I didn’t know it at the time, but the columns of grey smoke I saw in the distance, beyond acres of corn and soy fields, was the first clue we had arrived in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. The next clue was a man riding an adult-sized scooter on the side of the quiet country road. He was dressed in the tell-tale suspendered pants over a loose-fitting shirt that I’ve seen before. Then we finally spotted our first horse-drawn buggy, holding up a line of cars.
When we pulled into the driveway of the farm around 4:30 that Saturday, no one paid us much attention. A young, barefoot woman wearing a bonnet and handmade dress cleared debris off of the dirt entry road while her brother backed up a tractor. I stepped out of the car and asked where they’d like me to park. They merely shrugged their shoulders and motioned as if to say, “wherever you’d like, I suppose.”
I got out of the car. The 6-8 people we saw just scattered around the farm continued about their business, like worker bees. I finally followed one into a barn and asked if Joe or Barbie was around. “You mean Mom Barbie, I guess?” she asked, alluding to the fact that one of Joe and Barbie’s 11 children is also named Barbie. “Unfortunately Mom’s dad got really ill so Mom and Dad went to visit them, but they’ll be back soon.” I asked if we could help while we waited, since they all seemed to be working so hard. “No, but feel free to wander around the farm,” she said, with an amused smile. I suppose we didn’t look like the working type.
Our toddler had a look of wonder on his face as he took it all in. An energetic little pug dog came up and nearly knocked him over with excitement. Then a barefoot but handsomely dressed boy of the same age came over to check him out. The boy giggled, turned around and ran away. After looking stunned for a few seconds, our son finally decided to chase him onto a well-maintained lawn in front of the house, where they rolled around together.
I was checking out the farm, which had at least 5 different buildings on the property – the house, a large barn, and 3 other buildings. I thought I’d start by touring the pasture, but the entrance looked very muddy and the cows were a long distance away. These cows were on a much bigger pasture than I had expected. That explained why the vegetation was still so thick and lush compared to other pastures I’ve seen. I had tasted the milk from these cows before and thought that must be why it’s so much richer and tastier than any other milk I’ve ever had, including the milk for sale at my local farmers market.
The calf pen was nearby. They were so cute!! I decided to sneak in and pet those long-legged, doe-eyed beauties. I lifted the loosely draped, surprisingly thin rope fencing to duck underneath when suddenly I realized something was wrong – I was being electrocuted! Yep – electric fencing. Oops.
As I walked away, feeling my body hairs still standing on end, I noticed something burning. There was a fire pit in the ground. One of the women casually tossed something into the pit as she walked off. It produced the same dark smoke that we saw in the distance as we drove in. It seemed to be the way the Amish dispose of their trash. Was trash service so expensive for them? Or was it just part of their culture? A desire to be totally “off the grid” and self-sufficient?
Adjacent to the cow pasture was another fenced area housing horses. A mare nursed her foal. These horses were workers. They helped on the field and pulled the buggies on the road.
Just in front of the horses, in the unfenced open area where we stood, were napping two sheep – one black and one white, positioned like yin and yang. They were in the non-fenced part of the farm, along with the ducks, chickens and dogs who had free run of the place. I wondered if they were pets or if they worked, producing milk, for instance. I suppose it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Perhaps I’m just conditioned by the rules that society has taught me – that pets are purely for play and enjoyment and that one should not try to bond with food-producing animals. Why is that? We went over to lie down next to the sheep. They seemed to love the attention. My son and I enjoyed rubbing their velvety ears. The two pugs, starved for attention, joined us in a cozy pile-up.
One of Joe’s daughters, possibly the mother of the toddler boy, was leading a horse from the farm entrance to the gate of the pasture. That’s when I realized that Joe and Barbie had arrived, so I walked over to greet them. They were very apologetic for not being there when we arrived. They would also have to cancel dinner, they explained, because Barbie’s father was seriously ill and probably didn’t have much longer to live. “In our community, we take care of our parents and in times like this, a member of the family is always by their side,” Joe explained, possibly alluding to the troubled relationship he knew that I had with my own parents, who I haven’t spoken to in years.
Joe noticed me checking out the buggy and walked over to give me the grand tour. He pointed out the nicely carpeted floor, which I thought was very clean, given the dirty feet I saw running around. He then proudly showed off the blinkers to signal turns. “Hmmm, battery-powered…don’t the Amish try to avoid technology and electronics when possible?” I asked. Joe seemed a little defensive. Kind of like the time I expressed surprise that he owned a copier. He was actually rather proud of the technology he did own, which included a telephone. I wondered where he drew the line. Then he began to sound like a grandpa, complaining about the young kids today who run around with their heads buried in their cell phones, communicating only by text, totally unaware of their surroundings. I was impressed he knew about texting. Apparently the Amish community isn’t totally free of this problem.
We started our tour with the barn. One of the sons was sweeping the last remnants of manure into a wide gutter while someone else hosed everything down. It looked and smelled very clean to me. Joe said that the cows each have their own slot in the barn. Sometimes when one cow tries to go into another’s slot, there’s a scuffle.
The adjoining milk room was next. It was about the size of a bedroom in my house. In the middle of the room was a square-shaped refrigerated milk tank, maybe 4′ x 5′. Joe opened the lid the same way you’d open a chest freezer so that I could see the inside. It was nearly empty. There was a nozzle on the bottom of the tank for filling cartons.
Along the wall were lined up several ~10-gallon metal milk cans. Above them on the wall hung four “bucket milkers.” They were surprisingly similar to the portable breast pump that I used when I was nursing my son, only much bigger, of course, and with 4 long suction cups for the cow’s teats. Silicone tubing connects the cups to a vacuum pump, which the farm powers with propane tanks, just like the ones you get for your gas grill.
Nearby was a big, round pot that probably held 7-10 gallons of milk. It had the familiar milk skin on top that forms when you cook milk. Joe’s son Daniel came in and gave it a quick stir. He was making yogurt. I was struck by Daniel’s light blue eyes, which he clearly inherited from Barbie, a strikingly beautiful woman in her own right. Both their eyes reminded me a bit of the famous Afghan girl from the cover of National Geographic.
Joe was very proud of the milk his farm produces. Only some of the cows were lactating right now, he explained. “It takes 2 years for a Heifer to come of age. Then we breed her. After her calf weans, she produces milk for the farm for about 10 months. Then we give her a break and let her dry out. Then the cycle starts all over again. You see, factory farms don’t do this. They keep cows drugged up with artificial hormones so that they can be milked every day for the rest of their lives.”
Throughout the tour, I was worried about my son, running around the farm without me watching his every move, accompanied only by another toddler. I didn’t want Joe to know about my anxiety because I wanted to be more laid back like them. And I wanted my son to experience this freedom. But then I couldn’t help myself and I rushed out to check on him. He was having a blast, copying the little farm boy’s every move.
On the way out, I asked Joe why his daughters don’t wear shoes. “It helps build leather under their feet. It also saves us all a pair of shoes each year, which adds up.”
Barbie apologized again for not being able to make us dinner. She and Joe were going to head back to her Dad’s. She escorted us into the house so that we could use the bathroom. It was clean and well-maintained. The living room had no TV, of course, but did have 2-3 sewing machine tables around the perimeter. Barbie then loaded us up with homemade cheese, apples and potato chips cooked in lard. As we drove away, munching on these goodies, I thought about the hard work and sacrifices that every person and animal on the farm makes every day to produce this nutrient-dense food for families just like mine. Then I was saddened by the fact that so many farms like this one have been forced to shut down over the years. I vowed to do what I can to support more small-scale farmers.