On Tuesday we had some business involving transporting a young bull to service a couple of Jersey half-breeds at the Frey ranch in Redwood Valley. The bull calf is the third son of my favorite cow, the one with the udder that never needs trimming and the calm temper who lets me handle her newborn calves without trying to maul me.
Not more than ten minutes up Highway 253 out of Boonville, my 12 year-old son got a text message from one of his friends who claimed to have seen three of our puppies in downtown Boonville.
“That's impossible,” I said. “Where did she see them?”
“I don't know.”
“It won't do any good. She's all the way in Navarro by now.”
“That means she was in Boonville 15 minutes ago. We were still at the farm.”
“All I know is she said she saw them.”
We were on the part of Highway 253 where cellphone reception is fragmented. By the time we got to Ukiah I was imagining these ugly scenarios in which Animal Control was swooping down on our puppies and hauling them away, maybe even pressing charges for negligence. “How many did she see?”
“Three,” my son finally said as we were driving up South State in Ukiah. “One white, one brown, and one black.”
That didn't sound like our pups. We had three white and one black. If it hadn't been for the extra coffee I'd sipped along the way, maybe I could have avoided venturing so close to an ulcer. A phone call to a friend in Boonville confirmed that the puppies had not chosen our departure as an opportunity to roam the streets, and my son admitted that the source of the hypothetical crisis might have been texting simply for the sake of sending a message.
Any excuse to visit the Frey winery is legitimate to me. They operate the only working class winery that I know about in Mendo. I mean they keep their cabernet and zinfindel competitive with a twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Our reaction to the recession was to lower the prices,” said one family member working in the office. “Our customers are in it with us, so our gross sales are down but our wine sales are steady.”
The Freys are among the few wine producers in our county who are actually farmers. Farmers are resourceful and frugal, according to my definition. They repair what is broken before they purchase new. They make gradual upgrades that are consistent with their annual profits. Most of the tanks the Freys use to age their wine are not uniform—they are welded rejects from other wineries where workers have rammed forklifts into tanks and punctured them, much like old blue jeans from the Goodwill store. Dogs and grandchildren ramble in the gravel parking lots under the oaks and redwoods. While we were out there pulling the trailer with the bull past the winery, dozens of people were involved in the bottling line, most of them family members or neighbors. On our way to the destination, we encountered Daniel and Molly Frey with their son, Osiris, followed by about ten milking goats that were grazing the cover crops in the vineyards. “It's dual purpose,” said Daniel, “because I'm doing child care the same time I'm watching the goats.”
Watching the goats follow them in a scene too pastoral for our times, I had to wonder if maybe I should have gotten into goats instead of the shorthorn milking cows that respect me and my dogs but certainly don't follow me around. Anyway, there is a demand for bull service, so cows must not be totally obsolete.
Unloading the bull was easy enough, and we returned home with a generous case of zin. I was grateful to have some wine to offer to my woofer, Diana Winter, and was only mildly surprised to see that the cow, Lula, the mother of the bull whose services we'd transported, had dropped a heifer calf.
That night, Lula showed up in the milking stall without being called, without trying to murder me. In this way she sharply contrasts from the other cows. Shorthorns are notorious for protecting their young, a quality that is amplified by the season of perpetual muck. The other cows would have been in mortal combat.
Last summer I spent some time on the telephone with a couple friends back in southern Indiana who are still farming. Tom and Ruth have four children and are managing thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, feeding steers and heifers out in the winter, but Ruth grew up on a dairy farm. For a few years she tried to get Tom to raise cows and calves on their sandy hills, keeping the soil in pasture, but one of the cows dislocated Tom's hip when he tried to rope the calf for castrating. “I'm a finishing man, not a cow-calf man,” Tom told me.
Ruth laughed when she heard I was keeping shorthorns. “Nobody believed me in 4-H when I said I had blue cows, but we had the blue roan shorthorns,” she said. “They're real protective of their calves.”
“You're telling me,” I said. From the middle of May until sometime in October I was unable to sleep without propping several pillows in different positions to compensate for the shoulder I'd blown out when a mad cow had knocked me to the dust, and the middle finger on my right hand was broken for half the year. The only upside of the broken middle finger was I started using the backboard more when playing basketball because I lost all finesse. The backboard is a higher percentage shot. Also, with a broken middle finger it was easy to say goodbye to all my exes.