Developing a Relationship with the Food we Eat
Knowing Our Food
As I am milking Mocha, I am mesmerized, watching the milk squirt into the pail – the steam rising from the pail fogs my glasses. This rich, sweet, nutritious food is a gift from Mocha to us, to consume and share with our milk customers. It is not just any milk that we are ingesting; it is milk produced from a cow that we have nurtured and cared for from birth. This food is the end-product of a process that stretches back years and years in time – 3 generations of milk cows - and deep into the body of this farm.
Since her birth, we have been tending to Mocha’s daily needs, making sure that she is well fed, healthy, and comfortable. In exchange, she provides us daily with food that we can consume as milk, yogurt, butter, cheese, ice cream, whey, buttermilk and more. When I pour myself a glass of milk, it is the product of the relationship that I have with this cow and the land that I am putting into my body. Memories and feelings flash through me as I take in this delicious nourishment. I am washed with gratitude – for this food, for the animal that produced it, and the lifestyle that affords me this remarkable experience every day.
Milk is not the only gift that our cow bestows upon us; she also provides copious amounts of manure which is considered gold on our farm. This ‘gold’, mixed well with carbon sources (sawdust, wood chips, hay chaff, leaves) is composted and eventually becomes precious fertilizer for our gardens, pastures, and hay fields. Mocha will also bless us with a calf every year. If the calf is a heifer, she will most likely stay on the farm as a future milk cow. If the calf is a bull, he will either be trained as a draft animal to work with us in the woods and the gardens, or he will live a fruitful couple of years, converting grass into flesh, to be slaughtered for beef – the best hamburger, steak and roasts that you will ever taste.
Most meals that we eat consist of food that was grown on the farm; from the chicken to the pork, cabbages, potatoes, garlic, tomato sauces, fermented vegetables, frozen broccoli...‘if we grew it, we knew it’. I can follow the invisible link backwards: from the plate to the garden where it was grown or the pasture where it was grazing, to the soil that was cared for that hosted that plant or animal. As we invest energy into the farm, parts of that energy is captured, stored and returned to us in a different form.
And the cycle continues, year after year, we commune with the land and do our best to be present and attentive to the information exchanged. For it is not just the food that is feeding us, but the act of farming - putting my hands in the soil, feeling the breeze blowing through my hair, the sun warming my back, and the singing of the chickens as they announce the arrival of another egg that deepens the experience.
I can revel in making and consuming a quiche, because I know the chickens that provided the eggs, and other ingredients - the meat, vegetables, cheese, yogurt, lard for the crust – also came from our farm. Turning all those home grown items into a masterpiece that sustains my body and the bodies of my husband and children has deep reward. These are not empty calories; these are calories packed with deep physical, emotional, and spiritual value. These calories have a story, and as we consume them, we become a part of it, morphing from the nurturer to the nurtured.
We love it when we have opportunities to engage with visitors on the farm. We teach classes on the farm, have a little store where people can come and purchase, and often have an intern staying with us for all or part of a growing season. When we are processing our chickens, turkeys, beef or pigs it is normal to have one or two volunteers helping out in exchange of gained experience. During our group projects, we fall into lively conversation and time tends to fly, friendships grow, skills are shared, and fond memories are made.
About 12 years ago, we hosted a ‘weekend farm experience’ for an environmental studies class from the University of Vermont. The students participated in many activities including milking the cow, harvesting potatoes, making pesto and cheese, shelling beans, and processing a batch of meat birds. Much time was spent in between these events having deep philosophical discussions about our food system. A couple of these students came to our farm as vegetarians, as they were uncomfortable with the industrial food system and did not want to eat meat from animals raised in those conditions. During that weekend, as least one of those students started eating meat again, knowing that there are places like ours where animals are raised with dignity and slaughtered humanely. Some of the students from that group are farming today.
Another benefit that ‘knowing our food’ brings to us is how it prepares our children, the next generation, with habits and skills that are simply second nature to them. Perhaps as a teenager the fact that we have composting toilets, or prefer to buy clothes in a thrift store is embarrassing to them, but they will walk out into the world one day with forestry, carpentry, animal husbandry and gardening skills that have been patterned into their everyday life, ready to come to the surface and be activated when the time is right.
When our children were very little, we were invited to a friend’s house for dinner. Our friends lived in town with a small yard. It is not often that we are invited to someone’s house – as a whole family – for a meal. One of our sons, a sharp little 5-year old at the time, entered the house, excited to explore the collection of toys and to explore the home front inside and out. We were going to sit down to a meal that included chicken – one of his favorite foods. As we were getting ready to eat our dinner, our son started to ask about the chicken; how was it raised? Did they raise it? How was it killed and where? Did they kill it? It was explained to him that the chicken was raised on a local farm, but purchased from a store, as the family lived in town and could not raise their own birds in their tiny yard. Our son got very confused and with an incredulous tone, he asked “You mean, you don’t even have one cow?”. We all had a chuckle over this, and inside I was beaming with pride; yes, we are raising our kids right.
I finish the milking and wave to the boys as they plod down the driveway to catch the bus. When they come home from a long day of school and sports, it feels good to know that they will be well fed with food from here; food that they helped grow, harvest and process. They and their college-bound sister are part of the story; their memories and experiences are woven into the meadows, woods, streams and roots of this farm organism that we call Earthwise Farm & Forest.