I often find myself in the middle. Perhaps of dichotomies I create but in the middle nonetheless. This transition from handmilking cows to machine milking cows is one such moment. I don’t know if the many other homesteaders or small dairymen out there find themselves in the same state of mind but, for me, this is no light and transient movement. I am the guy who is far more comfortable raising a child than having a pet. There may, in fact, be many like-minded folks out there but it often seems our society sees pets as a some prerequisite to children. Never made sense to me because, a dog, I do not understand. I am also the guy who dropped out of college for several years to work on cars because, as an intensely cerebral person, I could not find meaning in college but acquiring skills satisfied my intellectual need. Being in the middle of competing ideas is often my place of peace. It is who I am.
Back to milking cows since that’s what this is about after all. I am not against technology. I actually like appropriate technology, emphasis on appropriate. I think a bucket milk machine is an excellent and appropriate tool for some contexts, emphasis on some. So why is this a bittersweet transition? I am not convinced yet that my context fits the machine. My struggle with this transition is in the hands, the ears, the soul. I have come to know who I am through my hands, my abilities, my limits, me, all bound up in how the intellectual connects to the physical. I am at peace in quiet work outside. I love the simplicity of a bucket, a cow, me and the soft sounds of milk hitting the pail. And from that ancient interaction comes food for my family’s table. Is that romantic? Of course, but, all the more evidence of it’s power to affect my identity as a farmer.
Why adopt a machine then? In a word, resilience. There are arguments about cleanliness, physical relief, time, and so on but, despite the opinions out there, I see very minimal difference between the products of hand and machine if both are done properly. Resilience. It’s far easier to train help to use a machine than to ask someone to learn to hand milk. In fact, this reality defines the “middle” perfectly. Handmilking requires commitment to the skill. It requires endurance. It highlights the absolute awe of a tool that is the human hand. All elements that have become meditative experiences for me as I’ve learned to master milking cows and other handiness.
But to build a resilient food source and a resilient business, I have to loosen my grip on my own centrality in the farm operation. And it has been our vision from the beginning to build toward a full-time living from the farm sooner than later which, for The Homeplace Farm, means potentially milking six to eight cows, up from our current three. A machine represents opportunity to scale. It also represents new opportunity for others to contribute. Maybe it will generate new interest in my younger children or others for whom handmilking seems inaccessible. (I suppose the machine could also push them away, too.) But, ultimately, the machine means I’m less central to this good work of putting food on the table. I have no plans to escape this work but there have been times in the past year that I’ve needed to leave the farm yet found that impossible. There may be times in the future that I will not have the same physical abilities I currently enjoy. The core of our vision for The Homeplace Farm is the understanding that our relationships as a family are paramount. As a father, I am irreplaceable in our home. But there’s also an inherent humility necessary to accept that my skills as a farmer and provider are replaceable. That’s resilience. I’m not fully there yet but I’m working on it.
My wife will tell you, I don’t often plan for what could happen. She’s right, of course, but the endurance of the farm beyond me is a perspective that has provided me important context for this middle ground.