Growing up, my siblings and I consumed generic canned vegetables and rehydrated milk while my father and mother scraped to put food on the table. I bear my parents no resentment for our culinary poverty. My father being a pastor, they did not have much money, and cheap food seemed a blessing at the time. In the 1980s, Wendell Berry’s dictum that “eating is an agricultural act”1 simply had not yet reached the dinner plates of Evangelical Presbyterians like us, and so we did not have a garden. I could not have said where squash or tomatoes come from, nor did I wonder. Food was fuel. The cheaper, the better.
Ten years after graduating college and a world away from my upbringing, I find myself in the little town of Piermont, New Hampshire, bracing a U-shaped calf-jack on the hindquarters of a Holstein named Wynette. The calf is in breech, and Lee is worried.2 Two of its hooves stick out of the birth canal while its mother sways with exhaustion. She has been in labor all day, and would prefer to lie down. But for the well-being of her baby, Lee keeps her upright and attaches two chains to the calf’s feet.
By this point in my life I have nearly a decade of agricultural experience under my belt. I have learned to cultivate beans, corn, apples, blueberries, broccoli, turnips, potatoes, peppers, and numerous other vegetables, fruits, and grains. But this summer is different. I am at Lee’s farm on the banks of the Connecticut River to learn about the dairy business. My job is to hold the jack steady while Lee works the lever back and forth to winch the calf free. I am determined to perform well – a life, and a livelihood, hang in the balance. So does my pride.
Wynette feels the calf moving within her and begins to push. Without warning, a stream of manure shoots into the crisp June air. It seems to hang in space for a split second and then lands squarely on my forehead, spattering into my hair, my eyes and mouth, filling my ears and nose. I am spitting and coughing as it runs down my neck. The calf is moving; Lee is cheering. Braced firmly against the jack, eyes squeezed shut like a proselyte going under in the baptismal font, I refuse to abandon my post. The stream becomes a river, and I am soon immersed.
A few minutes later, Lee drags the newborn animal across the barn floor and lifts it over a metal rail, face down, so that the amniotic fluid can drain from its nostrils and mouth – a real problem for breech birth calves, one that could easily lead to pneumonia and death if we are not careful. Wiping my glasses, I blink and try to get my bearings. Satisfied that both animals are now clear of immediate danger, Lee makes no effort to conceal his amusement at my condition. At church tomorrow he will have a rapturous tale to tell about the city slicker who thought he knew a little something about farming. “Well,” he asks, grinning from ear to ear, “what will you name him?” I am conferred this honor since it is the first animal born under my care. “Carpaccio,” I reply. “That was some raw beef.”
- Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Counterpoint, 2002), 321.
- Personal names and descriptions are used with permission.
- Norman Wirzba, “Placing the Soul: An Agrarian Philosophical Principle,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land, ed. Norman Wirzba (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 80–86.
- Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 81. Davis cites Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House, 1994), 385.
- All Old Testament translations and emphases are the author’s.
- For a comprehensive analysis of the history of dairy farming in New England, see Kirk Kardashian, Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012).