AH HA…Part 1 (Farm Days)

Everybody has had their “AH HA” moments with regards to food. For some only one moment was needed to drive them to the world of food. Others like me needed to be given the culinary equivalent of a beat-down before I figured out I wanted to be connected to food in some way. Going from my fist real job of working on a dairy farm to a professional kitchen were just two such jabs…

I was finishing my junior year in high school when a friend asked: “Do you want to work at the restaurant with me this summer?” I never really thought about having another job before. Until then I had worked at a dairy farm nearly every summer since I was about twelve, and before that I had done chores there to earn a few bucks ever since I could hold a corn broom and sweep silage back into the mangers.

Farming was something I enjoyed, It was a job where you could see the fruits of your labor daily and seasonally. Whether it was putting the hay in the barn, drinking a fresh glass of milk, filling containers with maple syrup you helped produce, eating vegetables you helped plant and grow or eating bacon or fresh eggs. Nearly every day there was something new and productive going on, and even when there wasn’t…it was still pretty damned good.

Tedding hay (flipping or turning hay so it dries faster) for ten hours straight meant hours of mind numbing tractor noise with only a warm Mountain Dew and my own thoughts to keep me company.  IPods weren’t around yet and a Walkman wouldn’t have been nearly loud enough to play over the drone of the engine from that old Massey Ferguson tractor. It wasn’t much to look at and was comparatively small next to the larger tractors used to run the disc mower or the baler, but when I drove it to get diesel or to the store for a sandwich and a cold drink it was a Cadillac… and I was cooler than ice cream at the north pole.

Bonus points were earned while driving down the road or being at the store if I could see an envious friend who couldn’t yet drive legally (because I had an AG license I could) or a cute girl who would surely be impressed with my driving prowess. To top it off I was on a relatively big piece of equipment…the childhood equivalent of having a Tonka truck and giving Barbie a lift!  At least that’s how it worked in my mind as I drove on back to the field to continue tedding and daydreaming. The days of tedding however, were followed by a long hard day of tossing hay.

Tossing hay was my least favorite thing to do, as being one of the stackers meant you had to be fast and hand stack the hay in a Jenga like fashion while standing on hay bales stacked a day or two before. Bales outwardly look like a stable surface but when you’re actually standing on them it is more akin to walking on the chest of a very large, very big breasted woman. Take care not to step on the crack between them (the bales of hay people…let’s focus) because you’ll sink up to your knee in hay. All the while thirty pound bales are being fired at your head and chaff rains down on your sweat covered neck and back in the sweltering heat of a well insulated hay loft in summer …it’s an itchy situation.

One of the things I enjoyed was the morning milking which happened at about 4:30am. It wasn’t the great hours that drew me to it, but rather the solitude. You’re a Zen master who’s living as one with whatever song that is playing in the background and the Cows quietly chewing their cud. I would stand in a concrete bunker (or pit) up to my waist. Opening the sliding door from the backside of the pit with a rope and pulley system allowed the cows to file in four on each side. In front of them was a bin with grain and their hind-end was nearer to the pit. While the cows were busy eating breakfast I would walk up and down each side cleaning their udders (which are now at face level) and putting on the inflations which draw the milk from the cows.

You can watch the fresh milk flowing through a clear topped vessel with a black knob on top before going through stainless steel pipes into the bulk tank where it is cooled and held for transport. It flows through this clear topped vessel so you can see it when the milk nearly stops flowing. When it does you pull up on the black knob and the inflations drop off the udders and are pulled up by a retractable cord into a waiting position where they are ready for the next cow. Then a rope is pulled on the front side of the pit signaling to the cows that breakfast is over… with a quick whistle they begrudgingly begin to file out of the milking parlor to allow for a new batch of eight to file in.

It’s a quiet time when you are alone in the milking parlor; a radio plays almost unnoticed in the background nearly drowned out by the hum of the milk pump. There is about a five minute window while the cows are being milked where you can actually eat whatever sandwich you brought for breakfast. I say sandwich because this is not a place to be bringing yogurt or oatmeal unless you like unintentional things being added that aren’t in the form of fruits or nuts, besides…where would you keep the spoon? As cows are not potty trained, there are panels between the cow’s butt and where you are standing.

But nature being what it is, the cows are not always diligent about standing square in their stalls. So it misses the panel and there is somewhat of a splatter effect from the cow’s morning constitution which means you get to experience first hand the old adage “when life hands you a shit sandwich every now and then you have to take a bite”. Like a coal miner you hold the sandwich in one spot and eat around that spot and when you’ve eaten as much as you dare…it’s a good idea to throw the rest away so as to avoid getting shit in your teeth.

One fine spring vacation after all the fields had been planted and there was a bit of a lull waiting for haying to begin, a farmer up the road needed help getting his crops in the ground so I was asked to go help him out. The farmers name was Larry and he picked me up after milking one morning and we began the five minute drive to his farm…I didn’t know Larry very well but I knew “of” him. He was a very quiet man who had moved down from northern Vermont and had a thick Vermont accent.

Larry said he had other things to do and his boy Ralph would take me to the fields that needed work…more on that in a moment. Ralph was the younger of Larry’s two boys and it’s fair to say I liked him immediately. Ralph had a habit of chewing tobacco, and it was rumored that he chewed so much and so often that when he had to brush his teeth in the morning all he did to keep from having to spit out his chew was to move it from one side of his mouth to the other.

I don’t know if that was true, but I know when he did chew he kept a large amount in his mouth and it only made it more difficult to understand him when he spoke. That combined with a thick northern Vermont accent made for a funny conversation. We arrived at a freshly plowed field when he turned to me and asked…You ever do any heroin? I played the question back in my head, then I looked back at him with what must have been a deer in the headlights look “no…never”…then it occurred to me I should ask him the same. “Have you?”

He looked as confused as I was for about ten seconds…we stared at each other until it dawned on us what was meant by each other and almost simultaneously we busted out laughing. In northern Vermont when pronouncing a word that ends in “ing” they typically drop the “G” and the “I” becomes an e sound. So harrowing (the act of smoothing out a freshly plowed field with an implement called smoothing harrows) becomes Heroin…the drug. He was asking if I had harrowed a field before, not if I had done heroin.

I saw some really good things happen on the farm growing up…calves and pigs being born, cheese and butter being made, crops being harvested, and seeing visitors bottle feeding calves getting head butted in the nuts because they didn’t know to hold the bottle to the side instead of in front of their genitals.
Other highlights include having to round up female calves at four in the morning because they had been cut free from their little huts kept out in front of the main barn. Someone was protesting veal by releasing baby dairy cows into what I suppose the protester(s) thought was their natural habitat. I don’t know about you, but it has been years since I saw a herd of wild cows roaming the fields and forests of New Hampshire. These mutton heads took the time to spray paint “NO MORE VEAL” on the sides of the calf huts where the great realease had taken place. 

There were far more good times than bad, but there were some lowlights and life lessons along the way. Picking the new spring crop of 100 pound plus rocks by hand cause there is no other way to harvest them. Seeing old milking cows get sent to auction or get slaughtered because their production was inevitably dropping.
Seeing failed crops get plowed under because there was no rain, too much rain or flooded over. Seeing animals put down that were too sick or had a broken leg. It was a very matter of fact way of living. A circle of life that you could watch from begining, to end, to begining again. Either it is…or it isn’t. There are very few gray areas in farming, no place to hide when mistakes are made and excuses were just that…an excuse.
Working on the farm taught ma a lot of life lessons as well with regards to food. I don’t get bent out of shape if someone is preparing my food and they accidentally touch it with their bare finger *gasps* I’ve eaten cow manure, how much dirtier can your finger be? I appreciate farm stand corn being more expensive than a bag of Green Giant corn because I know the work that went into all aspects of it, and I know the higher price will be justified by the end result of taste. When I eat animal proteins of any kind, I respect and honor them by not wasting them, or only eating the filet, breast or loin.

“Well do you want to!?” my friend asked me a bit impatiently…snatching me back from the farm to reality. “Why would I want to work there?” I asked him as if there were any better place on this earth that I’d rather work than the farm.  “Uh hellooooo, hot waitresses!” was his reply…then he added, ”Plus they have an opening and they asked if I knew anyone”. “Hot waitresses?! When can I start?!” So my love of farming and being at one with terra firma was supplanted by my love of gawking at the fairer sex. 

The cows that I knew and loved were replaced by a sometimes motley crew of half-assed cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, pot smokers, whip-it fans, coke heads, alcoholics, frat boys, sorority girls, party animals, degenerates, poets, drug addicts, philosophy majors, back stabbers, wanna be drug dealers, bookies and other assorted ass-clowns of the type and variety that you can only see in a mediocre restaurant, which is to say…a good number of restaurants.

But to me for a couple of short years they were a family of sorts…a super dysfunctional family with all the high drama of a two year non-stop Thanksgiving Day dinner complete with the food and your crazy assed uncle who gets so drunk he ends up chasing the neighbor’s dog down the street and does a perfect face-plant on the yellow line to the howls of entertained and horrified relatives. So next post…it’s on to the romance of the kitchen…
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