Posted by: trevormeers | November 20, 2011

The Cheese Monologues, Part II

Thoughts from a tour of the Wisconsin dairyland.

Somehow, despite a life filled with various farm animals, I’ve never milked any cow other than a plastic one at the children’s museum with a rubber udder. Yet passing by a dairy farm still stirs some latent milk-parlor nostalgia buried deep inside.

Art of the bovine at a cafe in small-town Wisconsin.

On my cheese ramblings around Wisconsin, I spent some time with a thoroughly enjoyable author named Ed Janus, who has written a truly compelling history of Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Ed has a habit of leaning in close to listen as you ask him questions, then rearing back and gripping his chin in thought, as if you’ve cut to the very essence of humanity with your perceptive question. As Ed and I talked dairy, I mentioned my grandparents’ old dairy farm, sending him rearing back in thought. Then he suggested that I was the very embodiment of a trend he’d noticed among folks my age. It seems that Generation Xers who grew up in non-farming households are starting to embrace the agricultural roots of their grandparents, much like we latched onto the Greatest Generation back in the ‘90s when Saving Private Ryan showed us what veterans really went through to give us the fairly soft lives we enjoy.

I hope we grab a little farm perspective for ourselves and our kids before it’s too late. It seems like every kids’ book or video dealing with a trip to see grandparents shows the kids heading to a farm. The generation we’re raising right now probably finds it all a little foreign, since a book about visiting grandparents in their era would probably go more like this:

 “Look,” says Johnny. “We are almost to Grandma’s house! I can see the Olive Garden by her exit!”

“Yes,” says Mom. “The GPS says we will be there in 5 minutes and 8 seconds.”

  “I can not wait,” says Susie. “I am going to get up early and help Grandma gather the lattes from Starbucks!”

The kind of rig my grandparents used to fill their bulk tank with milk twice a day.

I was fortunate enough to have an honest-to-goodness, poo-on-your-boots farm to visit as a kid. My dads’ parents ran a dairy, and touring Wisconsin’s creameries and dairy farms brought back memories I hadn’t called up since Grandpa & Grandma sold the herd and started slowing down about 20 years ago.

The evening milking was always the showcase event, and in my memory, they only took place in winter. I’d head to a corner of the milking barn and sit down on a vinyl-covered chair that I think was borrowed from the local Wendy’s where my uncle worked. The Holsteins filed in from the dark, steam rising toward the bare lightbulbs as the cows dutifully put their heads into the stocks and waited for my grandparents to attach the rubber hoses of the milking machine to their udders. Their cloven hooves were huge and muddy, covered in the residue picked up as they waded through a soup of what we called “pucky water” to reach the ribbed concrete ramp leading into the barn.

As the cows filed in, I stayed tight in the corner. Since I was old enough to walk, I’d been drilled in the knowledge that cows kick. And they kick hard enough to kill little kids. The really ornery ones had to wear kickers, which were metal clips connected by a chain designed to limit the nastiest kick to a few inches. Even when the kickers were simply hanging on the barn wall in mid-afternoon, I avoided them like the muzzle of a shotgun.

Grandpa's twine ball didn't quite match this Minnesota behemoth, but it seemed plenty big when I was 8.

With everything in place, Grandpa or Grandma would flick a switch to fire up the compressor that powered the milkers. Soon the barn filled with the whir of the compressor, the hiss of nozzles on udders and the distant crunching of Holsteins eating enough grain to keep the whole cycle running.

In the way of all little boys turning cold and bored, I was prone to wandering off the vinyl chair a few minutes into the milking. One key attraction was Grandpa’s twine ball. For those who have never emptied a bag of feed, it is (or at least, used to be) a matter of pulling out a thin string sewn into the top of the paper bag. Over the years, Grandpa wrapped each day’s twine around a ball, until he soon had a sphere on its way to bowling-ball scale. I loved to toss the twine ball between my hands, fascinated in a way I couldn’t quite describe with how much of my grandfather’s life was represented in this wad of string.

The twine ball sat conveniently next to big barrels that held the feed once it came out of the bags. These bins were ideal for jamming your hands into, driving them down and down among the feed pellets until you were up to your shoulders in the stuff. It smelled like a mix of vitamins and alfalfa, and when you yanked your hands back out, you’d have little bits of feed stuck in the webs between your fingers. A couple of times, I licked my fingers to try the flavor, and I soon decided that I was clearly a molasses feed man.

Memories made here: The mixed scent of fresh milk and bleach at a Wisconsin creamery.

In Wisconsin, the trigger for most of these memories was the scent of bleach. I recently heard a cheese expert say, “Making cheese is 90 percent sanitation.” And, indeed, a creamery’s concrete floor is almost guaranteed to be covered in a damp wash of water and bleach. Cheesemaking is a careful dance with the likes of bacteria and mold. You need some of them to make your product, but the wrong ones in the wrong places will get you shut down by the government.

My grandparents limited their dairy to producing milk, but that still required Pharasitical observance of hygiene. So the room holding the stainless-steel bulk tank was impeccably tidy and smelled forever of bleach. Thinking of that pristine chamber now makes me wish I could redecorate my kids’ rooms in concrete and steel and hand them stiff-bristled brushes to scrub it all down twice a day.

The dairy cycle wrapped up in the basement of the house, where Grandma had a little storefront for selling milk. As kids, we’d wait on the porch swing until a car came down the drive. Then we’d run through the storm door shouting, “Customers!” and hide behind the counter, staring at Grandma’s slacks and the old wallpaper covering the shelves while Grandma chatted about local news with whoever walked in. She sold the milk in glass gallon jars neatly sealed with squares of wax paper between the metal lid and jar. A collection of plastic cows sat around the room, including my favorite one, which was a brown bossie you could fill with milk and hold by the tail as you doused your cereal via a spout in the cow’s nose.

I don’t know if there’s a lot of money to be made in dairying these days. And I know that if you ask most dairy farmers about their most recent vacation, they’ll start talking about some great trip they took to Omaha or Kansas City back in the Reagan era. But I’m sure any dairyman or farmer will tell you that there’s a whole lot of profit in their work that no ledger can capture. And it’s some of that I’m looking for when I go back to the farm and spend a little time catching up with people whose hands are dry and cracked from a life baptized in bleach.


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