Travel and Food Bronze Winner: Vanishing Act

by Barbara Erwine

A traveler gets up close and personal with her cheese

Ankle deep in manure, I survey the surrounding hillside dotted with upwards of 60 cows.  I’ve never been good at crowd estimates, let alone the bovine variety, but we humans are outnumbered at least seven to one today.  I scan the scene trying to identify the one renegade cow that doesn’t belong here. She had bolted from the farm just after birthing a dead calf a day before we arrived.  Klaus says she’s grieving, but none of the broad flat faces that surround me show any telltale signs of motherly distress.  She has a name; but I’m not especially good at names either, so I’ll call her Else, because that’s as fair a name as any for a cow on these lush Alsace hillsides. Else took cover amongst the heaving flanks of this neighboring herd; and we’re a posse of eight come to reclaim her.

This, I should pause to acknowledge, is not the daily routine of city-slicker Seattleites like Paul and I and our 13-year old daughter, Annie. “We are having a family farming adventure,” I remind myself as brown gunk oozes up around our boots. I keep a motherly eye on Annie’s bandana as it bobs up and down like a small red beach ball bouncing off the backs of the disorderly herd.  The brooding cows eye us suspiciously, tossing their horns in the air.  My second-grade art teacher assured me that only steers had horns, but this trip has brutally undermined other childhood life-facts that heretofore provided a false sense of security in my life.  The horns add a bit of an edge to this adventure – maybe not on the scale of running the bulls at Pamplona, but definitely an adrenaline step up from herding goats into the milking pen.

The farm we’re calling home for this week is a 100 acre French dairy farm, the legacy of a dedicated group of young intellectuals who poured their sweat into its grey stone farm yard and gentle pastures as the 1970s slid toward the 80s down the gentle hillsides of this French-German border. Over the following decades, they built a milking herd of 20 cows, and 120 goats and sheep and set up a traditional small-scale yogurt and cheese dairy farm. I too can recall youthful dreams of moving back to the land on a farming collective. Yet not nearly so brave or committed to this alternative future,  I softened to the pull of a dependable job, a predictable paycheck.  But the passionate farmers we’re visiting here held true to their vision, living out the dream of locally produced milk, cheese, and yogurt, from cows and goats they know by name.

Idealists like these are becoming an endangered species in the increasingly corporate activity of serving up food to the world’s tables.  In the western world, the loss of small dairy farms is epidemic as large scale concentrated animal feeding operations, “CAFOs” as they’re known in the trade, have come to dominate the animal farming industry.  And though family farms and cooperatives remain relatively strong on the Western European farming scene, in France the number of dairy farms plummeted from 1678 in 1988 to only 752 in 2000, a reduction of over half.  This isn’t just a sentimental loss of the picture-book barnyard. It’s the demise of the heritage of unique local products made with care by people who are true stewards of the land.   Dozens of traditional varieties of French cheese have vanished over the past 30 years as small producers die out or are bought up. In addition, the small dairy farms clinging to the hill and mountain areas – regions known as “marginal” in the agricultural world – perform key roles in guarding the land, protecting biodiversity. The farmers who choose to stay in these difficult areas play a vital agroecological role by reducing the environmental impacts of food transportation and ensuring consumers fresh, seasonal local products. But scale, subsidies and the modern structure of the agricultural market all favor factory mega farms which, in pursuit of efficiency and profit, sacrifice the intimate connection between humans and the animals that feed us.

Even in our few days here on the farm, I’ve come to appreciate this fragile intimacy as I find myself face to udder with a cow on my first day of milking.  Following the brief milking demonstration we received on our first morning in the barn, I lean into the cow’s body to calm her, applying a steady pressure with my shoulder against her flank. The earthy smell of her warm soft flesh brings up memories of my grandmother’s basement – dirt-floored with last fall’s apples rotting in wicker baskets.  It’s sensual with a tinge of sadness, visceral and primal. As I start to massage each teat to let down the milk, the act feels almost obscene.  I involuntarily pull back like I would from an adult video storefront display – just slightly, but enough for the cow to sense and she shuffles a restless complaint. I lean firmly again, fumbling for her teats, the cold steel of the milking suction tubes in my left hand. These simple gestures initiate a familiar ritual that will start the milk flowing, a process ultimately leading to a quart of milk, a pint of yogurt, or a round of Le Gros Lorrain cheese offered for sale in a local market to a neighbor who got up at dawn to meet the cheese cart.

Much as this intimacy enriches the soul, it’s hard to ignore the exhausting work and low pay.  The ability to transform into a wide range of nutritious, gourmet products has earned milk the moniker of “white gold” but little of that gold flows to the farmer.  Consisting primarily of water, milk is a bulky, heavy commodity – made daily, spoiling quickly, and requiring constant hard work.  Farmhands here have come and gone as their hopes and disappointments wrestle with each other over the dawn-to-dusk hours, but a small core has remained.  Among them is Klaus, the lanky, grizzly-haired manager of this herd and our leader in Else’s rescue efforts.  Klaus is quiet at his work, outspoken in his pacifist politics.  Surrogate father to the cows of this herd, he weaned each of them from the teat to the bottle, knows which of them will stray, which will be slow to pasture.  His work is sometimes attended by visitors like us and other young wandering disciples who attach themselves to the farm for a few months that may linger into years until greener grass draws them onward.  A couple of these enthusiastic young cowhands have joined us now in our pursuit of Else.

Our job today carries a tinge of urgency. Else’s disappearance means that she hasn’t been milked for several days and if that goes on too long, it’s an effective death sentence.  If she’s not milked within the next 3-5 days, her milk glands will shut down, and the milk will absorb back into her body.  There’s a name on the farm for cows that that are no longer milkers – hamburger, flank steak, brisket. Else’s disappearance puts her one step forward on a conveyor belt to the slaughterhouse. Her life is in our hands.

So we’re all a bit on edge as Klaus lays out his plan.  He fans us out in a line across the hill – a muddy square the size of a baseball diamond tipped at a 30 degree angle.  At the bottom, lies a V-shaped fence of logs, a crude trap Klaus has constructed. Our goal is to funnel her in through the open end toward the closed point, where Klaus can lasso her and lead her home. I am anticipating the full cowboy performance with a slow undulating movement of the lasso that culminates with a graceful circle of rope suspended in mid air.  But instead I’m surprised to see Klaus pulling out some coat hanger wire and winding it around and through the rope.  The rope, as it turns out, is not stiff enough. So, like many things here at the farm, it’s improvised with a coat hanger, and I’m half-way expecting some duct tape to emerge.  This apparently is a low budget version of the cowboy scene.

To get Else moving, each of us is also equipped with a 12-foot section of rope to swing in the air, making us appear a bit more intimidating to these mammoths who both outnumber and outweigh us. Klaus whistles, signaling us all to start slogging down the hill toward the wayward Else. We’re yelling and twirling our ropes vigorously, letting the other cows pass between us, but keeping the heat on Else as she edges nervously away.  It’s working. Grumbling, she saunters toward the open funnel of the trap. I flash Paul a thumbs-up as we force her toward the closed tip, where Klaus hovers in lasso position.  Else pauses nonchalantly to nuzzle a tuft of grass at her feet.

Abruptly, Klaus takes a mighty swing and heaves an arc of rope into the heavens.  The surge of rope silhouettes a wobbly circle in the grey sky. My hopes rise and then fall with the rope as it collapses mid-air, missing Else’s head and dropping in tangles at her side.  Now she’s nervous. Klaus reels in the rope and tries again.  This time it briefly catches one of her horns, but shakes loose again as Else jerks her head and bolts out of the trap in angry protest.  Apparently cows can move quickly when they want to. I hadn’t imagined that, with all that bulk balanced over those skinny legs.  We’re all now on the run up the hill, away from her tossing horns.  All of us, that is, except one defiant young man directly in her path who decides to stand her down.  At first I’m impressed at his bravery, but he’s one of the volunteer twenty-somethings and has no idea what he’s doing.  Else hurtles straight on and he dives out of the way into a particularly muddy somersault right at the last minute.

Else charges on up the hill as a Red Sea of cows and cowhands parts before her.  Crashing through a fence at the crest of the hill, she heads for the rural neighborhood of houses above, with Klaus in hot pursuit.  He sputters something in French, then switches to English just in time to direct me to bring the car, and we trail her a half-mile up the road until she disappears – yes, just disappears.  Where can a cow that tops a half-ton hide in this genteel French countryside? I flash on the Gary Larson cartoon where the standing cow hides behind the tree, gut bulging out in front, tail behind.  We are in the cartoon; but the joke is on us, there’s no Else to be seen.  We huddle up around Klaus, all shouting, scanning the horizon and offering up suggestions.

We divide up into teams and wander the neighborhood for almost an hour with no sign of Else. Regrouping, we admit defeat, and straggle back to the farm. Muddy and sweaty, I opt for the back seat of the car with Annie on my lap.  We all sense Klaus’s distress as he absentmindedly meanders the car down the road mourning his loss in a slow litany of French,“La vache, la vache, pauvre la vache.”  By the time we arrive back at the farm the rest of the posse has already sprawled out around the big kitchen table. Nobody has energy to cook, but a bottle of ruddy red wine is making its slow journey around the circle, softening the disappointment. We’ve only been here a few days, but I feel the loss on a personal level.

Although the work is hard and I fall asleep at night with sore arms, the sickly sweet smell of sour milk in my hair, I’ve come to treasure this experience of personally knowing the cows that provide our breakfast yogurt, our evening cheese. Sitting here across the table from Klaus, I realize just how far our Seattle life has taken us from these roots of our food. The farmers who have invited us into their home live this entire connection – field to cow, to milk, to curd, to aging shed, to truck, to market, to a smile of appreciation from a long-time customer.  This is food the way it used to be – slow food – up close and personal. In this simple, yet complex farm community, work and life, cows and people, buildings and landscapes commingle and feed each other so seamlessly.

These are the small comforts and dramas that accompany this time-honored lifestyle.  Perhaps in time the slow food movement will awaken enough of us to sustain this essential connection between the land, the farmer’s knowing hand and the health of us all.  Perhaps tomorrow someone will call to say they’ve spotted a wayward cow – is she ours?  Perhaps in both cases it will not be too late.


Barbara is a writer, mother, architect, wife, sustainability consultant and wanderer on this planet (the order of identity varies from hour to hour). For 11 months from 2002-2003, Barbara traveled around the world with her husband and 13-year old daughter. When they set out to see the world, they did so not merely to see the things of the world, but to get to know her people, to see how they live, to try to understand their hopes, dreams and struggles. They stayed in neither Hiltons nor youth hostels, but lived, as much as possible, in people’s homes, eating together, cooking together, playing with their children, meeting their relatives, working in their fields, and praying at their altars. This story is a gift from these travels.

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