Leland Totman appears, a sort of agricultural centaur, head and then tractor rising up from behind a hill. He is far down the roadway that climbs from the bottomland at the fork of the South and Deerfield rivers, up through a grandstand of pastures and mowings and cornfields to the dooryard of his farm. Surrounding him, all along the road, are the fields that feed the cows that make the milk that he sells. The nearest mowing needs to be mowed again. It looks like a roughly overgrown lawn, rolling downhill for a few acres. It ends abruptly at a held of tall corn whose leaf-tips have browned from a touch of early frost. This is corn-chopping season in Conway, Massachusetts, time to make silage, and there is a corn-chopper hitched on behind Lee’s tractor. Its bulky green metal housing sprouts silvery tusks and a yellow sheet metal snout like an elephant’s trunk lifted to trumpet. A sharp October breeze blows straight up the road, and the air smells sweet and thick from the day’s work.
The tractor arrives, stops, and Lee leaps to the ground. He is short, broad, blond, and blue-eyed, built ruggedly and in the shape of a trapezoid, wide end up, narrow end down. He carries himself heartily. He is forty-three. He flashes the mischievous, conspiratorial, and boyish grin of a twelve-year-old who has just set into motion a complex practical joke. It’s the grin of someone amused with what he knows.
Among other things, Lee Totman knows how to farm. For years, like his father before him, he has grown better corn, made better hay, bred more judiciously, planned more carefully, and spent money more efficiently on buildings and equipment than have most other farmers in the region. He is Massachusetts Outstanding Dairyman of the Year. When the agricultural extension agents came to tell him of the award, he told them their program didn’t make much sense to him. His cows give more milk than those of other farmers in Franklin County. He would be at home in a small crowd of master farmers anywhere in the country. He has always been in the forefront in accepting new machinery and practices. Dick Mayer, a first-rate farmer and Lee’s neighbor, once explained to me, “Farmers basically compete with one another to do things the most productive way, and the smart farmer is the one who adopts the coming methods five years before his neighbors do. Lee is like that. His dad was too. They’re farmers’ farmers.”
In every rural New England county there are a few families that so clearly seem “elect” that it is easy to imagine the palpability to the citizens of Plimoth Plantation of that regal Puritan notion of inborn elitism. What is especially amazing about this generation of the Totman family is that the farm thrives and improves while New England agriculture as a whole is in sharp decline. Like horses so good that they win races while carrying extra weight, a few New England farmers seem to improve under the strain of adversity.
In these modern times almost everything once grown here can be grown more cheaply somewhere else. Less than a sixth of the farm families in business on the eve of World War II are still farming in Massachusetts; fewer than 5000 farms remain in the entire state. Tractors available now are so huge that while they are practical on large fields farther west, they don’t pay on small, hilly, widely separated New England fields. The coming of milking parlors, of automatic feeding, and of high-production breeding have made efficient herd sizes far greater than can usually be justified by the low density of farmable land in New England hill country. A supply system geared to national supermarket chains favors larger and larger units of output. High energy costs, high shipping costs, and competition from the world marketplace all make it less economically feasible than it once was to grow grain in Iowa and feed it to cows in Massachusetts. As the number of farms dwindles, farm suppliers and food processors also go out of business.
Yankee farming today takes place in an atmosphere of siege. The banker is always near at hand. Only the sleekest, most business-minded operations can compete at all in New England. Yankee farmers who are barely scraping by, and who therefore think of themselves as chumps and half-foolish hangers-on, nevertheless farm more efficiently than the worst farmers still surviving in favored dairy areas of the country such as Wisconsin and upper New York. The very best Yankee farmers—the ones who, like Lee Totman, have combined the luck of owning some of the good farmland that is scattered about with the wit, vigor, and application to manage complex modern farming operations well—these fine farmers are among the best agricultural practitioners in the United States.
It is fitting to introduce Lee on his road because years ago, in fact the first time I ever heard the name of Totman, the subject of the local gossips was the roadway. What I’d heard was a tale of a “crazy young fellow down to Conway" who had taken the family jewels and pawned them for a superhighway through the family farmstead.
It’s a private road, yet it is a better road than some of the public dirt roads in this hill country. It is nearly a mile long, is graveled on the leveler sections, and is actually tarred and ditched like a suburban driveway along the steeper grades. The road, as it turns out, is not a superhighway, but it is something special, the like of which is not to be found on any other farm in Franklin County. It represents a timely philosophy of capital investment out of step with the more desultory management tactics practiced on most of the sidehill Yankee farms left in the region.
The tractor arrives, stops, and Lee leaps to the ground. He is grinning his grin and I grin back. I comment on the road, on how unusual it is, how I’ve seen other farmers on lesser crosslots roads wallowing in muck when they would have preferred to be out working, and Lee says—rather sternly, grin notwithstanding—“I’ve been in their shoes. That’s why the road’s like this now.”
I say I actually had expected, from the tales I’d heard, that it would be a broad tarred boulevard. “People blow things up. Aren’t a hundred yards of tar the whole length of it?” Lee seems a bit testy hearing about these rumors. “It didn’t cost me much—saved me plenty. I’m thinking of days we used to spend bogged down along the old road. Now you can get through here during mud season. Everything that goes from field to barn or the other way passes over this road. That’s a lot of tonnage and a lot of dollar value.”
Lee starts up the tractor again. I chase him on foot as he drives around to the silos by the barn. I arrive as he maneuvers a silage wagon up to a silage blower. He starts the blower and the chopped corn, ears, leaves, and stems alike, all in spoon-sized bits, hurtles up sixty feet inside a tall stovepipe, then topples down into the nearer of the two big round cement towers.
“City people may not realize it,” says Lee, “but hay isn’t simply hay, and corn silage isn’t simply corn silage.” That may be about as close as a real Yankee can approach boasting—it’s certainly the closest I ever heard Lee come. Hay can be stemmy, old, and leafless, moldy, rained on, and composed of lackluster, naturally seeded weed grasses. But the hay stored in Lee’s barn is young, charcoal-green, succulent, and tests to a high leaf-to-stem ratio. It consists of the choicest planted alfalfa, ladino clover, timothy grass, and red clover. It is likely to contain 12 to 15 percent protein, while the hay in lesser barns may test out to only 8 or 9 percent protein.
And the same is true of the corn now blowing up into Lee’s silo. A few roads away is a farm with a lopsided wooden silo into which is grudgingly dumped silage chopped from the meagerest of corn stands, intertwined with morning-glory vines. The corn is waist-high, spindly stemmed, its leaves pale from want of nitrogen and streaked with purple from want of phosphorus. It is mostly leaf and stem, with the occasional ear that does venture to mature scarcely filling out and never growing very long.
The corn Lee has hauled up the farm road behind the tractor is fare fit for regal cows; it is cut from fat corn plants that have tasseled out higher than a tall man can reach, that have borne long full ears of squat, deep-kerneled corn—plants the bright deep green of a child’s crayon drawing of a corn plant, corn harvested in the prime of “hard dent,” when the sugar content and the nutrition are at their best.
The good corn, like Lee’s good road, reflects his unusual attitude toward capital investment. Today it takes money to make money farming. Once in early June I saw Lee plowing under a stand of alfalfa and timothy that any other farmer in the county would have been proud to grow up and harvest. Lee said, “There didn’t seem to be quite enough alfalfa in it.”When he finished plowing and disking and liming and fertilizing, he reseeded the mowing again with just the mixture he wanted to see growing there. If the hay has been cut but it seems likely that it will be rained upon, Lee will chop it green and make grass silage out of it rather than feed his animals rained-on hay. Few farmers in this rainy state have set themselves up with that flexibility, though losses of hundreds and even thousands of dollars of feed value may ride on an afternoon thundershower. When, at a busy time of year, some of Lee’s hay did get rained on, he dried it out, baled it up, and gave it away. I asked him why he didn’t sell it, and he said, “I sell milk, I’m not in the hay-selling business.” By the same token, when Lee culls a cow from his herd, he always sells it as beef, even though it might be brought back to health by a patient farmer and has a genetic milk-producing capability exceeding that of most cows in the region. “I’m not in the breeding business,” Lee says, “I’m in the milking business. I can’t see saddling some other farmer with my problems.”
Lee Totman is good at making milk. Since taking over from his father, he has built new silos and a new barn, cleared acres of prime bottomland, expanded the herd, and raised the herd milking average by over 6000 pounds per animal a year. His cows now average over 19,000 pounds of milk—about 9500 quarts—each. They give nearly a ton more milk apiece per year than do the cows of the county’s next-best farmers, nearly four tons more than the average cow in the stale, and nearly five tons more than the average cow in the nation.
I have tried to understand his phenomenal success. His virtuosity, though, is startling in a way that is hard to communicate to non farmers. He is more than just a good farmer. He is right there.
He doesn’t waste moves. He is always set up for the job he needs to do. He plans only as much as his equipment and help permit. He takes shortcuts where they pay and lavishes attention where that pays better. His manure truck is an old, unregistered jalopy; his equipment shed is made of old telephone poles and sheet tin. But his milking time is usually about twenty minutes longer than it need be, and he spends hours in seeming idleness, just watching his cows carefully. Things are well set up. When Lee’s tractor does get stuck in the mud, he laughs. The right equipment is always near at hand to get it out quickly and easily. He has, for the multitude of chores which make up a farmer’s day, the sort of sense of essential motion that a Chinese calligrapher might bring to the drawing of letters.
Lee is always at work. He wakes up at half past five and starts right in. He finishes evening milking at nine each night. He is nearly always on the farm; when he needs something he has it delivered. When he does have to voyage the dozen miles into Greenfield, he goes for as short a time as possible - he says the buildings seem to shake as he passes between them. On Mother’s Day and on his wife’s birthday, he drives to Deerfield—all of six miles—and gets chocolates from the local pharmacy.
At work he is as happy as a hog with a full trough, obstinate, single-minded, and intent on the chore of running the farm right, in spite of his seeming hardheadedness, he brings to each day’s plan an alertness, a flexibility in dealing with the animals, the weather, and the machines, that combines a realistic comprehension of the cost and benefits of his choices with the drive to do what he finds ought to be done. He does this with a stern consistency, with a seemingly carefree, silent, and smiling staunchness, day after day, decision after decision. He dwells in the world as one who fully accepts responsibility for each of his actions; it is the world of the just, which, by the way, he sleeps the sleep of.
My suspicion is that Lee stays home and makes things work because he can do it; the perfection of the farm expresses and proves his being; away from the farm things must seem both irrelevant and unsatisfactorily wild. As a consequence of his success in building a world that yields to his logic and his effort, he doesn’t give much of a damn what other people think and say about him. He has a few friends with whom he and his wife dine out once in a while. They are people like himself, and he finds in them good cause for admiration.
“Some folks like to be ahead,” Lee’s father once explained to me, “but they prefer not to show it— that’s a characteristic of the Yankee breed as a whole. None of them will admit prosperity, and yet they may be reasonably successful.”
The silage wagon is empty now, and Lee draws it back through the dooryard and parks it in the machine shed, shouting over his shoulder as he drives past that I should step down to his house and “grab a bite to eat” with him, then come back up to the barn for milking time. “But first things first,” he adds, shutting off the tractor, “and there are a few chores to do up here first. The cows eat before we do, up here.”
We walk into the barn. It is long, red, and wooden, as barns are meant to be, although an alarming proliferation of modern barns seem to be aquamarine, and stamped out of steel by the thousand in some midwestern factory. It is only a single story high. Hay is kept in a shed behind the barn, rather than in a loft on top of it—electric elevators and pumps and scrapers have done away with the reason for building the beautiful tall barns of the last century. The two fat cement silos rise against it. Lee calls the barn’s great hall the “loafing shed.” Not a cow in sight in the farthest corners of the hangar-sized room. It is cool in here and it does smell of cows—a hint of silage and sawdust, tinged with the odors of manure and of leather. It is spotless, the walls whitewashed, the floor scraped clean and new sawdust bedding added since the last cow wandered out to pasture this morning.
The cows are spending these autumn days out in pasture. They won’t come in to stay for another two weeks, until the silo is capped and sealed and the new harvest of chopped corn within has had a fortnight to ferment. When the silage is ready—about the last week in October—the sixty or so milking daughters, their young and growing progeny, one scrub bull used to “clean up" problem breeders, and one HolsteinAngus steer, half-grown and destined for the family freezer, will be herded inside for the winter —about a hundred animals in all.
Lee fills the hayracks on the walls of both sides of the barn with his beautiful hay, glances into the troughs offering mineral supplement, then counts the salt licks strewn about the long central trough. He opens the door leading to the base of the farther silo, reaches in, and closes a big switch. A motor whines, chains clank, belts slap into motion as, far overhead, an automatic unloader starts to work its way around the top of the tower of silage. A conveyor delivers a stream of feed—nearly a ton each mealtime—to a hopper with a spout. It scoots along, suspended from an overhead rail, dishing out supper all along the central feed bunk.
“What I hope every afternoon is that the commotion of the silo unloader will begin to attract the cows from the barnyard. They are pretty well trained to know that food is being served up here about now. Some farmers still feed silage by the wheelbarrow load. Takes them an hour to do it and they have to holler after the cows as well. That big motor up in the silo usually makes enough noise to interest them. Some of the girls are anxious to be milked, too. It usually works.” As Lee talks, a few cows do indeed amble up to the open door of the loafing shed. They bridle for a moment when they see me.
Cows are upset by anything that isn’t the same as it was yesterday. After a moment they step on in and over to the feed bunk. Lee watches intently as the cows gather, taking in details of gait, vigor, aggressiveness, hunger, thirst, any changes in the strong pecking order of the herd, cows riding other cows, which they do when they’re in heat. It is a beautiful herd, large, clean, coats shining, and what cattle judges call “dairyness”—the indefinable look of an animal that means business when it comes to milking time— emanating from every beast. Lee wanders among them as they straggle in. He is talking now and then in an odd voice, a flat, monotonic sound made while tucking his chin into his chest. It seems to come from deep in the throat, as if he is imitating a voice heard over the telephone. Eventually I realize it isn’t me he’s talking to like this. He is greeting his favorite cows.
“Hey bos, bos, bos, there girl,” he is muttering. “Don’t you look fine, girl.”
An aside to me, bel canto: “Just calved.”
To the cow, sotto voce: “You’re a pretty good one. Hey, Wendy, hey, Dinah girl there.”
“Why do you say, ‘Hey bos, bos, bos’?” I ask Lee as he closes the barnyard gate behind the last cow in.
“I’ve always called cows that way,” he says.
“Who’d you learn it from?”
“Learned it from my dad, I guess.” Lee has fully recovered the use of his own pleasant baritone.
“Your dad - he must have learned it from his dad, too?”
“Never seen it in a book, I’m sure.” How to Call a Cow, I think to myself, or perhaps, Cow Calling SelfTaught. Lee goes on, “No, all the farmers around here call their cows by saying bos, bos, bos. Why?”
“You know the Latin name for the cow?” I ask.
“Don’t happen to, offhand.” He has remembered his grin now.
“Bos. Bos taurus typicus primigenius.”
“I guess my dad’s grandpa’s grandpa must have heard the word from some Roman, then. Never knew that.”
While we are chatting, we are walking back through the loafing shed to a part of the barn older farmers still call—from the time when it was a separate structure by the road, with a cool spring running through it— the “milk house.” We enter a dark hallway, noisy with the roar of the compressor that cools a stainless steel milk tank the size of a car. Milk is stored there until picked up by a big tank truck that comes every other day.
Inside the milk house in racks all about the room rest spotless pails, hoses, lengths of stainless and plastic pipe, milking machines, all washed in nearly boiling water, disinfected, dried, and ready to be reassembled for the coming milking. On the wall are two separate sinks as per state regulation—one for milking equipment, one for the sullied hands of the farmer. The lawmakers no longer leave the farmer to his own devices. Lee tells the tale of one irate fellow who didn’t feel he needed a separate sink for his hands. The fellow read the law through and discovered that while he was required to have the second sink, its height above floor level was not stipulated. “He put it up about ten feet in the air, and I guess he enjoyed the inspector’s next visit pretty well,” Lee concludes the tale.
He goes to work now reassembling the milking machines. Most farmers in the area still call the milking equipment “milking dishes,” from the days a hundred years back when cream for butter-making was settled out from the milk in shallow pans right in the milk house. Nowadays, whole milk is shipped to large centralized processors, and the dishes aren’t pans at all, but piping, glass measuring jugs, yards of stainless steel tubing leading directly from cow to bulk cooling tank, and claws of rubber milking “inflations” dangling from fist-sized transparent pods—floppy, juggling sheaths of soft rubber that fold around the four teats of each cow, and draw milk from her in gentle wet pulses engineered and improved in a hundred subtle ways to adore each teat and more pleasingly resemble the mouth of a feeding calf.
Modern cows have been bred so strenuously for milk production that their mammary systems are always stressed. Properly designed and regulated milking equipment is for Lee the difference between a profitable herd and one whose milk is contaminated with widespread mastitis.
There is an elegant, one is almost tempted to say “political,” explanation for dairy cows’ tendency to develop chronic mastitis. Because barns, animals, feed, labor, machinery, and operating capital all cost so much nowadays, and because farmers compete with one another to make milk as cheaply as possible, dairy cows are pushed hard. They are always in a delicate condition.
Lee Totman’s herd of sixty milkers usually includes a cow or two suffering antibiotic treatments for mastitis, or whose subclinical mastitis is controlled by careful handling. If this weren’t the case, it would be a sign that the herd was not economically viable, that it wasn’t being pushed hard enough, wasn’t bred highly enough for modern times. Too much mastitis, of course, is ruinous. But, in a curious way, so is too little. The fine art of capitalism, cows teach us, includes the art of maintaining complex biological-mechanicalfinancial systems in a state of sleekly managed, slight debility. It does not seem to be enough to stop just before this point is reached, either. The press of modern financial life forces farmers to continue striving for greater productivity until just after stress becomes manifest. It is a sign that everything is operating in a commercially acceptable way.
For the most part, cows exhibit their competence to participate in this system by going about their business briskly. They are team players, with the program all the way. Cows’ main business these days is eating. The wild cows of yore had to find food and to keep themselves out of danger as well. But with humans in charge, the food is delivered and the danger is institutionalized. Eating’s the only job left, and the cows in Lee’s barn are going about it with a will. As we walk back through the assembled herd, Lee looks them over carefully again. Every one of them is eating. “A bite to eat for us, too,” he says.
Lee invites me into his kitchen. There’s no one else home. Lee’s son, Gary, a skilled golfer, is away at college, majoring in physical education. His daughter, Karen, is out at a basketball game. “She wants to get a van, after high school, and drive across the country. My wife wouldn’t like to hear me say it—but I can see where that would be one whale of a good time. I never did anything like that. Never left here.” Lee’s wife, Betty, is away at a church gathering. She is involved with the church, traveling twenty miles to a Baptist meetinghouse in Colrain several times each week because she likes the seriousness with which the minister there takes his mission. She has left a fine supper for us in the refrigerator—chicken salad, potato salad, fruit salad, and cupcakes, lavishly iced. We wash down the food withraw fresh milk, and we chat.
“A fellow was all but forced to milk twice as many cows in the same length of time, once milking machines came along,” I say. “Had to trade in the horses for a tractor. Automatic cleaning and feeding are practically a must, too, not that they don’t make life easier. But as soon as farmers had time and power to get more done, they had to go right ahead and do more just to pay for all the labor-saving devices. And you know what?”
“What? Lee dutifully asks. He’s grinning even as he eats.
“That’s it for the good old days. No more farm communities in New England. What little farming we have, a few farmers can handle. Everybody else works out, forgets farm ways altogether.”
“I’ll bet you think that’s too bad.” Lee is grinning broadly now. “But to me that’s business, free enterprise—all that, isn’t it? The ones who go out must think it’s better to go do something else - go on welfare maybe, or else the state makes so many regulations they are forced out. And another thing. You think everybody who doesn’t farm ends up on welfare or working in a factory? Look at my brother, Conrad. He’s a college professor. If there were no milking machines or tractors or artificial insemination or automatic gutter scrapers, you know what Conrad would be doing? He’d be in the barn with a shovel.”
Lee finds a cupcake, eats the icing first, like a young boy enjoying himself. The discussion goes no further. I think we’ve come to an understanding. It may be that alienation is nearly pervasive nowadays, that no one does any whole thing, that people arrange to have things happen, or work on fragmented and disconnected chores that may earn them living wages but that don’t seem to be useful, that don’t seem to contribute to the whole scheme of their survival.
All that may be true, but Lee Totman doesn’t have such problems. He does something useful; he turns grass into milk, and he does it wonderfully well. He drinks the milk now as if to emphasize the point. He is the last of unalienated labor. In a national context his attitude is vestigial, an antique even in the universe of farmers. But the fact is clear: even now the system still works for Lee. There is no point in talking to him about my own politics. They don’t make sense here; his do.
On the Totman farm, there survives the wholesome “Can do, sir!" atmosphere of a Horatio Alger novel. In this place the rules still do apply. Probity dominates. Success indeed still turns out to be the reward for goodness on this farm. He who is the disciple of self-discipline here is fate’s friend.
Lee is an apotheosis of capitalistic America. If he is admirable for his organization, his concentration, his focus, and his death-defying outpouring of constructive energy, and if for these qualities he seems to some to be endowed with a mystical aura of certainty, of instinctual correctness in every act, there is a wonderful irony to that very thought, and it is this: Lee Totman’s organizing precept, central referent, the wellspring of his ways, mother lode, rhumb and trunk lines, his straight, his narrow, his guiding angel, his fund of wisdom, his polestar, is one single elegant question - What’s the payoff?
He does not seem to be an avaricious man. It is a spiritual question. And if the answer looks good, he goes to work. “I’m not so ambitious,” he is fond of saying, “that I like to take extra steps. There is too much else to do. Routine is what’s important around here. Perhaps I’m good at routine, and if I am it’s because I’m lacking in imagination. I see that some of the very intelligent people I know concentrate on many goals—they should never farm because it would restrict them too much. I’m pretty happy just working at this one thing.” As we walk back up to the barn we trade stories about haying with rain on the way. The cows have finished supper, too. He sets to work, still grinning.
This is the payoff. Everything is ready and waiting. The milking parlor is a small room, walled with ceramic glazed tile. “We got a bunch of seconds—new tile costs an awful lot,” Lee says when he sees me taking in the parlor construction. He swings open a pair of heavy metal entrance doors by drawing down on a rope that hangs from pulleys over one end of his waist-deep working pit. The race begins. The lead cows are in a hurry. They have heard the sound of the sweet grain supplement falling into the tin troughs—about seventeen pounds of grain per milking per cow. It sounds like hail on a tin roof. The troughs are mounted at the front end of each of the parlor stalls, three feed bowls heading up three stalls on either side of the central pit. As the cows charge into their stalls, Lee names them, using the same telephone voice he used before supper to greet them when they came in from pasture to barn. “Hey, Terry, hey, Judith, hey, Karen,” he intones as the huge animals lurch into place and stop suddenly, each bushel-sized head dunked into its own private world of luxury, immersed in all the grain it can devour in ten minutes of hard eating.
The stalls are arranged so that Lee, without stooping or stretching, can work at chest height on the udder of each cow in turn. Now he starts on the three cows to his right, first washing each animal’s full bag with warm water and a sponge. It takes about a minute for an animal to “let down” her milk—the washing is a stimulus to which a first-calf heifer is conditioned as soon as she enters the milking string for the first time.
By the time Lee has washed the third cow the minute is up, and he returns to the beginning of the line and attaches a milking claw, then does the same with the second and third cows. The milk spatters and dances as it is drawn in spurts through the plastic tubing connecting claw with collection bottle. Lee moves around to the three cows waiting and eating grain frantically on the opposite side of the pit. He repeats the same procedures while the first three cows are milking out.
The milk moves from cow to bulk cooler, onto the tank truck, and into the processing plant untouched by human hands. In Lee’s gleaming and aseptic milking parlor, the milk always has a low bacteria count. Cleanliness, for all its proximity to the deity, is an accomplishment of procedure, as workaday as loading up the dishwasher after supper. The rubber and stainless steel calves that draw milk from bovine mothers enter each milking a forbodingly disinfected desert for microscopic flora and fauna. The machines do, however, still make a sound very similar to the sound of live calves suckling; they pulse with the slow and imperious rhythm of living things. It’s a steady and hypnotizing sound that breathily repeats itself with about the frequency of a healthily beating heart.
Dairy engineers have long dreamed of a device that would evacuate the milk in one steady and unpulsing stream from the cow, because modern milking parlors are expensive. If the length of time each cow had to be in place could be substantially reduced, the parlor could handle a greater number of animals for the same capital investment. To date, the beast has been victorious, reacting—rather sullenly - with prohibitively increased rates of infection when milked “unnaturally.” The beast’s victory may be a victory for New England farmers as well, because if the handling capacity of existing parlors were to double, say, the result would almost certainly not be that twice as many cows would then be milked or that farmers would enjoy twice their prosperity. Rather, the most competitive farmers would milk twice as many cows, and the rest would close up shop, because there’s a demand for only so much milk. Obviously, the farmer with acreage around his barn to grow hay, corn, and grain for his entire herd, and a climate permitting it, has an advantage over a farmer who must travel long distances between scattered fields and a distant barn. The industrialization of agriculture favors Wisconsin, California, Florida, Michigan. New York State—anyplace where the bedrock isn’t showing.
However, dairy farming, fortunately for New England, is among the least successfully industrialized sectors of the agricultural economy. In terms of hours per million calorics, per million grams of protein, per number of families supplied, the fact that a cow has to be harvested twice a day while a wheat field has to be harvested only once a crop spells a tremendous difference in efficiency. Milking time is still a factor limiting herd size.
By some inexorable working out of the laws of economics, milking time on the family farm seems to be about an hour and a half. It was an hour and a half for Lee’s grandfather to milk out ten cows by hand; it was an hour and a half when that was time enough for Ray Totman, working three portable milking machines in a stanchion barn, to milk out a herd of fortyeight animals. It is about the time it takes Lee Totman, working in his double-three herringbone parlor, to milk out his herd.
A new invention is being marketed which threatens to decrease drastically the number of dairy farmers, especially New England dairy farmers, whose operations are least suited to adapting the new tool. Agricultural scientists have developed a device, replete with space-age sensors, that removes the milker automatically, opens the exit gates allowing the milked-out cow to leave the parlor, opens the entrance gate to admit a new cow, and turns on and off a grain delivery auger that meters out to the new cow her correct ration. It translates into a very small savings in time per cow per milking—about twenty seconds a farmer doesn’t have to spend doing these chores. The result is that the farmer adopting this new technology—at the moment, a very costly new technology—spends less than half a minute with each cow and has free time on his hands. His next step is to expand the size of his herd and the size of his parlor, to milk all the cows he can in order to defray the cost of the new setup.
Many dairy farmers here will be faced with the need to increase herd size to a level that is simply beyond the limits of geographical practicality in New England. And it seems no longer a question, as it was earlier in our agricultural history, of simply switching to a more laboror capital-intensive crop and going right on farming. Except for a few specialty items, milk is the most intensively farmed crop.
For the moment, though, disaster through technological advancement seems a distant threat in Lee Totman’s milking parlor. There’s not an automatic take-off milking setup in all of Massachusetts, although about 50 percent of the dairy cows in California and Arizona—where dairy farms are very large—have come to be milked with them in the past few years.
Milking time seems here to be the antithesis of change. Every other farming chore varies with the weather, the stage of the crops, the state of the equipment, and the caprice of the farmer. Milking, though, is routine, as fixed in its crucial outcome as the hauling in of a fisherman’s nets, or the walking of a trapline. It is therefore a time for a dairy farmer to brood upon an overabundance of querulous information about each animal, to plot further tampering with the life of the herd. And when that’s done for long enough, there is time left twice a day for thinking, and for not thinking, about life and the state of things in the world. It’s a time of solitude and repetitiveness, a meditation on a milky mantra, a compulsory trafficking with motherhood in its mammary, incarnadine quintessence.
Lee takes the milking machines from the first three cows. He sprays twelve teats—three cows’ worth—with a little bottle marked “Teat Dip, Disinfectant,” then opens the gate on one side of the parlor. The three cows swagger out into an exit lane leading back into the loafing barn. Lee lets in three new cows, washes their udders, turns around, detaches three milkers from the cows finishing on the other side, puts them on the new cows, turns back and sprays the milked-out teats, lets out the old cows, lets in more cows. It’s allemande right and left for the next hour and a half as milk, at ten dollars the hundredweight, gathers in the bulk tank.
Lee is alone and he forgets himself, lost in the intricate and familiar chore at hand. His is a laborious, exacting, and tedious stewardship, rewarding in satisfaction and increasing numbers on net worth statements rather than in glory, pocket money, and time to spend it. The consuming nature of the profession makes dairy farmers themselves a breed apart—a people who dwell amidst a passage of events of immense importance to their own well-being, but so intricate, picayune, private, and absorbing as to be incomprehensible to most outsiders. Lee Totman’s vocation insulates him from all but a few close neighbors and family members in the same trade. He entertains himself as he works.
As the cows come past, as he works in his well-set routine, he watches the cows. Perii is in heat; she is a bit fretful. Jake is limping and wants her hoofs trimmed. There is a terrible noisiness—compressors, pumps, and that calf-sucking sound. Lee says that for him it is the comforting noise of the routine, the din of a clockmaker’s shop, the sound that says nothing unusual is going on. Occasionally he mutters endearments or an observation (“Good girl,” or “Keep that tail over there, you”) as each cow comes in, stays a few minutes, and moves on. He uses that telephone voice, naming the cows as he handles them—playful names such as Red Ric, To Rose, Rabbit, Auntie Boo, Tippy Tu, Mighty, Bighty, and Oozy. There are a whole bevy of bovine relatives called Pig Tail, Pighead, Piggyback, Pig Pug, and Piggly Wiggly.
As the second hour of milking starts, Ray Totman comes into the parlor. He nods a greeting down into the pit, toward his son. His entrance has been orchestrated and he has arrived just as Mimi is being milked. She is a fresh cow, has calved only a day ago, and she is still giving thick colostrum milk which can’t be marketed but contains antibodies newborn calves need. Ray places a bucket under a collecting jar and drains the milk off into it. The young calves live just behind the milking parlor. He leaves, lugging two full pails of milk. Lee has barely acknowledged the old man.
Ten minutes later, pails empty and rinsed, Ray comes back into the parlor. He places one, open end up, on the steps leading down into the working pit, and sits on it. Lee nods to him. Ray watches Lee milk for a few minutes.
I think to myself that Ray must see so much in those motions without even being aware of it, having milked for half a century.
“That calf’s come around,” Ray finally says. Lee nods. More silence.
“Bearing’s beginning to sound rough—ought to last one more day of corn-chopping, though. Should be through for the year this time tomorrow,” Lee offers.
“Ground’s going to soften up some this weekend— rain due,” Ray says. He sits for another few minutes, just taking in the scene. As he leaves, Lee calls out, “See you tomorrow.” Lee milks nine more cows, then cleans up. He leaves the barn at 9:20 P.M., nearly sixteen hours after he began his working day. He walks the quarter-mile back down the hill past his parents’ now darkened house to his own. He helps himself to a bowl of maple nut ice cream. He turns on the TV and soon falls asleep in front of the Monday night football game. He dreams (he tells me later) only that it is tomorrow, and that he is out chopping corn again. □