drives over to Sammy's at 4:45am. Gotta get the milk while it's fresh! He told me that he'll be in the barn by 4:10 making coffee. I gave him a blank stare. Okay, I'll be there, but I'll just grab some tea at 4:30. Ah, farm living! Start early, work all day, break your back, eat a lot. Collapse in a heap on the bed after a 16-hour day, and repeat. This is why I don't want any milk animals.

So I did it. I got up at 4am. I threw on some clothes and staggered up to the Barn in the dark. The moon was still up so there was plenty of light, but there was an eerie hush enveloping the landscape. The creepers were quiet (for once.) The dogs were asleep. There was only the sound of my feet crunching on the gravel as I walked up to the barn. A light fog had risen from the moist earth lending to the surreal effect. Steve was sitting drinking coffee at the large table in the kitchen. We chatted and then grabbed a bunch of 3.5-gallon buckets and drove over to Sammy's farm. We headed southwest on Old Liberty Road, driving through the northern edge of Asheboro. Sammy's farm is a dairy farm (cow), pasture, hay fields and now a goat dairy. The soil is bright red. Lot of clay.

We pull up to the milking parlor in pitch-black night. Sammy comes out to greet us and gives me a warm handshake. He's a character cut from a Tennessee Williams play. Local boy, queer, travels the world, works in a "normal" job for a number of years, throws it all away and decides to become a dairy farmer. He also collects and rebuilds antique mechanical equipment. This is in evidence in his milking parlor. I walk into a scene from a documentary film from the 1950s. There are four milking stalls, four large, glass jars that look like something from an old science fiction film. These jars receive the milk from the semi-modern milking system and fill with beautiful, fresh, ivory liquid. The jars feed into a series of pipes that send the fresh milk into the bulk tank, or in our case, our 3.5-gallon buckets.

Sammy goes and gets his herd of 24 cows. All but two are Jersey. The others are Holstein. The first cows come in and assume their positions in front of feeding troughs. Sammy cleans each udder and clamps on the hoses. The cows for the most part are calm. He tells me each one's name. "This one's Elizabeth, that's Dolly, this one's Maybelle." They finish being milked and move on through the parlor to the other side and back out into the pasture. One cow comes in and stops. She refuses to move to her stanchion. Sammy says, "This one's real ornery. She kicked me real hard yesterday." He yell at her and gives her a push. She doesn't budge. He wacky her on the rump and she finally shuffles up to the end stall. "It's 'cause they're so inbred. These Jerseys are just really temperamental. I'll never get another one. I like them goats." He rubs his hands and I see lots of small cuts and abrasions. He's got farmer's hands.

The entire time he's milking, there is a cigarette dangling from his lips. Behind him, High-energy dance pop is blaring, drowning out the sound of the vacuum pumps and pneumatic feeders. Steve fills up each milk bucket, four at time. The milk pours into the bucket and is warm and frothy. I just want to take a straw and drink it all in one big slurp. Steam rises from the buckets as Steve puts a lid on each one. We finish collecting our fresh milk, straight from the cows, and load the buckets into the back of the van. Sammy's day has just begun, and so has ours.

We hit the road at about 7:15. Dawn has come and gone, and it is now morning. We get back to Goat Lady Dairy and get right to work. It is time to make gouda! Milk goes into the vat, we add culture, and let it set for 30 minutes. Time for breakfast. Go back in and add rennet. Wait again. Then it is time to cut the curds. And stir. And stir and stir. For almost 2 hours. During that time, you drain off some whey, rinse the curd, add more water, and raise the temperature in the vat slowly. When it is done we scoop the curds into square molds and let them sit for 20 minutes. Time to cut into block and move them into round molds and put 'em into a wall press. Break for lunch. Turn the cheese, press some more, repeat. And repeat yet again. We were cleaned up and through by 4pm.

I am pooped. Long day. But fun.

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