Cowgirl

Joann Grohman has published nine books and five thousand blog posts (so far) on the subject closest to her heart: her family cow.

By Joshua Bodwell
Photographed by Patryce Bąk

Eighty-five-year -old Joann Grohman steadies herself against a worn hutch in the rustic summer kitchen of her circa-1920 brick farmhouse in Carthage and tucks her stocking feet into dark green, knee-high muck boots. Lilacs brush the frame of the open door and rain taps the tops of eight plastic tubs labeled “whey” clustered on the massive granite step outside.

It is early on a Saturday morning, and Grohman is doing what she does every single morning at her sixty-five-acre Coburn Farm above a bend in the Webb River: heading out to the barn to milk the cow.

Having devoted more than half a century to embracing the value of growing your own organic food and the health benefits of raw milk, Grohman is an impassioned advocate for cow husbandry and the holistic benefits of daily milking. She is something of an anachronism: so old fashioned it’s progressive.

This month, Grohman celebrates a lifetime achievement of sorts as the Vermont-based publisher Chelsea Green releases her book, Keeping a Family Cow: The Complete Guide for Home-Scale, Holistic Dairy Producers, the revised and updated ninth-edition of a book Grohman first wrote and self-published in the basement of her farm nearly forty years ago. The nearly three-hundred-page book is both a practical how-to and an inspirational guide written by a woman who says she cannot imagine life today without her cow.

Thanks to the encouragement of Grohman’s son, Martin — one of her eight children, seventeen grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren — the octogenarian has also kept busy with another major writing project since 1998: a daily blog called the Heifer Diary. To put the significance of a fifteen-year-old blog in context, consider that the term “blog” wasn’t even coined until 1999. Yet Grohman merged the new technology of instant worldwide communication with two things as old as civilized man: animal husbandry and a diary.

The Heifer Diary keeps daily tabs on the weather, milk and egg production, family news, and local politics. What began as something Grohman believed family and friends would read has grown into an international community of cow enthusiasts. The blog is striking not simply for its longevity but for its consistency and good humor. “I want to encourage cow ownership,” says Grohman, “by demystifying the whole thing.”

 

Back on the farm this drizzly Saturday morning, Grohman — gray-haired and slightly bent from years of farm work — tugs a red four-wheeled farm cart slowly across her puddle-strewn dooryard. Inside the barn it is dark and cobwebbed. A loud chicken scurries past, trailed by squeaking chicks. Grohman parks the cart in the milking room and shuffles away. In some unseen corner of the barn a sheep bleats and a rooster crows. The air is ripe with sawdust and damp hay.

A stall door groans open in the distance, followed by the lazy clang of a cowbell and the soft thud of hoofed feet on worn floorboards. Fern, Grohman’s current long-eyelashed and doe-eyed Jersey cow, rounds the corner into the milking room and settles into her milking stanchion. “That’s a girl,” Grohman coos.Grohman sets a stool beside Fern and leans her shoulder gently against the cow’s flank in a way that appears both affectionate and practical. She takes one of Fern’s small teats between her thumb and two fingers, holds a chipped ceramic mug beneath it, and tugs with slow massaging strokes. “Oh, she’s letting down now,” Grohman exclaims and a spurt of milk splashes into the mug. She swallows the milk in a single gulp and nods, then turns and flips on the vacuum pump milking machine. As Grohman slips on the four teat cups, Fern stamps a rear hoof as the final cup finds its suction. “Ah, now,” she whispers, “shh, shh. . .” The pump clicks likes a metronome.

Two gallons later, the morning milking is done. Grohman pours the milk into a stainless steel container in the cart. She steps close to Fern’s head and leans toward her. It appears as though Grohman is going to kiss Fern on the nose. Instead, Grohman pauses just inches from Fern’s snout and blows. Fern gives a series of wet snorts. The pair looks one another in the eyes; the moment is slow and intimate, filled with a closeness that feels beyond animal and owner.“Well, now,” says Grohman, “if I had any sort of cold or flu incubating in me, Fern’s next milking would provide me with the antibodies to fend it off. That’s why I’m never sick!”

When asked why in 1952, at the age of twenty-four, Grohman threw herself into the intense study of nutrition, organic gardening, and farming — even studying animal husbandry and animal science at the University of California, Davis — she smiles again. “Now that’s a good question,” she says, her eyes brightening, though her eyesight has begun failing her in recent years. The answer, Grohman says, is simple: “I started having kids!”

Grohman was born in Rumford in 1928, just a few miles from where she lives today. Thrice married, she has lived in California and Hawaii (where she studied oil painting at the University of Hawaii), as well as a 1970s stint in Sussex, England, where she owned and operated a sixty-cow dairy farm.In 1976, Grohman shipped her beloved bright red, cast-iron Aga cooker from England to Maine and settled at Coburn Farm in Carthage. That same year, working with printing presses and bindery equipment in the farm’s basement, Grohman produced the book that has become, in some ways, her life’s work. Originally self-published with the title The Cow Economy, the New York publisher Scribner’s later published the book in hardcover as Keeping a Family Cow. After a hardcover and paperback edition went out of print, Grohman returned to self-publishing revised editions of the book every few years.The new ninth edition of Keeping a Family Cow released this month serves as a resource for both novices and current cow owners. Grohman explores basic questions like, “Should I get a cow?” and “How much space do I need?”, and weighs in on the debates surrounding raw milk and A1 vs. A2 milk, and offers advice on everyday chores and cow emergencies.

After pulling the milk-laden farm cart back across her dooryard, Grohman pours the raw milk through a strainer and into large glass jars with peeling labels that belie their previous lives as vessels of kosher dill pickles. “Fern’s production dropped over the winter,” says Grohman, “but with the green grass, she’s back up to two gallons.”

In her cluttered kitchen — every counter surface is covered and every shelf stuffed to brimming with the implements of homestead living — Grohman warms coffee on the Aga stove. With a swift flick of her wrist, she cracks a few eggs she gathered from the barn into a cast-iron skillet; her home-cured bacon sizzles in the same pan.

Grohman sits down at the kitchen table with her eggs, bacon, and a slab of sourdough; a bright square of home-churned butter rests at the center of the table beneath a glass dome flanked by purple cow salt and pepper shakers. “People say cows tie you down,” opines Grohman, slathering her toast with a thick, amber coat of raw honey from her sister’s beehives. “But, actually, I don’t ever feel tied down. I hate leaving my cow,” she laughs. “I stay home with my cow. She centers my life somehow. She brings the focus back home.”

In a moment, Grohman will stack the dirty dishes in the sink and settle down at the computer in her small office. She will tap out her nearly 5,500th blog entry in the Heifer Diary. The entire morning will be there in her plain-spoken prose: the rain, Fern’s two gallons, the egg count — maybe even the smell of lilacs blooming in the dooryard will be there and how they made this morning, like every morning Joann Grohman milks her cow, special in some small way.

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. As a journalist, his work has garnered awards from the Maine and New England press associations. Bodwell’s short story, “What Is Stolen Can Never Be Returned,” appears in the current issue of Slice Magazine.

The Cow, Premier Dairy Choice
By Joann S. Grohman

The cow is the premier dairy animal because of her cooperative temperament, the comparative ease with which she can be milked, the volume she is able to produce, and the versatility of her milk. The cream is easily skimmed and made into much-prized butter in cold climates and ghee in hot climates. (Ghee is butter that has been heated and strained.)

The cow is a primary producer of wealth. She can support a family. She not only turns grass into milk in quantities sufficient to feed a family, but also provides extra to sell and contributes a yearly calf to rear or fatten. The by-products from making cheese (whey) and butter (buttermilk) will support a pig or two. Her manure improves her pasture and when dug into the garden results in plant growth unsurpassed by other growth mediums. The family that takes good care of its cow is well off.

Cattle are the original stock in “stock market.” Ownership of cattle has always been a marker of wealth. This is not just because the cow is a primary producer of wealth, adding enormous value to grass. In a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” sort of way, it’s also because only families possessed of a hardworking, cooperative spirit are able to keep a cow, let alone build a herd. Cows require humans for their survival.

Other domestic animals can revert to a wild (feral) state with predictable success. Put hogs in the woods and they hardly look back. They won’t get fat, but they will immediately form a breeding population. So will horses on the plains. Many breeds of sheep can establish themselves in hill country. Goats are well known for this aptitude (so long as they are not too far from the sea; they have a high iodine requirement).

So Huckleberry Finn’s Pap might have had a pig or goat he could turn loose and still call his own, but a cow requires consistent responsible care. If she doesn’t get it, she won’t give milk and she won’t start a new calf and she won’t live through much cold or drought. Farmers in the north put up hay for the winter. African herdsmen walk their cattle to water and defend them against lions. Even the great beef herds of South America and the American West have been dependent on humans to arrange things for their benefit; the wolves and mountain lions didn’t disappear by accident. But this story is about the dairy cow.

The dairy cow doesn’t ask for much, but she asks every day. People who are creating wealth with a cow either are hardworking and reliable or get that way in a hurry. This is the way it has been for a very long time. The fine farms of Europe, England, New England, and much of the rest of the United States were all established thanks to the wealth derived from cows. Wherever there is, or used to be, a big barn, it was likely built to store winter hay for the cows that once dotted the pastures. The need to milk the cow twice a day determined the location of many a church; people had to be able to walk there and back without disruption to the schedules of cows. Formerly, every district in Europe, England, and the eastern United States had a corn mill situated so that a farmer driving a horse and wagon could deliver his load and get home in time for milking. It is certainly no coincidence that such a large number of our finest statesmen were born on farms. Important virtues are nurtured on the farm, including a graphic understanding of the relationship between working and eating. Over my farming life I have bred and raised all of the traditional farm animals, and I love them all. But through association with the dairy cow I have come to understand and accept the words of that great nineteenth-century agricultural essayist William Cobbett: “When you have the cow, you have it all.”

Excerpted from Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont;  262 pages; $19.95).

 

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Bodwell’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ambit, Poets & Writers, Threepenny Review, and Slice magazine.

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