I think I might need a new category soon for my efforts at learning about farming. Right now I’m putting them in “Practical Tools for the Mythopoeic Innkeeper” — inasmuch as such an Innkeeper had better know how to make jam and bread and beer, the quality of fresh vegetables and all sorts of handy techniques — but I’m not sure if learning how to milk sheep really is a publican’s task. (A family cow, possibly.)
Though now I think of it that would probably be a quite entertaining story to write, about the innkeeper who is also a farmer. Or, more likely in this day and age, the farmer who is also an innkeeper. Farming is not a greatly remunerative profession, for a wide variety of reasons that miss the central point that farmers are the first layer of all the superstructure of civilisation. I came across a book recently talking about the thousand-year shape of ancient civilisations and its connection to the exhaustion of the land’s resources and, therefore, the eventual death of farming. Our civilisation is only about five hundred years old, probably, if we count from the Renaissance (a topic I will return to — I am in the process of reading about 16th C Europe), but then again we’ve also found all sorts of new and inventive ways to exhaust the land. Also, to give justice to the Green Revolution, to produce more from it; but I wonder if, like cheap energy, those days are now passing.
I knew theoretically that most farmers today have other jobs to keep things going, but I didn’t really feel it until I went to a PEI farm on the July long weekend to learn how to milk sheep. Margaret and Alister, the owners, go to the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market on Saturdays (and also Wednesdays in the summer) and run a cheese stall — they don’t make the cheese themselves, but purvey it — as well as selling some produce of their own. I don’t know the methods by which they sell lambs, but it’s not through the Farmers’ Market. I hadn’t realised they sold milk, either, but discovered that they do, to a cheesemaker in New Brunswick (whose cheese they do sell, so it comes back to them transformed).
Last Saturday they were teasing my dad about coming to help milk or weed, and I asked them if I could come learn. They agreed, so on Monday afternoon we drove out to their farm. They have about two hundred sheep, bred at different times so that the ewes bear lambs at different rates (so as not to have a glut in the market, I understand); they had about fifty still in milk right now. These were milked in lots of eight, using three milking machines. Usually Margaret will do three and Alister five, because Margaret is responsible for any minor veterinary tasks that need to be done; I attempted to do the middle two but didn’t always quite manage to finish in time.
The sheep were already in pens when we arrived, ready for the evening milking. Margaret and Alister showed me the milking stand, which was built in what had once been a cow byre. The sheep went up a ramp around two sides of the room to a platform that put their udders just around chest level, optimum height for reaching up with the milkers. A waist-high partition separated us from the sheep ramp. The platform had stanchions on the other side: the sheep put their heads through keyhole-shaped slots for sweet feed on the other side.
Margaret let the sheep down, they ran up the ramp, along the platform, heads into the stanchions. On the other side of that wall, Alister let down the bar that yoked them into the stanchions. Then he and Margaret came round to the back.
First we washed the teats with a disinfectant, then we dried them, in both cases using fresh paper towels. Then came the slightly complicated task of getting the milking tubes onto the teats. This requires dexterity more than anything, turning on the vacuum, getting first the right and then the left teat into the tubes (sheep have two teats, like goats), making sure the milk comes out. While the first one starts, you wash and dry the next ewe’s teats. Then you massage the udder, for the milk pools in different places and you need to make sure it all gets out. After all the milk is out, you turn off the vacuum, take off the tubes, spray another sort of disinfectant on the teats, and then on to the next.
It really amazed me how different each of the udders were. Some low and very full, others higher, some lopsided, some spotted, some all one colour. Teats sticking out at different angles. One scarred from an old wound; some, as Alister said, ‘meaty’ in texture, so it was hard for me to feel whether there was still milk inside or just the nature of that ewe’s udders.
As I said, I didn’t always manage to do even two in the time it took Margaret and Alister to do six. A couple I found hard to get the tubes on; more often, it was just being tentative in massaging the udders, or being unsure of whether all the milk had come out. I enjoyed it very much, though, the smell of the wool, the sound of the milk whishing out, the whole concept of the vacuum system.
Afterwards Alister showed me how they cool the milk, strain it, clean the equipment, freeze it for the cheesesmakers in New Brunswick. Something they do twice a day, every day, holiday Mondays or not. Together with the rest of their farmwork, with the rest of their other work, with the rest of their lives.
They kindly said it didn’t take them very much longer with my ‘help’ — and I think they meant it — I am very grateful for them letting me learn the basics. If it had been milking by hand I’d probably still be there.