Running a farm requires many sets of hands. I co-oped at Moonshadow Farm, outside of Yellow Springs, Ohio. The farm is owned and run by Caroline and Paul Mullin and their two teenaged children, Max and Anna. Caroline mainly works with the animals, while Paul focuses on the greenhouse and construction. As a co-op student, I sat between these two worlds and used my hands for many seemingly disparate tasks: milking goats, planting tomatoes, rounding up chickens, making yogurt and cheese, and building gates.
On their own, each of these tasks could be a full-time job but they all fall under the umbrella of regular life on a farm. Every day begins and ends with chores; giving food and water to the animals, letting them out or putting them into their shelters, and making sure everyone is accounted for. My chores start at 7:30, and once they are done, I move on to other tasks, generally involving the garden or the greenhouse. I usually finish before lunch and sometimes work in the evenings after the heat of the day.
The first couple weeks of co-op were about preparing for the birth of the goats. Stalls had to be cleaned, medical supplies had to be gathered for “what-if” scenarios, and the soon-to-be mothers and I had to become well-acquainted. At this point, I suppose it’s pertinent to mention that I didn’t have much experience working with animals. I had worked on the Antioch farm with the sheep, but only for a few weeks and they didn’t require much maintenance. I had also raised chickens in high school, but again, they weren’t very hands-on.
I knew before I got to my co-op that I was going to be around when the goats were giving birth. My mind skipped entirely over the birthing process and I imagined myself sitting in a field surrounded by small goats who only ever wanted to snuggle and follow me everywhere. How convenient. One night, I decided to research what actually happened during goat birth- in what position the kids should be born, how long labor takes, and what happens once the kids are born.
The next day when I arrived at work, Caroline informed me that Abbie’s pin bones had disappeared, a sign she was surely to give birth later that day. Good thing I did all the research last night, I whispered to myself, terrified. I worked on the greenhouse, stopping to check on Abbie every half hour. She moaned and kicked all day, unable to get comfortable in the birthing stall. I came back in the afternoon and sat beside her, unsure if I was really capable of helping a goat give birth. I secretly hoped nothing would happen while I was alone. Fast forward through my many hours of observation, and Abbie gave birth to a baby boy during the brief time no one was with her. I guess she didn’t want an audience. Two more babies were born that night.
I’d never actually been present at the birth of another creature before. My cat had never had kittens, and my younger brother was born when I was young enough to not remember anything. I’m told human birth involves a lot of blood, but goat birth is thankfully much less bloody and the kids are, in my opinion, a lot cuter.
A few days later, Caroline informed me that Magic was in labor. She had to go into work early that morning, so it was just me on the farm. Just as I was preparing to ride my bike back to campus, I heard a noise from the barn that can only be described as screaming. That sounds like a goat giving birth, I thought to myself. Sure enough, Magic was in the process of giving birth to a goat who would later be named Rembrandt. Ten minutes after he was born, he was trying to stand up on shaky legs. He was a noisy goat, and when his brother Vermeer was born, he didn’t appreciate having to share mom’s attention. We, each the oldest kid, bonded instantly.
With the arrival of baby goats comes milking. Up until working at Moonshadow Farm, I’d never had raw milk before. I do remember the day my mom switched from buying non-organic to organic milk and I remember raving about how organic milk tasted so much better, but that barely prepared me for the difference between pasteurized, processed milk and raw, whole milk fresh from a mother goat. Before I arrived at my co-op, I did a little bit of reading about the social behavior of goats and how to milk a doe. But it’s hard to put theory into practice, and it took me about a month of on and off practice to successfully milk an entire goat.
The first goat I tried to milk was Abbie, the queen of the herd. Dairy goats are often bred specifically for the shape of their teats, and the goal is to find a match between the shape of your hands and the shape of a goat’s teats. Abbie’s teats are long and thin. I had no trouble getting my hands around them, but I was unsure exactly how much force it took to stop the flow of milk. My instinct was to be delicate, maybe even dainty, and I didn’t have much success. Abbie kicked and complained.
The second goat I tried to milk was Magic, the other goat in the herd who is a multiple time-mother. Her teats are drastically different from Abbie’s; thick and wide. I struggled to get my small hands around them, let alone pinch tightly enough to stop the flow of milk from the udder. I managed a few drops of milk before my hands got tired and I conceded to Caroline’s expertise.
The third goat I tried to milk was Midnight, a first time milker. Her teats are somewhere in-between Abbie’s and Magic’s; not too thick, but not too thin, either. Long enough to use most of my hand, but not unmanageable. I closed my thumb and pointer finger around the top and squeezed the milk down the teat one finger at a time. A success! The first couple of days I milked Midnight, we hadn’t pulled her away from her kids during the night, so she didn’t have much to give. But now in the morning, she spends the night in another stall with Magic and Abbie and has a chance to stockpile 9-10 hours worth of milk.
After it’s filtered and chilled, the milk can go towards a variety of things. You can drink it straight out of the bottle or add it to coffee. You can make cheese, and you can made soap. But what really grabbed my attention was that you can make yogurt. With a quart of fresh goat’s milk, you can make a quart of fresh goat’s milk yogurt just by heating it and adding some starter cultures, something commercial yogurt manufacturers probably don’t want you to know. I experimented a little bit with each batch I made and have found my groove in making a tangy, sour yogurt that’s thin enough to drink, rather than eat with a spoon. It is enormously refreshing after a day of work.
Amy Magnus, attendee at the cheese making class, wrote a piece about her own yogurt making for the Yellow Springs News, found here, https://ysnews.com/news/2014/05/blog-family-ferments.
It was at Antioch that I first ate meat that I had looked in the eye. I fed the sheep raised last summer on the farm, gave them water, and eventually ate them as part of a dinner in late fall. At my co-op, we raised 100 Freedom Ranger chickens for meat. I was with them nearly every day of their lives, and I can honestly say I would feel comfortable eating one. I never got very attached to the chickens because there isn’t much to get attached to.
I don’t remember ever eating goat meat before, and at this point, I’m not sure I want to. I know that “the animal is so cute and snuggled with me” is a morally ambiguous code for determining which meat I eat and don’t eat, but I suppose I don’t have to have all the answers by the end of co-op. Instead, my co-op has been a wonderful continuation of thought to the issues surrounding food that are relevant at Antioch. The Mullins have a greenhouse to grow vegetables, land to raise animals for meat, and the capacity to milk goats, meaning a large chunk of their food is grown just outside their front door. Talk about reducing the distance between pasture and plate. I’ve had a wonderful time planting seeds for beans, peppers, tomatoes, and more, learning to milk goats and make cheese and yogurt, learning how to run a farm, and, of course, snuggling with ten baby goats.
To learn more about my experience, see the video below.