Friday, December 11, 2009

Snow on Green Grass: A Stay at Grassfields Farm

Snow on Green Grass
(December 5-6, 2009)

by Zinta Aistars

Mudpack facials were my sister’s idea of a birthday good time. Mine was all about cow pies. Enough with the candlelit cakes already. By now, my cake was running out of room for more candles, and the blaze of flames was enough to melt the icing.

Always on the lookout for a new and unique experience, I found just that while surfing the Web to research sources for organic foods—my new and fast expanding interest. I’m sold on organic being healthy for me, healthy for the environment, healthy for livestock. Now, I was searching for what might also be healthy for my wallet—reasonable prices for organic foods. Getting as close to the source as possible usually meant better prices and even fresher food. It was also assurance that the farm was truly organic, meaning livestock was treated humanely: a good life right up until giving its life.

The source is the farmer, and so as I searched in the southwest Michigan area where I live and work, I came across Grassfields Farm. This could be it, I thought. Cheese made from raw milk right on the farm, beef, poultry and eggs.

Then I noticed the link on the side of the site: Grassfields Inn. Three packages were available, one to two nights at a Bed and Breakfast right on the farm that included a tour of the farm, cheese making, cow milking and chicken chores. Eureka! Not only had I found a source for organic, grass-fed meats and dairy, but I’d just found the unique experience to make my birthday weekend memorable.

This was one of the experiences that would be more fun shared. My daughter craved just such an experience—she was a certified “foodie,” had even taken a culinary class at a culinary school in Chicago, and the idea of a weekend on a working farm greatly appealed to her. Alas, she had just started a new job as deputy campaign manager for the candidate for the 18th District in Illinois just days before, and that would mean working every day of the week and long days right up until primaries. So big sis it was. The very same one who had teased me about paying someone else for the privilege of cleaning their chicken coop.

She rethought her stance when I invited her to take my daughter’s place. It was, after all, an adventure. And it was, after all, my birthday and not hers. There would be spas in November. For my December birthday, cow pies all the way!

A blizzard unleashed itself over the highway as the two of us drove to Coopersville. The livestock may be grass-fed the rest of the year, but it looked more like snow soup for them now. As if from some comic book of stranded explorers requiring rescue on some snowy mountainside, a sweet big mug of a Saint Bernard pressed into my car window when we turned into snowy Grassfields Farm. I opened the door and the warm muzzle pressed into my face, sniffed my shoulder, my hands, back to my face, left a warm and wet nose print on my cheek as seal of approval. I was permitted to exit the car and enter the farm.

“That’s Sadie,” a pretty young woman said, coming over to us. She wasn’t even wearing a coat. Oh, these sturdy and healthy farm folk. I was instantly admiring and envious.

This was Vicky Meerman, we learned, and Vicky brought us into the Grassfields Cheese Store. A simple room with several freezers—cheese and eggs, beef, poultry, beef, lamb. All from the farm, all grass-fed (or snow soup, as the case may be), all organic. I was eager to learn more about this kind of traditional farm, this kind of life, for both humans and animals. I hadn’t been on a farm since I was a kid, when Mom and Dad had to come looking for me when it was time to leave, to find me in with the hogs in the pig sty, cuddled up to a sow. Farms had always held a certain romance for me, but I realized most of what I had been purchasing at the local supermarket had nothing to do with farms such as this. All that nicely packaged food was more times than not from government-subsidized food factories and slaughterhouses, which held no resemblance to a farm such as this. I wanted to learn more.

I’m not sure Jesse Meerman, middle brother of three, knew what hit him when he emerged from the adjacent cheese making room, but I pummeled him with questions and enthused commentary, telling him about what I had learned in my last few weeks of research. This, after all, was a food adventure. In the second half of my life, I was rediscovering food—what it really tastes like when unadulterated by pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and a number of other artificial means of changing the shape, color, taste, substance, genetic makeup of a food item. Whether we were talking meat, dairy, or plant, something happens when you mess with it. And it’s not good. Add stress levels to animal life, and flavor and nutritional value take a sharp turn for the worse.

We were to start with cheese. First, before beginning our farm chores, Vicky showed us to our room for the night. Four houses sat in the row on 60th Street, a long dirt road in mid Michigan country. All four belong to the Meerman family: three brothers with their respective families, each family to a house, and the house at the northern end of the row was for the matriarch of the family. The father of the brothers had passed on, and the two sisters live in a nearby town.

I wondered at all that family closeness as we entered the second house from the farm, a small white bungalow with green shutters that grew out back to hold a growing family. A good thing? I love my family very much, but I’d probably spent more of my life putting respectable distance between myself and various relatives. I like my solitude. I wondered what it would be like to live surrounded by parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and pets wandering from one house to the next, all in such close proximity. Very communal. Madness or comfort? Perhaps both?

Vicky showed us into her home, one she shared with her husband, oldest brother Luke. They had recently decided to open their home as a bed and breakfast operation, letting people stay a night or two, share in farm chores and farm joys, and learn something about what this kind of lifestyle was like. My sister Daina and I were their very first guests.

We entered a comfortable living room with hardwood floor, woodstove just to the right of the door, dining area at the far end. A short hallway led to our bathroom and a large, shared bedroom that she called The Africa Room—in honor of her childhood home in Africa, the daughter of missionary parents. The walls were milk chocolate brown and decorated with African art, the bedspreads mock zebra stripes and patterns. We could close off this part of the house for our privacy, or leave a door to the kitchen open from the dining area if we wished to interact with the family.

Hm, I thought. More closeness.

The Meermans had built a large addition onto the back of the house, and we could hear and see the bustle of their five children, a mix of their biological, foster and adopted children, and no doubt a cousin or three passing through the house on the way to another house. It was quickly becoming clear that the Meerman family has wide open hearts and always room for one more, and one more, and yet one more.

We dropped our bags in the bedroom and headed back to the Cheese Shop. Putting hair nets over our hair, rubber boots on our feet, we rolled up our sleeves and entered the sterile cheese making room. Jesse was already elbow-deep in cheese curds and whey. A whirlpool-size steel tub was filled nearly to brim with warm milk that was fast curdling into soft white curls of cheese. Jesse stirred and stirred with what appeared to be an immense spatula, and we could see the white cheese swirl to the top and sink again.

“Go ahead, dip your arms into that bucket of bleach,” he directed us to the pail of bluish liquid in a sink nearby. Our hands and arms sanitized, we awaited direction. He grinned at us amiably, explaining the process. I thought at first I detected mischief, and perhaps there was some of that—we quickly learned this was a young man who loved to laugh, to sing, and to make cheese. He enjoyed his work and it showed.

Jesse invited us to dip and dig in, get our hands and arms in there and break up the cheese as it pulled together in what to me looked like great clods of cottage cheese. Daina and I soon found this to be a pretty primal pleasure. We were like kids playing in warm mud. We dipped our hands, elbow-deep, into the swirling whey and grabbed handfuls of the soft, mooshy cheese and sqooshed it apart into smaller pieces. Jesse stirred and stirred, stirring up more cheese from where it kept settling on the bottom. We grabbed for surfacing chunks and squished them through our fingers.

It was impossible not to start giggling. And Jesse was no help at staying serious. Stories poured from him as he stirred, a mix of education and entertainment. With pride, he also told us that in two more weeks, he and his wife would greet a second daughter into the world. This was a man pleased with his life. While he talked, and sometimes sang, he worked with skill and efficiency. The whey was draining way, the liquid lowering in the bin, and he directed us to large bags of dill weed. Today, we were making dill weed cheese. Daina scattered the dill across the cheese, and the air filled with its fragrance, again returning me to childhood as I remembered my mother growing dill in the garden and snipping pieces of it across potatoes and salad.

Again, we worked our hands and arms into the cheese. Most of the whey had drained away from the bottom of the bin, and we leaned across the sides, sinking our hands into the soft mass and serving as human mixers. Tossing, tossing, until the dill was mixed thoroughly into the cheese, we worked it through evenly.

Next? Next, Jesse, with utmost seriousness, had put a cutaway soccer ball onto his head. Sure, he said, he had thought about another life. Doesn’t every kid growing up? Dream of running away to a world unknown? He loved to play soccer and thought about pursuing that ball as a career kick. Then it had dawned on him, he said. He woke one morning to look around at his life. A beautiful wife, a baby girl, a warm home, the good earth around him, passed on to him from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, going as far back as 1882. This farm had nurtured and nourished generations of Meermans. Why leave? He’d been singing ever since, with or without a soccer ball on his head.

All three of us worked to fill molds with cheese, each one lined with a white mesh much like cheesecloth. Three molds atop each other, then we watched as Jesse flipped each one over, the cheese now hardening into firm cakes, placed the cakes back in the molds, the molds into plastic cylinders, and then weighted them all down with a simple rack. The rack folded down from the wall and pressed down on the molds from the weight of pails filled with water, each pail hanging from a hook from the end of the rack. No complicated mechanics here. No energy required but simple human effort. Three molds inside each cylinder, rack lowered on top, pressing down from the weight of water. Mechanics even I could understand. Simple and efficient.

Once the molds had sat for some hours, the cheese cakes would eventually be moved into a brine solution in the next room, where they would soak for four days, then be placed on wooden shelves to dry—some for weeks, months, others for years, depending on the cheese and if it was to be aged. I was struck by what a neat and clean operation this was. Best, the cheese was delicious. Daina and I tasted samples in the store: dill weed, gouda, cheddar, garlic and onion, blue cheese, chili cheese, and others. Delicious.

Short break and we were on to our next farm chore. Youngest brother Jay smiled at us shyly and invited us to hop into the wooden wagon behind his red tractor. He drove us around the barn and other farm buildings, out into the snowy field, bumping over the snowy and frozen earth. We saw a long chicken coop, almost like a greenhouse, set out in the field. The moment we opened the door, we stepped into a sea of cooing clucks.

Puck, puck, PAWK. Puck, puck, PAWK.

We stood in the midst of 700 hens and one rooster, walking with confidence among his brood of hens. Some of the rust-colored hens pecked at our boots, clucking with curiosity.

“How soothing,” I said in wonder, listening to the sea of content clucking. Suddenly, there would be an instant of utter silence. All 700 hens were simultaneously quiet. Then, simultaneously, all 700 hens starting to cluck again, in chorus. Jay poured feed into long troughs and filled water coolers, and the hens gathered freely to eat and drink, while others continued to wander from one end of the coop down the long way to other end. Others fluttered up onto the wooden shelves where they nested in spaces behind little black squares of plastic for privacy and quiet. Jay handed us wire baskets, and we went from shelf to shelf, peeking under the black plastic sheets for eggs. And oh, there were many. Brown eggs, smooth and warm in our palms. We filled basket after basket. The hens didn’t seem to mind, just watched with curiosity, clucking endlessly. When I touched one, her feathers were smooth and soft.

Jay explained how to tell a good layer, how to spot the hen that was not. One clue, he said, was legs that were still deep yellow, like the rooster’s. The good layers had nearly white legs, the yellow pigment as if drained from their feet and into those golden yolks.

Putting the baskets full of eggs into the wagon, Jay slowly drove the tractor through the snow and back to the barn. There, we brought the eggs inside and met Erin, who stood at a table hand washing each and every egg and wiping it clean. Once washed, each egg was carefully placed into an egg tray with the Grassfields label.

Kittens played around our feet. Only two left of the litter. A gray one and a black one. They raced through the barn, then curled around our ankles, asking to be lifted and snuggled. We gladly did. Even these kittens seemed to be the picture of purring contentment with this farm life.

Feeling the afternoon in our bodies and our bones, the chill of the winter evening gathering around us, Vicky invited us back to the house for dinner. Meatloaf for me, made from their own beef, and chicken for Daina, from the same hen house. A pitcher of raw milk to drink; it was rich with flavor, better than any I had had.

We wanted to see that fearsome place where the chickens gave their lives for ours, and Vicky and Jay showed it to us gladly, explaining each phase of the process. The chickens were turned upside down—an action that near instantly renders them unconscious—then placed into steel cones, heads protruding, to have their throats slit and bled out. The lifeless chickens were then dunked into boiling water to loosen feathers, plucked out, then placed into a tub with rotating rubber fingerlike protrusions with ridges that caught any remaining feathers and plucked them. Then, insides were removed, and body cleaned and prepared to be frozen for customers.

It seemed to me all of us who love to eat meat should be familiar with this process. We need to understand death and be comfortable with it. Death makes me much less uncomfortable than the thought of livestock living out their lives in indoor confinement, never feeling earth or sunshine or clean air, never eating clean food without a mix of drugs and hormones added to it. It is the thought of cramped wire cages I cannot bear. Of hens with beaks removed to prevent pecking each other to death in a slow madness from confinement. It is life that matters, for at some point we must all die. I would not lose sleep over this clean room, a room we who eat chicken should all see—and respect.

Evening deepened around us, but the farm chores had not ended. Vicky brought us back out to the barn, where Luke had brought in the cows, lined them up to each side of an alleyway he walked below, full udders easily reached. Down that alley hung milking machines, tubes leading to a container in back to collect the milk. The cows were impatient to be milked, their udders aching with milk. One hundred sixty two were milked every evening and every morning.

“Come on down,” Luke urged us. “You have to be able to tell your friends later you have milked a cow!”

Cow heads turned slowly toward us, watching us, great brown eyes as curious as we were. We had to step among plops of manure and splashes of cow urine. That was life. Luke moved easily from animal to animal, his hand patting their sides, testing the udders. He wiped them down clean, dipped each udder into iodine to sterilize, and attached the milking machine. Milk pulsed through tubes, up and out. Daina and I each took a turn milking one of the cows by hand, and the warm milk squirted out easily.

This all felt like life. Life in milk as life in manure, the fascination of living animals that breathe, sides heaving, comforted by routine, expecting it. There was order here. Like his brothers, Luke did his work with ease and efficiency. The animals knew his touch. More than once, he said, not even looking away from his cows, “I love these animals. Cows are my favorite animal.”

Jesse loved making cheese; Jay walked among his chickens; Luke moved from cow to cow, patting their warm haunches. Each brother has his part of the farm in his care, and the whole worked seamlessly together.

Daina and I sat heavily on the couch in the farmhouse living room after the milk chores. Vicky had started a crackling fire in the woodstove and the room filled with the warmth.

“Well-oiled machine,” I said, listening to Vicky in the kitchen next door cleaning up. Her children played around her, giggling, clucking, arguing, laughing. Her husband would be in late, only when each cow had been milked and let back out to the barn. There was no room for change in this routine. No sick days, no vacations, no coming to work late or leaving early. Living things require constant care. Here, they were actually getting it. There was respect for living things here, and so, respect for the sacrifice made at the end of life.

I couldn’t imagine such a farm being run successfully by any less than a large family network, one helping the other, depending on the other to carry their weight in chores and never falter. The boss was the cow, the hen, the curdling of cheese, all setting the clock that ran this business.

In the morning, Vicky served us eggs, some of those we had gathered, and bacon from pigs that had been on the farm earlier in the year. A birthday card was set beside my plate. Now, there was only one sow, and she was happy to take us out to meet her after breakfast (and the best bacon I'd ever had. More, please!). The pig grunted a greeting, lazily rose from her straw bed and came to slosh creamy milk, drinking it up with great slurps, as we stood and watched.

I had to stand out at the edge of the field before my sister and I left that next morning. Stand and think, take it all in. This was a life so very different than mine, but one that I was deeply grateful still existed. The farther our civilization had moved from this, the deeper we sank into a life that was devalued, death a dark and ugly secret, a heartless slaughter after a life of slavery. Could it be that our current escalation of human trafficking has some tie to this? To use any life, to treat any life without respect for its needs, can only lead to a breakdown of values in ourselves.

I am committed now to eating only organic foods, food I know has been raised in a humane manner such as I had seen here. But I had learned something else in this short time on the Grassfields farm. There was a tightly knit family network here that was near extinct, too. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children… each with their own job, no one job unimportant. Closeness, yes, the kind we rarely see. So it occurs to me that if we do not fight to save the traditional farm, we may also lose a more traditional family—one that works and lives together, watching out for each other, filling in for each other, sharing in work and in play.

There is much at stake here. Far more than I had expected.

Returning to our lives, my sister and I reflected on our farm experience. “I wasn’t so sure, at first,” Daina said thoughtfully. “But this was really a special experience. I guess I had no idea, really.”

“Better than a spa?”

Daina nodded, still absorbing it all. “Yes,” she said. “You know? Yes. Much better than a spa.”

Because, I thought, this wasn’t just skin deep. This was life at its deepest level, earthy, pure, life and death in sympathetic rhythm, both approached with respect, even reverence. Back home, I placed the food I had brought back with me into my pantry and refrigerator. Roasters into my freezer, beef steaks, pork chops, thick slices of smoked bacon. I placed creamy wedges of cheese in the refrigerator shelves. What we put into our food comes back to nourish us. All things in cycles. All that we put out into the world, at some point, all returning to us.

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