A number of years ago I worked on a project in northern Uganda helping to resettle rural villages after 30 years of a brutal civil war. During that time, most of the residents were forced into UN camps but as the conflict receded, it had now become safe enough for them to return to their villages. But after nearly two generations spent in the camps, largely reliant on a network of foreign aid, the villagers had lost most of their ways of knowing. As they put the pieces of their lives back together, everything had to be re-learned, from tribal practices to cultural traditions that had been handed down for thousands of years.
One of the first things we focused on was agriculture and returning the fields around the villages – which had been fallow for two decades, back to cultivation. We provided three oxen to be shared among the twenty or so families in the village and when we visited just after planting season, we saw the effect had been immediate. Where there had been nothing but brown earth just three months before there were now acres of young cassava and sorghum shoots carpeting the fields.
We sat under an acacia tree and talked about what it meant to return to farming after so long an absence. The oxen stood a few feet away, swatting insects in the heat. Through our translator I listened to how these animals had done much to help cultivate the fields but more importantly, they had brought the village together. It turned out that sharing them, coordinating schedules and security, fostered a collaboration we hadn’t predicted. Despite the translator, the dialect was still hard to follow, choppy but this I did understand: near the end of our conversation one of the farmers pulled an ox towards him and planted a giant kiss on his nose.
I went on to learn that they each had names: Heaven, Earth and the lovely non-sequitur, Junior. On Saturday nights each got a serving of fruit, mostly mango or passion fruit because as the farmers said, they deserved a little treat at the end of their work week. Our small circle laughed and it was then I realized that these animals were far more than just beasts that helped pull a plow. They were family.
I heard much the same thing when I spoke to Kate Patenaude about her cows this past week. Kate is a third generation farmer, whose Vermont farm recently joined Stonyfield’s Direct Milk Supply Program. Since 2014 in addition to the milk we source from CROPP Cooperative, we have been buying milk from a network of local New England based organic dairy farms like the Patenaude’s. We provide them with the resources and customized technical assistance they need to grow their business and be sustainable operations with a total of $10,000 per farmer given in the first two years.
After decades of farming, the Patenaude’s had recently been leasing their land but with help from this program, last year, they decided to return to the tradition of farming. As Kate puts it, ‘farming is in our blood’, and it means a lot to her to be reconnected to the land and to produce food people love that takes so much effort and care. But her favorite part is the cows.
You can’t just want to be an organic dairy farmer to make money. Besides the fact that it’s hard work, and I mean really hard work, you have to love the animals. And it has to come from the heart.
– Kate Patenaude
So when the herd arrived last May without names, Kate set about assigning one to each. Her only rule was, they had to actually look like name they were given. To Kate, each cow has its own set of quirks and its very own personality, so it was easy for her to find 95 different ones. Dixie, her favorite, is the only Swiss but also, according to Kate, has a bit of an attitude, hence the name, and the reason why Kate likes her best.
Like the Patenaude’s, the cows are hard workers. Their typical day starts in the evening when they head out to pasture for a night of grazing. As Kate explains, in the summer heat, it’s cooler and more comfortable for them after the sun sets. At 4:30AM, they come back to the barn for milking, a bit of a rest, more milking and then back out to pasture.
And like those Ugandan oxen, they get lots of pats as well as the occasional kiss, (no mango or passion fruit, though) but maybe an extra big piece of clover instead! After all, they’re not just part of the business – they’re part of the family.
How do you buy dairy products that come from farms like the Patenaudes? Here are three things you can do if you want to purchase dairy from sustainably raised cows: