Winter hovers outside; the month of December in the Ohio Valley turned out mild and dark with drizzly overcast days and almost no sunshine. It's the time for reflection, I tell myself as I recline in a lawn chair on the concrete floor of our basement after dark, tending to the woodstove. My winter evenings at the farmhouse in Indiana resemble those in that barn at the old Boont Berry Farm. Like that barn, our basement sports a sloping concrete floor that can be hosed off if necessary, and the area round the woodstove is littered with bark and woodchips that I sweep up to combine with a beer box and dryer lint for a sure fire starter. The dogs are howling with coyotes outside but will eventually get into the house and join the cats and me.
The dogs and cats inevitably sneak inside every night when my son's friends show up at the front door. The animals sleep round the woodstove while I sit down here seeking sanctuary from my son's peers, mostly ages 17 to 20.
"Hey, Farmer John," the girls say. Most of the kids call me that. I used to hate it in Boonville when everybody called me "Farmer John," which is sort of my alter-ego.
"Nobody back home would call me, 'Farmer John,' because they're all farmers back there," I used to tell people at the Boont Berry store as I stocked egg cartons in the cooler.
Well, the farmers here don't call me "Farmer John," but there really aren't too many farmers remaining these days, here or anywhere else in America.
The locals called me, "Farmer John," but the tourists really pissed me off.
"There's the egg man," tourists would say at Boont Berry if they caught me stocking eggs.
"I'm not really the egg man," I might say if in a good mood. I never really liked having somebody call me the "egg man" when I was kneeling on the floor, stocking cartons. Kiss my ass, I wanted to say.
"There's the lettuce man," they would say when I brought in the flat of baby lettuce salad mix.
I didn't like being dubbed the "lettuce man," either.
Nobody ever called me the "tomato man" when I brought in tomatoes, or the "zucchini man," but when I started milking cows and spending most of my time with them, consequently splitting up with my second Ex and becoming another lonely single guy in Boonville, I somewhat sarcastically decided to take on the persona of the "milk man," which started rumors that weren't entirely true and indirectly led to me and my cows being asked to leave the old Boont Berry Farm. This whole episode devastated me psychologically, and I haven't even considered starting a cow herd ever since, even though in Indiana I could legally start and advertise a cow share program (not legal in California). Not only are cow shares legal here, but there are folks -- mostly Amish -- who pay Mennonites to drive them and their raw milk to the Farmers' market in Bloomington where it brings $15 a gallon labeled as "Pet Food."
I've been reluctant to take on livestock after the Boonville experience, though. I plan to get back into it but haven't been in a rush to make such a commitment -- which is really even more such than that with a lover, because you can't just break up with the cows. They can't move on to another farmer -- not really. More likely they will move on to become ground beef. You can't sell mature milk cows to another dairy -- no corporate megadairy (which is all that is allowed to exist in California) would ever purchase a cow from some random raw milk hippie. So most of the 20 or so cows, calves, and bulls that comprised my herd in Boonville had to be sold for slaughter when the whole cow and milkman thing blew up, an ironic outcome given the actual reason they finally told me I had to leave.
"You can't butcher or slaughter any cows on the property," the owners had told me, when my second Ex decided to start the cow share program in the winter of 2006.
I agreed to the conditions at the time. I certainly didn't want to be a cow killer, and my second Ex was still a vegetarian, an ex-vegan cautiously experimenting with the IDEA of eating meat.
A few years went by. The herd grew. Bull calves were castrated and grew into steers ready to become T-bones and sirloins. Most of my vegetarian friends read Sally Fallon's book, Nourishing Traditions, and the idea of grass-fed beef was really catching on. Some friends at the Frey ranch in Redwood Valley had put together a nice facility for butchering, so we tried to do everything there or at friends' houses. Other friends purchased sheep or cows, but they had day jobs and not enough property or time to take care of the animals, and those were added to the herd I took care of. Eventually my blue heeler and I were in charge of what was not officially known as the "Anderson Valley Community Herd."
A neighboring landowner kept three fat red and white Hereford cows on about 20 acres of pasture between the farm and the airport. The fellow kept the cows for tax purposes, to keep the ground classified as Ag. The cows were well acquainted with my bull, and through this we already had a relationship. Those three cows were absolutely wild, horny, fat sluts. Due to their age and physical condition they had not calved in eight years, only putting on drastic amounts of candle wax, but going into heat every 21 days. And here I had this handsome, randy bull stuck with diligent milk cows who only wanted to get it on once a year, knocked up the first time. So we left the fence intentionally low enough to where the bull could jump it. If a cow goes under a fence -- pushing it up, it's looking for grass. But if it goes OVER the fence, it's on the trail of some. . . .
One weekend the spring of 2010 the owner of the three promiscuous cows stopped by the barn with a six pack of some microbrew, said he was planning to sell those three old cows and buy his daughter a 4H heifer for her birthday. "I don't have a corral sufficient to load them in a trailer," he said.
"You're damn right. I don't either," I said. "Those cows are fucking wild, and mean, too." I'd interacted with them several times while retrieving my bull. They didn't know what hay was. The pasture they lived on was fed by a high underground water table that kept the Harding grass green all summer, and so they'd never had to rely on humans for feed. Their only interactions with Man in over a decade had occurred when the fellow had come out in the spring of 2004 with a high-powered rifle to shoot the last of their offspring. "If it was me I'd just shoot them."
"I don't really know what I'd do with all that beef -- I mean I could use one, maybe, but my freezer's full."
"Okay -- I wanted to build a loading chute anyway." Several years earlier I had been granted permission by some cow share members up Lambert Lane to thin the redwoods that had grown up in rings around the stumps in the 40 years since these original Back-to-Landers had purchased what was then a clear-cut pasture, and quite a few trees maybe 12 to 18 inches in diameter had been seasoning on the forest floor, waiting for just such a purpose.
So my son and I worked together in the woods, cutting the trunks to roughly 12 foot lengths, using mauls to split them into manageable size. We nailed the redwood rails to treated posts and created a chute between two old greenhouses, part of which remains today. The stage was set for the round-up, so I scheduled a work party, contacting a few brave, reliable friends.