Originally published January 27, 2015
© R. L. Whitney
Our morning and evening trips to the barn to milk the cow began at the same time that our older children began their new school experience by riding the bus.
We had stayed on the farm for the summer the year before, but this fall we were looking forward to a whole year’s experience. During that first summer we had fixed up a pen at the back of the old chicken house and bought a small flock of Rhode Island Red chickens from the Co-op sale barn, our first exploration into the animal world aside from various dogs and cats and tropical fish.
The chickens fascinated us. We used to go up to the pen from time to time just to watch the biddies as they went about the business of their busy lives. At the end of that summer, since we could not take them back to Toronto with us, we gave them to our friends whose move from Ontario to the farm on the Parleeville Road had sparked our own move down here.
The next winter, back in Toronto, I joined a group from our Church who were exploring - as a Lenten exercise about food - the demands North America made on the world food supply, to the detriment of ordinary people in other parts of the world. We seemed to learn a lot of facts and figures about the situation but as time went by it occurred to me that we were well-informed, but that was where the discussion ended. We never quite got to ways we as individuals could lessen the imbalance. Fresh back from our experience with our little flock of hens and the fresh eggs we had enjoyed, I pointed out that we could all make a beginning by keeping a chicken or two.
Waxing enthusiastic I pointed out that not only could the hen provide really fresh eggs for the delight of the family, they would also be free to pick up bugs and slugs that would otherwise be a problem for gardeners. Thinking of our attempt to grow a small vegetable garden in our Toronto back yard, an attempt that had produced carrots that had completely failed to grow longer than an inch, I pointed out that the manure the chickens would also provide could be used to increase the fertility of the soil in a small garden and give us healthy vegetables that had not been grown on land owned by large businesses who had pushed the small landholders off their property in order to sell to our markets.
The response did not quite match my expectations. As the returns came in certain words kept recurring, like “dirty,” “smelly,” “noisy.” Some who went as far as to say that the idea was OK, were also clear that the neighbours would not agree. The evening ended with a general conversation which steered quite clear of any idea of chickens in the backyard. I don’t remember that we got any further with the Lenten study beyond the studying. It did seem clear to me that North Toronto where we lived might not be the best place to be if we wished to take a personal initiative for our health and for the good of others beside ourselves.
And so that summer we came to the farm, and, two months later, at the very beginning of the school year, we bought our first cow.
My maternal grandfather, on his Pennsylvania farmstead, had a herd of Aberdeen Angus, with the bull penned in a small corral built of heavy dry-stone walls. I still remember the chill that pen and its black denizen gave me as a young child. That was as close to cattle as I had come. The elderly Jersey cow who came to live with us, a lovely Jersey with a sense of humour as we were to find out, reset all my early views of cows - and the “bull in a bowler” (the British name for the artificial insemination wizard) eliminated the need for the bull.
I’m not sure whether we ever considered taking our Jersey cow, Brownie, back to Toronto at the end of the year, or what sort of impression we would have made if we invited the neighbours to the backyard to see the steps we were taking towards food self-sufficiency. As it turned out, our Brownie never had to consider moving. We moved instead. And each of us learned to milk a cow - by hand.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.