by Kurt Timmermeister, January 21, 2011 10:50 AM
I have a small farm up near Seattle where I raise Jersey cows, milk them, and make cheese from their milk. Just 13 acres, Kurtwood Farms is home to 15 of these beautiful bovines. Twice a day, I lead them down from the pasture into the milking parlor where I milk them. In the cool months, I then lead them to the barn for their daily ration of hay; in the warmer months, to the pastures for grass. It is a great routine — predictable and satisfying.
And yet, every once in a while, it is not predictable. This past week, the cows decided to push the system a bit. Routinely one cow enters the milking parlor when the previous cow is finished and exiting the parlor. It is a very simple, very easy system — one in, one out. Cows love routine. Unfortunately, they love grain more. The lure to get them into the milking parlor and to stand there for the duration of the milking procedure is grain. They love it.
This past Friday, the great lure of grain overtook one cow's sense of decorum and order. She decided to squeeze through the gate along with one of her fellow cows. And then I had two, robust, large bovines in a space for one. My frustrations overcame me and I kicked the offending cow. I believe it was Dinah. Mischievous and unapologetic, she oftentimes pushes my limit of calm.
I was wearing rubber muck boots; lightweight insulated boots, sturdy but not designed for kicking a cow. Dinah turned slowly and casually and looked at me with little more than curiosity. In no way was she hurt. Although Jersey cows are the smaller breeds of milking cows (in comparison to Holsteins), they still weigh 1,000 to 1,500 pounds.
My foot, however, could feel the pain from the impact on Dinah's sturdy leg. In fact, five days later I headed out to give a reading for Growing a Farmer and I thought wearing my usual city attire of cowboy boots would be an appropriate idea. After four hours standing chatting with friends and signing books, my hobbled foot was throbbing. Pulling off the stiff leather boots that evening I thought back to my brief moment of frustration nearly a week earlier.
Dinah certainly was not reflecting on that quick moment in the milking parlor; without question she'd forgotten within seconds. My assessment: the cows have trained me well. They have managed to live a lovely life at Kurtwood Farms. Beautiful organic grain is dished out for them every morning and evening. The highest quality alfalfa hay is trucked in from eastern Washington for their nutritional needs. Their barn is the most beautiful timber-framed structure on the farm. And if, for a moment, I think I am in charge and try to remind them, the result is a week-long swollen foot. I have a new respect for these simple
by Kurt Timmermeister, January 20, 2011 10:26 AM
Last night I did my first author reading in a bookstore. I read at my hometown bookstore, the Elliott Bay Book Company
, a store that I started shopping at in 1974, just after it opened. In those days, just shopping there made me feel very grown up — very in the know, if you will.
Somehow during the past 35 years, I only attended one author reading anywhere, and it was at Elliott Bay Books. I wandered into a reading by Witold Rybczynski. I believe that I had just read Home or The Most Beautiful House in the World and I remember quite enjoying the books. I felt compelled to wander into the downstairs room to hear Rybcynski speak.
I never went to another reading. One was enough. Although I had loved reading the books, I was quite confused by the man standing at the podium reading from my favorite book of the time. The voice that I had given him was completely different. I preferred my vision of the author.
Growing up, I had few friends, but I did have many books. Lying on my bed, poring over the latest book from the library, I could be somewhere else. I could experience New York City or London or life a hundred, two hundred years earlier. The relationship, however, was between myself and the printed word. The author never really entered into the equation for me.
For me, books had always been exotic. They told me of places I had never been and places that I never expected to ever go to, except while reading their stories. My knowledge of the Metropolitan Museum I discovered with the help of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. To this day I have no idea who wrote this lovely tale of New York City — the author never mattered to me.
There was one exception, however. I grew up near the University of Washington and as it happened, I lived very near to the home of Angelo Pellegrini. The author of Lean Years, Happy Years, among other books, Pellegrini had been a professor of English at the University and therefore lived close by. The idea that an author, an actual bona fide published author, lived in my neighborhood was an overwhelming one to me as a young boy. I was not entirely sure where authors should live, but I was certain that they lived in more exciting locales that Seattle.
Standing in front of a packed room at Elliott Bay last night, I discovered that the author does have a part in a book. People are intrigued by who writes the book, by who they are, and what they have to say. My only hope is that I can live up to the readers' expectations. As I will be reading at Powell's next week, I have a chance to charm the readers of Portland, beyond the written words in Growing a Farmer. I look forward to
by Kurt Timmermeister, January 19, 2011 10:08 AM
Although I wish I could say my full-time job is writing books, at this point, my full-time job is running my farm on Vashon Island and making cheese, with a bit of time at the end of the day to promote Growing a Farmer
. Although I had a large book-launch party scheduled for last night, the bulk of my day was spent with my cows.
Two and a half months ago, a calf was born during the worst storm of the year. Blustery, snowing, and cold, it was a storm to remember. Through all of the activity outside of the barn, inside one of the stalls one of my cows — Dinah 2.0 — calmly gave birth to a small calf. We named him Stormy.
On a dairy farm, there is a very definite value placed on females and a much, much lesser value placed on males. Females are kept on the farm, to be grown and, at the two-year mark, bred back to become the future milking cows. Male cows are sold off as quickly as possible, having no potential value to a dairy.
In the early hours of the morning, very soon after Stormy was born, I flipped the calf over to check for its gender. Females are exciting; bull calves are a great disappointment.
My expert assessment: Stormy was a male, so he was removed from the stall after a day and sent to live in the paddock with the other calves until I could wean him and sell him off. For two-plus months he lived there, drinking milk from the old nurse cow, learning to eat hay, and having a good old time. Once I knew that he was to be sold from the farm, I paid him little notice. My time was best spent with the more important cows.
Yesterday morning he was fully weaned; I had made a deal with a friend on the Island to come and pick him up. He would buy Stormy, raise him for meat, and most importantly, get him off my land. With only so much valuable pasture, I have to prioritize the land for the milk-producing females.
I had my guy Jorge lasso him and bring him over to the truck to be loaded. As the two of us lifted him up to the tailgate, I took one, last look at Stormy. To my great bewilderment, where there should have been a scrotum, there were four tiny teats, all spaced quite nicely. In fact, Stormy was a young female. Needless to say, we quickly took her down off the tailgate of the truck and walked her back to the paddock, to spend the next few months drinking more mother's milk, eating more hay, and eventually, to join the cadre of milking cows here at the farm.
What did I take from this most embarrassing moment today? I realized that even though I was to leave a few hours later to drive to the city and promote Growing a Farmer, I was still learning to be a farmer. I had written close to a quarter of the book on dairy cows, going on about my great expertise with bovines for all to read, and yet I still had trouble telling the males from the females. I am greatly
by Kurt Timmermeister, January 18, 2011 10:37 AM
My farm is located on Vashon Island
, an island large in size, but thinly populated, just across the bay from downtown Seattle. Although only a short ferry ride from the city, it is a world away.
This morning just before the sun came up, I set out to milk the cows. Presently five are milked each day, twice per day, and the milk is used to make fresh, farmstead cheeses. Each and every day I head out from the house and over to the barn to attend to my bovines. Although the weather this morning was a balmy fifty-plus, last week it was a much more seasonal thirty and below. When the temperature drops to below-freezing temperatures, my morning chores change dramatically.
The cows are milked not by hand, but with a mechanical system. It is a small mechanical system and quite simple, but it relies on electricity and the normal functioning of a vacuum pump, a pulsator, and a great deal of rubber tubing. During the great majority of the year, all these systems function well in tandem — the electricity runs the pump, which sends a vacuum through the tubing, driving the pulsator to switch the vacuum stream on and off, sucking the milk from the teats of the cows.
On those few icy cold days of winter, however, this simple system breaks down. Such was the case this past week. With the cold temperatures, the winds had also caused trees on the island to fall on Island power lines, shutting down the electricity to the farm. With a bit of monkeying about, a small gas-fired generator took the place of the electrical grid.
The rubber tubing was not so forgiving. Brittle below freezing and less able to hold a tight seal, it was a constant point of frustration. Once a bit of moisture entered the hoses from the warm, steamy milk from the cows, the system functioned even more poorly. The rigid air lines, made of galvanized pipe and a part of the permanent system kept in the barn year around, were mighty cold from the weather. With a bit of moisture, they quickly filled with ice, allowing even less air to pass through.
The point of this story is not to say that the world in the cow barn is all lost when the temperature drops below freezing, but rather, that it is different. The machinery performs in a much less responsive way when there is ice on the ground, when my fingers are barely flexible and my breath burns from cold air in my lungs.
I like this. I like being connected to the weather, to the earth, to the seasons. At least, I like it when I can write about it from the warm confines of my toasty office. When I am crouched under a cow, trying to get the milking equipment to function, when the hoofs of the cow are slipping on the icy barn floor, then it is not quite as profound. The other option — working in an air-conditioned and heated workspace 12 months of the year — pales in comparison. I know when it is winter, the cows know when it is winter, and it is
by Kurt Timmermeister, January 17, 2011 10:35 AM
Today, my first book is officially released. Growing a Farmer
is the story of my turning this rough-scrabble piece of earth into a productive, verdant farm, and of my personal transformation from a slick urbanite into someone who milks cows twice a day and spends most of the year in mud boots.
As this is my first endeavor in the publishing business, I knew little of what to expect. I must admit that I had the same outdated, preconceived notions that many unfamiliar with the business have. For example, I believed that I would call my editor and we would have relaxing phone chats about ideas and literature, when in fact, whenever my cell phone would ring and display a New York City prefix, I would jump, fearful that I had missed a deadline or that I had disappointed everyone in that midtown office with the manuscript that I had sent.
I have also spent much too much time explaining to friends and acquaintances that even though my book was published by a large, reputable New York publisher, I had not been so well paid that I could retire to the south of France. I doubt that I will ever be able to reside in Provence and certainly not as a result of writing a book or two. I do take it as a vote of confidence, though, that people across the nation could be interested in reading what I have to say.
There has been a remarkable upside to the publication of Growing a Farmer. Whereas a year ago I was just some schmuck making cheese on his farm in the suburbs of Seattle and spouting out my opinions on small agriculture, now that those ideas are all printed in a nice, tidy form, they have achieved legitimacy. They have bone fide value today. They still may be faulty or illegitimate or just plain silly, but now that they have been vetted by an editor, they have some credence.
As evidence of this, Michael Pollan came out to my farm today to join me for lunch. Yes, that Michael Pollan, bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. We had never met prior, but evidently I am now someone worth dining with. I must say that we have always put out a great spread here at the farm: cheese and cured meats, breads, crackers and pasta, vegetables, and of course, always a large platter of the most golden scrambled eggs. My hens here are noble beasts and produce such lovely eggs that I must show them off. And without question, the butter of Kurtwood Farms is well-known in these parts for its high quality. But it's not just knowing that he would be well-fed; it is the idea in this culture that the published author is an authority, a voice worth listening to.
I am not sure that letting the publishers and editors be the gatekeepers to positions of authority in our culture is the best system, but I cannot recommend a better one. At least now that I've gotten to peek into the clubhouse, I am quite enjoying