My time at Brightheart began in the early summer of 2017. I’d visited the farm a few times before then, but starting in May I took on a more active role in helping with the day-to-day animal chores.
At first, I was just an observer. I vaguely remember my parents trying to take my photo next to some cows on the side of the road when I must have been 3 or 4 years old, but that’s about the closest I’ve come to milking or feeding anything that can’t live indoors in an apartment. I grew up in the paved suburbs of Baltimore and am now in school for economics, so farm stuff isn’t exactly my forte. Besides, there are plenty of folks at Brightheart with more farm experience than I’ll ever have.
Still, there’s something about Brightheart that meets a need I didn’t even know I had. Driving in, there’s a mix of suburban developments and farmland, but the long driveway takes you through the woods, and for me at least, it always feels like I’m leaving one world behind and entering another. The magic of this other world is in its determined young trees and wild plants, like sorrel and mugwort (and the beautiful, yet fatally poisonous datura we spotted) that seem to spring up and cover the land over night. There’s something restful and slow too about this world where duck chatter and Bartleby’s goat songs replace car horns and the drone of highway traffic.
Giving back to the farm seems only natural. And so after a few weeks of just watching the animal chores get finished, I started helping out too. There’s the basic stuff that most anyone can do: feeding the ducks and chickens, making sure they both have water, and then collecting all the eggs before a snake gets to them. But then there’s the more expert-level stuff too, like getting into the goat house and refilling their water without letting anyone escape out the front. You also have to trim goat hooves (who knew?), but I still haven’t picked up that skill yet.
Milking initially seemed like a daunting task. I mean, you’re literally reaching up under a horned animal, grabbing a tender part of the body, and squeezing. I know I’d be freaked out if I was the goat, so in my imagination, she’s probably freaking out too.
My introduction to this process was actually as a sort of goat waiter. So far, we’ve only had one goat to milk, Issa. I’d hold her food bowl still (alfalfa pellets are like the kale smoothie of millennial goats, apparently) while someone else milked. At times she’d be feisty and stamp her back feet or even kick over the milk bucket. But we’d power through, eventually unlatch the stand, and then let her back in to the goat house.
After a week or so, it was my turn to try my hand at milking her. Like literally everyone else I have ever heard of learning how to do this, my first few times were absolutely terrible. Even being reassured of the common learning curve for milking wasn’t enough to stop me from feeling embarrassed. I wanted to learn. And I wanted to do it well, for Issa and for the farm.
So, I devoured as many YouTube videos on milking that I could find. Some people don’t even use stands. They have such a relationship with their goats, that they just pull up a stool and go for it. After watching a five year old girl’s video blog on milking, I knew I just had to do it. It’s not about growing up in a lifestyle or having a green thumb for goats (milky thumb?). It’s just about patience, dedication, and rapport. No excuses.
My next attempt was better. I actually got milk that time. And Issa, as always, was patient as I struggled to get a few drops in the bucket before turning over the task to someone more experienced. Eventually though, it was just me and Issa. For a few weeks it took me several long minutes to get the job done. But by July, my skills had vastly improved.
Over the summer, we developed that rapport I’d noticed between so many YouTube farmers and their goats. I started milking with both hands, instead of just the one I’d started with. I’d rest my head on her belly while I worked, and listen to the muscles of her stomachs relaxing as the milk was released. We developed a rhythm. Issa would eagerly leave the goat house and position herself on the stand without being prompted. Sometimes (unless the chickens were being quite ornery), I wouldn’t even need to latch her in.
I still have a lot to learn about goats, and even more to learn about farming in general, but working at Brightheart is teaching me more every day.
Oh, and I’ve definitely added “goat milking” to the skills section of my resume.