In 1947, former journalist and diplomat Rehm bought a dairy farm in Susquehanna County (this is another book I’m reading because of its local interest), with the goal of making a decent living and a pleasant life. He’d spent 30 years in Europe and valued a “civilized” lifestyle, and becoming a farmer seemed like the best way to continue that. It’s amazing to think that from the beginning of agriculture until when this book was written, a span of how many thousands upon thousands of years, farming was the default occupation for anyone who had access to land; but from the 1950s on, it became less and less so. Today even families who have farmed for generations are unable to make a living that way; almost all the farmers I know have day jobs. Agribusiness has taken over in the United States, and the small farm is practically dead. There are successful organic farms and diversified market gardens, but they’re run by very smart, experienced, and hard-working people. Rehm bought his farm, High Meadows, when an average person, with no agricultural background, could work reasonable hours and generate enough cash income to live on–just barely. Within a few years, that was no longer possible (the sequel, Requiem for Twelve Cows, is about the end of High Meadows as a dairy farm).
Twelve Cows is a weird mixture of how-to manual, collection of reflective essays, autobiography, and fish-out-of-water comedy. We get pages of calculations on how many cows, yielding how many pounds of milk, are required to break even, followed by stories of specific bovine personalities and detailed descriptions of mouth-watering breakfasts and dinners (if this were published today, it would certainly include recipes!) Rehm gives a vivid account of his Sisyphean struggles with water in the winter. Poor drainage near the barn creates a river of ice that gradually engulfs the entrance and has to be chipped away every morning, and the pipes bringing drinking water to the cows freeze up and need to be blowtorched. I identified the most with this section, as I’ve dealt with both those situations under the same arctic conditions he was experiencing.
When we first moved to Susquehanna County, it seemed like every guy we saw had a moustache. Not so in Rehm’s time:
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a farmer.”
“What? No farmer ever had a moustache like yours,” he barked back.
My moustache is a fair-sized growth and the ends turn up slightly, contrary to the local fashion for the few moustaches encountered…
“Change that to ‘No moustache ever had a farmer like me,'” I answered, “and I’ll agree.”