Life in the city wasn't working for us. The dream apartment we had searched months to find turned out to be next door to a group of heavy metal grunge rockers we soon got to know as the Subterraneans. All night the walls of our bedroom throbbed, not with the rhythms of our young marriage, but with the penetrating drone of electric bass.
Outside, the city was no more welcoming. The despair and impotence we felt over graffiti marred buildings and busses was compounded by gray winter rains and streets filled with the homeless.
When our car was broken into and ransacked for the third time, no one seemed to sympathize with our distress. It was the price of city living, we were told, one we could expect to pay regularly.
“I don't want to live like this,” Nina said as we waited for the smashed car window to be replaced. It was a sentiment I had heard from many friends who felt trapped in white collar jobs they didn't enjoy and upwardly mobile life styles they found unfulfilling.
“Well, what do you want?” I asked her.
She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes. “I don't know,” she said. Frustrated and angry, she swirled her arms around to indicate everything that surrounded us. The noise, the crime, the congestion and the grime. “I just know I don't want to live like this.”
That night the Subterraneans were particularly loud. Neither of us could fall asleep. We had pounded on the wall, rang their bell, left notes on their doorstep but all to no effect. “I can't stand this,” Nina said throwing back the covers. She stalked out of the room.
I heard the plink of the television going on followed by the rapid fire surfing of channels.
“C'mere,” she called.
“What is it?” I asked. She didn't answer but as I walked down the hallway I recognized the unmistakable Hungarian-Hollywood accent of one of the Gabor sisters. On television, Eva was modeling some new fashion for Eddie Arnold. “Oliver dahlink. Vhat do you zink?” she asked.
Nina pointed her finger at the television. “Green Acres!” she said. “That's where I want to be.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, half asleep. We were newlyweds, still able to perplex each other several times a day.
Nina shook her palms at me, frustrated that I didn't catch on right away. “Are you satisfied with how we're living?” she asked, her hands trembling. “Are you happy?”
It was too late to try to begin such an unsettling discussion. We had talked many times about leaving California, at least urban California, but we didn't know where to go. Or what work we would do. Both of us are city kids. Nina is a native San Franciscan. Trips to the country were strictly matters of passing through rural areas to get to a city on the other side. Yet the longer we were “home,” the more despondent we were about being here.
We knew others had abandoned the city for quiet towns in the Sierra foothills or in Oregon or Washington State. Our problem was that every place we considered seemed less appealing than the Bay Area. If we were unhappy here, we felt we'd only be miserable someplace else.
City life wasn't all bad. There were beautiful days when we visited museums and parks, went to concerts, or watched obscure movies and plays found only in the great cities. But more of our time was spent locking doors, stuck in traffic, walking defensively, battling neighbors for parking, avoiding eye contact with passers-by, and feeling angry over the lack of civility and common respect that seemed to define everyday encounters. Drop by drop, our excitement for city living was draining away.
Before our marriage, Nina had worked at a homeless social services agency for seven years. I'd worked as a consultant with dozens of non-profit organizations. We knew that we didn't have to give up on society, but we also knew the personal cost of actively working for its improvement. All we wanted was to spend our first year together building the bonds of our marriage, planning our future, and extending the honeymoon.
But in the city, the magic between us was dwindling. Each time we discussed starting a family one of us would ask, “Why would we want to bring up a kid here?” We could never find a satisfying answer.
Back on the tube Eddie Arnold was screwing up his face with his trademark “Oh come on” look over something Eva had just said. I gave Nina the same pained look, not knowing how to escape the urban trap that seemed to be shrinking around us.
“So what do you want to do?” I asked her. She bounced up and gave me a hug, all smiles. “Farm living is the life for me,” she sang out.
“But we don't know a thing about farming,” I said, trying to humor her.
“Didn't you tell me you were interested in agriculture as a kid?” Nina answered. Before I could say anything, she was leafing through my childhood scrapbooks.
“See, right here,” she said, jabbing her finger at a yellowing scrap of paper. “Occupational plan, first choice – Agriculture!” She was pointing to the Ohio Vocational Interest Survey I had taken as a ninth grader in 1971. “Ninety-fifth percentile,” Nina noted. “Don't you see? You were born to be a farmer.”
What my wife didn't know was when I took the test I was more interested in roto-tilling my parents' environmentally incorrect lawn than I was in planting anything.
Nina took my OVIS results as some type of genetic proof that I am a direct descendant of Mr. Green Jeans. “The reason you're unhappy is you've been denying your destiny,” she told me. Satisfied that she had found the answers to our urban woes, Nina began leafing through back issues of Martha Stewart Living, apparently to better prepare us for a life on the land.
I didn't think either one of us could survive in the country, that after a few days in a small town we'd be pining for the craziness of city living that we claimed had been driving us crazy. But Nina was insistent. She wanted to give farm living a try.
I called my friend Cynthia at the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento. The Farm Bureau represented 70,000 farmers and ranchers across the state. I figured one of them might be willing to help us out.
I explained to Cynthia that we felt increasingly alienated in the city and wanted to take care of someone's farm for a few days, maybe a week. “You want to take care of a farm?” she said.
“That's right,” I told her, nodding confidently to Nina. I felt like hooking my thumbs in my overalls except that I was still in my bathrobe at 11 AM.
“Well, I know someone who has an ant farm you could take care of,” she said before bursting out with a guffaw worthy of Mister Ed.
“No, I'm serious,” I told her. “We want to, you know, live on a farm for a few days and then be left in charge. So we can get an idea of what it would be like.”
Cynthia explained that no sane farmer would ever let two concrete pounders like us take over. Maybe she could help us find someone who might let us work on a farm for a few days.
“What kind of farm are you looking for?” she asked.
We hadn't thought that far yet. I put the phone down. “What kind of farm are we looking for?” I asked Nina.
We talked for a few minutes. We decided livestock was out. Although we're both meat eaters, we felt squeamish about raising crops we might have to kill. Fruits, vegetables and flowers seemed passive and boring. “I don't know,” I told Cynthia. “What do you recommend?”
“What about llamas?” she asked. “I know some llama farmers.” I relayed her suggestion to Nina.
“They spit, don't they?” Nina said.
“No llamas,” I told Cynthia.
“All right. How about ostriches? I know a pretty neat ostrich farmer who might let you help out.”
“How about ostriches?” I asked Nina. “No,” she said. “I had a bad experience once with a rooster.” I thought about this for a moment, then decided the rooster incident was something I didn't need to know more about.
“Poultry is out,” I told Cynthia.
“Well, there's sheep and goats,” she said.
“How about sheep or goats?” I asked Nina.
“You and sheep?” Nina said. “I don't think so. But goats, goats sound good.”
Cynthia gave me the numbers of a few members of the California Dairy Goat Association, a group I had not encountered in Safeway. I started calling around, explaining that we were a newlywed couple trying to get out of the city and that we wanted to help run a farm.
“You wanna do what?” they all said. “Let me get back to you.” Eventually I was referred to a place on the Santa Cruz coast.
“You want to work for me?” Nancy Gaffney of the Sea Stars Goat Cheese Farm asked. “For free?”
“Yes,” I told her. “We want to come and learn about farm living.”
“Well, come on down. I'll put you to work,” she said in a way that made me wonder what we might be getting into.
I gave Nina the thumbs up. “We're in,” I told her.
Over dinner that night, Nina produced a small tub of goat cheese. As she slowly spread it around her cracker, I noted a lessening in her enthusiasm for farming.
“I was just thinking, you know, that maybe we should visit the farm before we really go to work there,” she said.
We arranged to meet Nancy on a Monday morning. Just driving out of the city and along the Santa Cruz coast relieved some of my pent-up anxiety. The road was empty. The fields on the bluffs above the ocean had recently been tilled. Even in the car, we could smell the richness of the earth in the fields' nut-brown furrows, something we never sensed in the city. Once we got close, it wasn't difficult to pick out Sea Stars. It was the place with 70 goats all pressed up against the fence trying to catch a whiff of the strangers.
A slender woman with wind-whipped hair and steel blue eyes came out. “So you're the honeymooners,” Nancy said.
I explained to her that we had actually been married for nearly a year and, if things worked out, we'd be spending our first anniversary on the farm. “Well,” Nancy said, “We're still calling you the honeymooners.”
Still the frenetic urbanites, we'd only scheduled enough time to make sure we liked Nancy and that she was okay with us. We followed her around as she supervised work already underway.
Nancy explained to two farm hands what she wanted done with a certain pile of compost.
“See,” she said, “this stuff (the compost) is still too hot for the garden.” The workers were Spanish speakers from the neighboring Brussels sprout farm. To clarify her point, Nancy plunged her hands into the fresh compost and held up some of the decomposing manure. “You see, it's too hot for the garden. Demasiado caliente,” she said.
Apparently Martha Stewart handles her compost differently than Nancy because Nina found this hands-on demonstration absolutely riveting. “You see,” I whispered to her, “This is what organic farming is all about.”
“It's organic all right,” Nina said as she headed for the car.
By the time we left Sea Stars I was thinking that maybe our time on the farm wouldn't be too bad. Nancy seemed amused and excited by the prospect of having us around. The farm itself was beautiful, an odd shaped acre squeezed between the coast highway and the bluffs above the ocean. The goats were as friendly as puppies and cuter than stuffed animals. Nina was surprisingly quiet on the way home.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“We're going to need some of those tall rubber boots,” she said. “And gloves. I want lots of gloves.”
Nancy told us to bring clothes that we didn't care about. We pulled out every piece of clothing we owned.
Nina packed a pair of Playtex gloves, then went to the kitchen for two more. I packed long underwear. “Where do you think we're going?” she asked.
“What if I have to go outside and round up the flock in the cold?” I asked her.
“Herd,” she said disdainfully. “Goats come in herds. Poultry come in flocks. Believe me. I know.”
Undaunted, I packed the long underwear.
“Since when do you know what it's like on a farm?” I asked.
“I don't,” she answered. “And I'm sure if I did, I wouldn't be going.”
I didn't remind her whose idea this had been in the first place.
On our way to the farm, we stopped at a hardware store for gloves and rubber boots. Nina took a pair of supple leather gloves from the shelf. “These are the kind Martha recommends for garden work,” she said. I looked at the label.
“I don't know. Do you think it's a good idea to show up wearing goatskin?” I asked. She changed them for a less fashionable pair of cloth work gloves.
That evening we stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the north side of Santa Cruz. “Look!” Nina said, “They have birria on the menu. That's barbecued goat meat.” I stared at her until she recognized her faux pas. Horrified, she threw her hands over her mouth as though she had let out the family's dirtiest secret. We ordered chicken.
We arrived at the farm at 6:58 the next morning. A bright faced woman we had not met before asked, “Are you the honeymooners?” I threw Nina a glance and stifled her before she could say something like, “Yeah, that's right. I'm Alice and this is Ralph. Where's Norton?” That kind of quip might have worked in the city, but now we were in the country. Nancy was doing us a favor. I wanted to ruffle as few feathers as possible.
“Yup,” I said. "That's us.” We told her about our interest in leaving the city.
“I think what you're doing is great,” Lisa said, welcoming us as though we were old friends. “But are you sure you want to wear that?” she said. She was talking about our carefully selected clothes.
Evidently white, no matter how old and worn, is not the best color for goat work. We explained that our recent color analysis revealed that white wasn't a good color for either of us. We figured farming was a good way to thin our wardrobe.
While Lisa was absorbing the logic of our fashion statement Nancy appeared, coffee in hand. “Morning,” she said. She looked us over. “Are you sure you want to wear that?” she asked. We explained our reasoning again. “Okay,” Nancy said. She put us in Lisa's charge for the morning.
Pippi Longstocking would have felt right at home at Sea Stars. The farm is a collection of ramshackle structures made of weathered wood painted in purples and violet. Geraniums, fuchsias, calla lilies, and nasturtium grew everywhere. Tall, conical, purple “towers of jewels” lined the road, their pointy tops bent under the weight of new buds. Like Nancy, Sea Stars seemed to have a 1960s, “small is beautiful” wonderment about it.
The farm was brimming with new life. Nancy's samoyed had had puppies. The cat had had kittens. Forty baby goats had been born in the past two months. Altogether there was a lot of yelping, mewing, scampering, barking and frolicking going on.
In a small pasture the lone billy goat grazed with his harem of yearlings. The baby goats were kept in a different area. Pregnant does were in still another part of the farm. The milk goats had their own plot. A meandering series of fences and gates kept everyone happily segregated. Only the cat wandered wherever she wanted. Her litter stayed in the office.
Our first task was to round up the goats for milking. Most were already waiting. Lisa ran behind the few stragglers, clapping her hands. She lost her footing and did a Pete Rose style head first slide in the slick grass.
As she got up and wiped off her hands without a second thought, Nina and I both realized that a farm is a farm whether it's goats or cows or chickens. There's a lot of by-product involved with the production of goat cheese. It's not all curds and whey. “Glad I brought those gloves,” Nina said to me.
Once we had the goats corralled, it was time to feed the babies. We poured warm goat milk into four “milkbars,” plastic buckets rimmed with nipples, and headed back outside.
The instant we entered their pen, the babies vied for every nipple. They chased after us on hind legs. They jumped on our backs. They jumped on each other. They jumped on top of the milkbars. Finally, most found their way to a nipple. Soon they settled down to feeding. The farm filled with slurping, suckling noises.
“Omigod, they're so cute,” Nina said. She looked at me. “I'm so glad you made me do this.” Any doubts we had about being on the farm were melting away.
A few babies hadn't quite gotten the sucking habit down. Lisa told us to direct mouths to nipples.
I reached down to pick up a kid. What I thought was animal turned out to be fluff and air. She couldn't have weighed ten pounds. She sucked air until I put her before an empty nipple.
By then the pen was in pandemonium, a slurping, jostling mayhem. The babies nursed so vigorously the milkbars nearly toppled over. And then it was done. In a minute they had drained every drop.
Ten yards away, in another enclosure, six very young baby goats watched our every move. They knew they were next.
I opened the gate and Nina entered with their milkbar. They followed at her heels waiting for breakfast. A small chocolate brown goat, that looked just like a stuffed animal come to life, took a few swallows and then walked away.
“This one's not eating,” Nina said.
Lisa picked it up. “What the matter Spontaneity?” she asked.
Nancy had named this year's babies after positive virtues. The goats that were clamoring over us had names like Serenity, Nobility, Peace, Harmony, Joy and Love. We tried to feed Spontaneity with a bottle, but she wouldn't take it. “We'll try again later,” Lisa said.
Not far away 30 alpine goats with full udders waited for us. We walked through them to get to the milking pen, which was a confusion of oddly shaped kettles, metal levers and weights on pulleys. The whole thing looked as though it had been designed by the combined madness of Rube Goldberg and Dr. Seuss. The gaggle of air lines and hoses that made up the automatic milking system sputtered and wheezed as an old vacuum pump chugged in the background. We let in the first four goats.
Before we could hook them up to the machinery, we had to get them started by hand. Lisa explained that the key to milking is a good pinch in which the top of the teat is clamped between the thumb and the base of the index finger, much the way one holds chopsticks. With the clamp in place, the other fingers press down and force the milk out.
I made a thorough study of the udder before me. The two teats hung down like the distended thumb and pinkie of a rubber glove filled with water. I stretched out my hands and cracked my knuckles, a concert pianist about to give a great performance.
I put my hands on the teats. I pinched. I clamped. I squeezed. Nothing. Then I felt the milk squirt the wrong way, upstream, back into the udder. The goat began to fidget and kick at my hands. Neither Nina nor I could express a drop. After three minutes, I wanted to run my hands over my face in frustration like Curly might have in a “Three Stooges on the Farm” episode. “Pinch harder,” Lisa advised. I did.
“That's a great pinch,” Lisa said as though I had just learned the secret of throwing a curve ball. A fine stream of warm milk shot down my shirt.
Once all four goats were primed, we hooked them up and let the machine take over. The milk surged through clear plastic hoses into two over-sized stainless steel kettles.
Once the machines got what they could, we had to finish the milking by hand. Lisa's practiced pinch and squeeze brought forth thick streams of milk. Her pail rang out with the “zing-zang” of liquid against metal. Helpless, Nina and I looked at each other in frustration. We were only getting dribs and drabs.
“Pinch, pull, press. Pinch, pull, press,” I said to myself trying to find a beat. Goat by goat I began to get the hang of it. Done properly, I could feel the entire teat drain, then fill the instant I released my pinch. Every now and then I got it just right and the milk would shoot into the pail with the satisfying beat of a metronome.
When both kettles were full we took a break. Nina was massaging her forearms. “What time is it?” she asked. “I'm ready for lunch.” I looked at my watch.
“Nine-thirty,” I told her.
“I'm sure you're kidding,” she said. But I wasn't. And we'd milked only half the herd.
In a large dairy the milk flows directly from the animal to a cooling system, but in a small operation like Nancy's much was left to hand. Lisa opened the drain plugs on the kettles. Two-inch thick streams of warm, pure milk flowed into waiting buckets.
Careful not to slip on any by-product, I carried the two buckets and their seventy pounds of milk inside. Lisa prepped the cooling unit with a large paper filter. All I had to do was pour.
I raised a bucket high, slowly moving it toward the huge funnel. Only I didn't raise it high enough. The bottom bumped against the side of the cooler. Milk, the milk that had taken us ninety minutes to collect and the goats all night to produce, sloshed over the top of the bucket and down the cooling tank onto the concrete floor. Nina looked at me stricken. I lost at least a gallon. And each milking only produced 14 to 16 gallons. Lisa took the bucket and showed me how to pour without losing a drop. “No sense crying over spilled milk,” I heard her say. But that's just what I felt like doing.
It took us an hour to finish the rest of the herd. We found ourselves talking to them as though they were humans. “Come on honey. Quit fooling around. All right sweetie,” we said, trying to coax them quickly in and out of the milking stations. Each goat seemed to have a personality. Lisa spoke to them by name. We just stroked them and tried to seem at ease.
When the last goat was milked it was time to clean up. While Nina and Lisa washed the equipment, I took a broom and shovel and began cleaning the concrete corral where the goats had waited.
It was the first time I had been alone since work began. With the compressor off, with the goats fed and milked, the farm was quiet. In the distance, I could see the surf building on the ocean. Farm living might not be so bad I found myself thinking. Then I turned to the task before me.
Animal feed often comes in a pelletized form and the goats deliver pellets in return. Their abundant droppings, smooth and spherical, range in size from individual pearls to grape-like clusters. After a morning of waiting, the once neat scat had been trampled to a gooey green slime dusted with goat hair. I heard Nina mutter, “Don't you think they could be taught to go in the corner?” I put the thick blade of the shovel to the concrete and began scraping.
Although an ocean breeze was blowing, the air filled with the fermenting scent of half digested alfalfa blended with urea. I carried away shovelful after shovelful.
Weeks earlier I had attended the 10th reunion of my Stanford University Business School class. Around the swimming pool of a classmate's Atherton summer estate, I listened as my former classmates discussed promotions, start-ups, initial public offerings, and other forms of high finance wheeling and dealing.
Hearing them discuss the difficulty of juggling careers, family, and personal interests, my mind began racing with questions about the type of life I wanted for Nina and me. The sixty-hour work weeks my classmates were lamenting just didn't seem to leave much time for anything other than work. After ten years, I wanted a change from independent management consulting for non-profit organizations and small businesses. I wondered what kind of career would give us the time we wanted for us and the income we needed to get by.
I went to see a career counselor. She listened to my experience, gave me a vocational interest questionnaire, and told me to come back in a week.
Perhaps I should have told her about my OVIS results because now I was at the other end of a shovel full of heavy, oozing, animal waste. Maybe it was therapeutic for Eddie Arnold. I was no longer sure if farming was for me.
“Hey Nina!” I called out to Nina, “Don't you think you should give this a try?” Not wanting to back down from a dare, she sneered at me, took the shovel, and scooped a load. Just then Nancy came out.
“So, what do you think of farming?” she asked. Nina emptied her shovel into the compost barrel.
“It's a lot like marriage,” Nina said.
After lunch we began “tubbing” cheese. Suzanne, a neighbor who works part-time, showed us how to fill five-ounce plastic containers with a serving spoon. She explained the importance of neither over or under filling them. Any air pockets or spillage would lead to premature molding and shortened shelf life.
After forty minutes neither one of us had filled a tub properly. Each time we tried to put on a lid, cheese would sneak up into the rim and down the outside. All we had to show for our work were a dozen tubs that needed to be emptied and sanitized.
As a consultant, my expertise had been in helping small businesses operate more efficiently. Unable to “tub” five ounces of cheese, I began thinking about ways to re-engineer Sea Stars.
The MBA side of my brain began redesigning and mechanizing the whole farm. I had visions of hundreds of containers whizzing by each second as Sea Stars threatened the market share of Kraft's Philadelphia brand cream cheese. For a moment, I felt like the Tim Robbin's character in the movie The Player who cynically suggests at a brain-storming meeting that if Hollywood executives could only get rid of directors, actors, and writers making movies would be a snap. I began to think likewise, that if I could just eliminate the manual labor, the tubs, the goats and their by-product, there'd be nothing to farming or making cheese.
Eventually I got the hang of tubbing, but not before my wrists burned with what I was sure was carpal tunnel syndrome. I began filling tubs faster and faster to see how far ahead of Nina I could get. Suzanne, the youngest looking mother of five I had ever seen, watched me with bemusement. “Hey Robert,” she said. “Take it easy. Remember, it's just about cheese.” Obviously Suzanne didn't have an MBA.
After four hours Nina and I had packed 35 pounds of cheese, one hundred little tubs that would sell for $3.50 each. Before we got to the farm, Nina had complained about how expensive goat cheese was. Now with our forearms, wrists, backs and necks aching, she said, “You know, $3.50 is starting to look like a bargain.” The next day Nancy came in to help with tubbing. We watched in awe as she packed the same amount of cheese in under 30 minutes.
By 5 PM, we had put in a ten-hour day. I felt that if we really wanted to be farmers we should stay for the evening milking. Nancy told us we'd done enough for our first day. Besides it was our first anniversary. “Have you been down to the beach?” she asked.
The beach was a tiny one, squeezed in between a small break in the ocean bluffs and the Brussels sprout fields. We watched the late afternoon surf. In the distance we could see a few sailboats on Monterey Bay. “What do you think?” I asked Nina. “Do you think you could do this?”
“I don't know,” she answered. I didn't know either but what I had expected to be a slapstick fiasco was beginning to look like a real life style option. As the day had gone on, I found myself occasionally walking in my rubber boots with a cowboy swagger. During quiet moments I stood with my arms akimbo and proudly looked out over the herd and the farm as though they were my own.
That evening we unwrapped the last piece of our wedding cake. Nina told me not to expect much, that after a year in the freezer, it might have picked up a few odd smells. “So have we,” I told her. The cake was delicious. We poured two glasses of champagne, drank half and collapsed.
Tuesday morning the first alarm went off at 4:55 AM. Reaching for it I realized every muscle and tendon in my body had shrunk by half. I was one dull ache. I could barely move. The back-up alarm went off at 5. We were still in bed when the alarm on my watch went off at 5:05.
“I hate her,” Nina groaned as we finally got out of bed.
“Who?” I wondered out loud.
“Martha Stewart,” Nina said. “She never said anything about getting up at this ungodly hour.”
Our second day of milking, supervised by Ana, an eighteen-year old community college student, went more smoothly. With the exception of one skittish and stubborn old goat named Paulette, we were able to get the herd done in under two hours.
In the babies' pen, things weren't as good. Spontaneity was still not eating. She suckled Nina's finger up to the third knuckle but wouldn't take the bottle. “She's a little hot,” Nancy said, feeling her nose. While Nancy went for some aspirin, Val, another friend and part-time employee, put Spontaneity across her lap and look a rectal temperature just as one would do with a human baby. Nina stroked the little kid's coat trying to comfort her.
“Come on girl,” Nina said. “You're going to be okay. You've got to get better.”
Later that day I joined Nina in the dairy where she was busy making “Van Goats” and “Monets.” These are round cheese torts decorated with edible flowers such as bachelor buttons, calendula petals, and Johnny jump-ups for which Sea Stars has become well-known. Meanwhile, Skeeter, Nancy's one full-time employee, showed me how to “flip” cheese.
“What type of cheese is this?” I asked as I looked at the soft white curds in the pasteurizer. Skeeter gave me a gaze a drill sergeant would have admired.
“Goat cheese!” she said. “What did you think it was?”
For the next two hours, I gently placed the wet cheese into a bucket lined with cloth sacks. Each sack weighed 40 pounds. After hanging twenty of them over a bathtub where the whey drained, my back and arms felt I as though I had spent the afternoon at 48 Hour Nautilus. Nancy had told me earlier that people, admiring her trim, strong figure, often ask if she “works out.”
“No,” she told me she tells them, “I work.” A few more days on the farm and I figured I could drop my gym membership.
We took a break and went to see Spontaneity. She didn't look sick to us, but she wouldn't take the bottle. Nancy called the vet. “I'm so worried about Spontaneity,” Nina said as though she were the goat's mother.
By the end of our second day, we were so exhausted that when Nancy asked if we wanted to go sailing after work, I thought she must have been joking. She wasn't. Sailing was the one luxury she allowed herself.
The wind on Monterey Bay was lighter than the blustery gusts at the farm. As we lolled over small waves on a boat that belonged to another of Nancy's friends, the concerns of the city seemed very far away. I felt as though I had run a long, long race. The sun warmed all my soreness away. Milking goats in the morning, sailing in the afternoon. Certainly there were many less satisfying ways to live. The anxiety I often felt about whether I was keeping up with business school classmates was as far away as my worries about parking or crime or what the Subterraneans were doing.
One of the best things about working on the farm was eating huge quantities of whatever I wanted. Wednesday morning I sat down to an enormous farm breakfast of eggs, bacon, two pork chops, hash brown potatoes, toast and coffee. I figured it was what a real farmer would eat. Nina, too, was eating with two-fisted gusto. She reached across the table and speared one of my chops with her fork.
“I can't wait till we get to work,” she said.
“Why's that?” I asked her, wondering if this new zest for manual labor was for real. She picked up my coffee cup and swigged a mouthful.
“Cause I'm beginning to smell myself,” she said. We'd been wearing the same clothes for the last two days.
That morning I set up the milking pen by myself. I was no longer fighting my sore body or the routine. As I hooked up each piece of the system, I wondered if this was the life for me. My normal aches and pains had been satisfyingly replaced by ones that I felt I had earned. I did much of the milking myself. As I quickly shunted the goats in and out of the milking pens, I sensed the rhythm of farm life becoming my own. Although the work was unrelenting, there was an easy pace that was much more soothing than the jumbled up staccato distractions of the city.
By noon, things were in high gear as we got ready for the Santa Cruz Farmers Market and a UPS shipment. Four of us worked in the tiny Sea Stars office surrounded by phones, fax, freezers, a cooler full of cheese that advertised “Chilled Wines and Champagne,” a computer, two printers, supplies and, under the dining table that serves as a desk, the latest litter of kittens. The walls were covered with blue and red ribbons awarded to Sea Stars at the annual judging of the American Cheese Society.
While Nina worked on invoicing, Nancy and Val took phone orders and I packed shipments. Nina was so exhausted that she nodded off in her chair. We'd already put in a full day and were headed for at least five hours more.
Before we left for the market in Santa Cruz, Val brought Spontaneity into the office. Nancy prepared a syringe. This was a last ditch effort. At $30 a vial, Nancy couldn't afford to keep pumping medicine into her no matter how cute Spontaneity was. As the needle slid into Spontaneity's neck, she cried out, a long, scared wail that sounded just like a human baby's.
Driving down the coast to Santa Cruz, I told Nina, “I want to sell everything.” We had five coolers full of cheese that we had made and there was no way we were going to bring any back to the farm. Selling out would be my way of showing Nancy she had made a good decision when she let us come work for her.
My determination to sell out was redoubled by the eclectic crowd that shops at the farmers market in Santa Cruz. Barefoot kids reeking with patchouli oil and draped in Gypsy gear mingle with straight-laced academic and high-tech types and graying hippies. Some shoppers came up and smacked down their money. “I love your cheese,” they said, needing no sales persuasion. Others looked at Nina and me suspiciously when we suggested, “Try some goat cheese today?”
Those were the customers I wanted to get. “Don't like it,” some said. “Ever try it?” I asked. Many never had.
I put samples in their hands. They took small nibbles and then larger bites. “Hey, that's not bad,” they said. “Honey, try this.”
Unlike other things I'd sold in the past, I felt no hesitation promoting the cheese. It was nutritious, tasty, and artistic. The goats were treated well and the work environment at Sea Stars was pleasant and easy-going. During one afternoon, Nina and I were able to convert a dozen skeptics. With each sale I felt real pride. Maybe we could make it a way of life.
Nina, Lisa, and I were busy all afternoon, making change, offering samples, and thanking everyone who came by as though it were our own business. “We're going to sell out,” I told Nina.
One young woman returned to the stand repeatedly. She picked up the cheese, looked at it, and put it back. She looked at the Monets with a desire that seemed to border on lust. But she never bought. Finally she said, “I can't. I was hooked on this stuff all last year. I've got to stop myself.” She threw up her hands with the drama of a diva and marched off.
It was hard to be positive when people just sampled with no intention of buying. We had worked so hard. The cheese was so good. The goats were so loving. How could people not buy our cheese? Every person who walked past felt like a personal rejection.
By five o'clock the crowd was thinning. We still had a few tubs left in our coolers. A young man wearing paisley pants and a crocheted vest walked up. I told myself I would close the sale no matter what. He asked all kinds of questions about the edible flowers used in the “Monets.” I told him what I knew. Then he walked away without buying. I called after him. “What about some cheese today?”
“No man,” he said. “I just wanted to know what the flowers were, you know man, so I could eat 'em out on the highway.” Nina rolled her eyes.
“Santa Cruz,” she said.
As we packed up another fellow came by and asked if we wanted to buy a “Speak Happiness” bumper sticker for a dollar. I wanted to tell him what I had done the last few days to make a dollar's worth of cheese but instead I just said, “No thanks.”
As Lisa and Nina broke down the stand, I counted the money. We netted just under $300. It didn't seem like enough but Val told us it was the best day so far this year. “Maybe I should hire you guys,” Nancy said. It was a tempting offer, but what Nancy could pay us would barely cover the rent on our apartment. I wondered if we could make ends meet as farm owners. Being a farm employee would probably mean a change in our standard of living that we hadn't begun to contemplate.
At the end of our 13-hour day, we were starving. We decided on a Thai restaurant for dinner. At the front door I looked at Nina's filthy pants. We hadn't changed clothes since six that morning.
“Do you know what you look like?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but you've got hoof prints all over your back.” We asked the hostess if she would seat us as we were.
“Why not?” she said reflecting Santa Cruz's easy ways. In the city, neither of us would ever go out dressed the way we were. Wednesday night we wore our filthy clothes like merit badges.
Over dinner, we discussed how realistic it would be to take up farming. For certain, we wouldn't be able to fall backwards into it as Nancy had. Back in 1976 she was living in the Sierra while finishing college. A roommate asked her to watch his goat for a few weeks. The goat had kids, the roommate never came back, and suddenly Nancy was a goat farmer. All the goats at Sea Stars are descended from “Fanny the Goat,” as Nancy calls the inherited matriarch of her herd.
But that was nearly twenty years ago. Today it would cost tens of thousands of dollars and more hard physical work than either of us had ever done to build up a small operation like Nancy's. And it wouldn't be like buying a franchise fast food joint. There was no guarantee of success.
Thursday was our last day. By now both of us were enjoying the work. We were no longer concerned about by-product or even noticed the smell of the goats. In any case the nearby fields had been fertilized with chicken manure. That smell was so acrid I could feel it burn my sinuses. “Just imagine what ostrich manure smells like,” Nina said.
Although we had both approached the farm with reservations, neither of us was ready to leave. The “goaties,” as Nancy called them, were more like puppies to us than mere farm animals. We had gotten to know many of them by name.
In the babies' pen, things were improving. Spontaneity was on the mend. The injection seemed to have worked. She attacked the milkbar with the other kids and then joined them in butting heads. On our last day, I had only one ambition. I was going to get some milk out of Paulette.
Paulette had different ideas. The machine got nothing from her. She kicked the pail and wouldn't let me milk her by hand. Nancy had told me there was little profit in the farm. I concluded goats like Paulette were the problem. She was eating $2 of feed a day and not doing her part. I figured she was an old goat that probably should be put down.
“How old is Paulette?” I asked Nancy after the milking was done.
“Four,” she answered to my surprise. Alpine goats often live to be 15 years old.
Nancy explained that Paulette hadn't been bottle-fed and, as a result, was skittish around people. She kept Paulette because she had belonged to a friend, Paul, who had died. At business school, despite classes in “Ethics and Business” and “Business and the Community,” the justification for every decision eventually boiled down to the bottom line. Thinking about Paulette, I realized that if I ran a farm, the rational decision, as I had been taught in graduate school, wouldn't always be the easy one.
As we got ready to leave, Nancy's friend Rick showed up. “How about a reike treatment?” Nancy asked. She and Rick had been swapping cheese for massage for some time. We didn't want to leave. Much less than a free massage would have kept us. “Sure,” we both answered.
Rick's hands were warm, very warm. As he let them rest on my forehead I felt the final residue of urban life drain away. An hour later, when I got up from the table, my mind was completely at ease even as I sensed the soreness in every muscle.
As we got into our car, fog was just beginning to creep back onto the coast. Nancy and Suzanne stood in the road, waving us good-bye. The goaties crowded up against the fence. They watched us pull away.
For the first several miles we were very quiet. Farming for a few days had been wonderful. Could we do if for a living? Three hundred sixty-five days a year? I wasn't sure. Nina is 38 years old. I'm 39. Farm work was not a 90-minute work-out at the gym. Much better than before we understood it was a physically and mentally demanding life that was as constant and unrelenting as anything the city or the white collar world had to offer. And we didn't have Nancy's worries about raising two teenage sons, making a payroll, or keeping 70 goats healthy and productive.
Yet the farm offered an immediate sense of achievement that I rarely sensed in my life as a consultant. Often I'd worked on projects for weeks and months that in the end were shelved or fell through bureaucratic cracks or yielded no tangible results. In contrast, on the farm, we had completed an entire cycle in just four days, producing, packaging and selling a product we had made, were proud of and enjoyed ourselves. It was this immediacy that I found so deeply satisfying.
I loved the closed circle of the farm. We milked the goats, they gave us the cheese. We took the whey and fed it back to them. I watched this recycling program and realized it was much more a miracle of nature than my putting out the newspaper or empty cans and bottles for curbside collection.
More importantly, we sensed we had become part of a community, a community of people and animals. We had connected in a way we almost never felt in the city. We worked outside in a place where the litter was strictly biodegradable. We spoke and worked with neighbors. The air did feel cleaner, the sun did feel warmer, we did feel safer and healthier, and we felt as close to one another as we ever had.
When the alarm went off the next morning neither one of us leapt out of bed. We were home, but we were homesick for the farm. “I miss the goaties,” Nina said to me. I did as well. The city just didn't have the texture or the natural rhythm of the farm. Plus, I didn't know what I could do that would give me the same sense of accomplishment I had felt working with the animals.
I went to the gym. Early in the morning people were waiting in line to get on the Stairmaster. I thought to myself that if ever there were a metaphor for all that's wrong with modern living, the Stairmaster must be it. Climbing and getting nowhere. Sweating and producing nothing. I got my thirty minutes of cardio and went home wishing the gym offered wood chopping instead of “step” classes. At least I'd have something to show for my effort.
At the apartment, there was a message from Nancy on the answering machine. “Hey you guys,” Nancy said, “Got up this morning and everyone realized we really miss you down here. Spontaneity's better. She says, 'Baaaaaaah.'”
Nina came in the room as I listened to message. Nancy's voice made us realize we were home, but in the wrong place. “Come see us anytime,” Nancy said.
At last I looked at Nina. “Well, what do you think?” I asked. “Could you do it?”
“I don't know,” she answered. “It was great, but I still don't know.” She looked out the window at the ships on the Bay. “How about you?”
I didn't know then and I still don't know now. On the farm I felt as though all my senses were rekindled, that my head and body worked together. In the city, they often felt like separate beings competing with each other. But still the fact was that we were city kids who liked having a coffee shop on the corner. There seemed to be no easy way to compare the two life styles we were contemplating.
“I don't know either,” I told Nina as I headed toward the door. I couldn't think about it right then. I'd left the car in a tow-away zone. I had to go look for parking.
A version of this story first appeared as the cover story of the July 9, 1995 edition of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.