Moo – Loni Brueckmann
Fifty cows standing in four rows. Two rows on the left, two rows on the right, one
path down the middle. Between each pair of rows runs a trough, full of grain. Cows in a row stand side-by- side, tongues in the trough, facing the other row. Eating…eating…eating. One cow moves his head a little too far to the right, and the neighboring cow lets out a warning grunt. The smell of manure fills my nostrils and I wrinkle my nose. Sensing my disgust, my mom leans in to whisper in my ear, “When I was growing up on the farm, I didn’t understand that manure smelled bad. No one ever told me that it was a bad smell.” I stare at her for a second, then smile.
I gaze into the back of the barn and see a baby calf, half buried in hay, fast asleep.
Slowly, I walk down the center path, glancing from side to side at the cows’ backsides, their hips so bony it’s a wonder they don’t poke right through the skin. “Watch out!” my mom cries, grabbing my arm and pulling me backward. Splat … splat. The cow to my left had lifted her tail and goopy brown manure was falling to the floor, missing the gutter designed to collect it and sending droplets in all directions. “Always be ready for that,” she says.
A man emerges from a door in the front corner of the barn. He is somewhere in his fifties, with salt-and- pepper hair and a shy smile on his honest face. “Hello there,” he says. My grandma walks over to provide mutual introductions. “Loni, this is Dennis Rex, my cousin’s grandson. Dennis, this is my granddaughter, Loni. I wanted her to come by and see the cows being milked.” Dennis’s sister. Charlene, who lives next door, comes in and after greeting us, pitches in to do the evening milking..
My mom’s family owned and operated a dairy farm until she was thirteen years old, and my grandma was raised on a dairy farm before that. Her father, Lewis Zimmerman, was famous in Mahoning valley. In fact, he had owned many of the farms in the valley at one time or another, but that was not why he was famous. He was famous for his cows, and their production records for the high butterfat percentage of his milk, for his generosity in lending land and money to those who worked for him, for getting his hands dirty alongside his farmhands each day. Dairy farming was a lifestyle that my grandma felt I should experience, if only for a day.
Dennis talks about his life, his farm, his daily routine. He had worked on the farm, in the barn and on the land, since he was old enough to walk and took it over after he graduated high school. It was now one of two dairy farms left in the valley. My grandma’s face falls at this news. Once dotted with farms up and down the hillside, the valley now contained but two. He nods solemnly, his head titled slightly downward.
After a moment’s pause, he leaves through the door from which he entered and
returns with a funny-looking machine. He hooks it on a pipe hanging from the ceiling that runs parallel to the trough. Small red and green lights blink beside digital number readings on a small box, and from the box hang multiple long, blue tubes with suction cups at their end. The image of an octopus flashes through my mind.
Starting with the first cow in the row, Dennis reaches for the suction cups at the end of the tubes and attaches them to the cow’s swollen udder. The cow takes no notice, just continues eating…eating…eating. My mom and grandma marvel at the milking machine; they had always used their hands to coax the last of the milk out of the udders. It drops off when there is no more milk. He explains that the machine also first checks that the milk has not been contaminated with mastitis, the result of infectious bacteria that could ruin an entire batch of milk and render it unsuitable for purchase, resulting in significant loss of income. I ask my grandma how they used to determine if their milk contained this
bacterium. “We ran a little from each teat through a fine sieve.” She explained.
The machine beeps that the milk is clean and begins suctioning milk up the tube. As the first cow is being milked, he leads us through the corner door into the room containing the bulk tank. He details the process of collecting the milk into the 100-gallon bulk tank, how the tank is collected, how it is loaded onto the milk truck.
As I listen to Dennis speak, I study the faces of my mom and grandma and I recall the stories they have told me, often more than once, from their days on the farm. The stories become more vivid in my mind now that I have imagery to accompany them. Although I have only been on this farm for a short time, I am beginning to better understand the culture in which they were raised; a culture in which you are good to your land and generous to your neighbors; a culture in which there is no vacation, because every day there is something that must be done; a culture in which there is not a nine-to- five way of thinking, but a strong desire for accomplishment; a culture in which money is merely something that pays bills and buys what is needed; a culture in which there are no complaints, because you enjoy the things you have to do. I think of the ways this culture
shaped my grandma and took root in my mom, and how these values became instilled in me.
I reflect on my mother’s camping store, Appalachian Outfitters. As the owner, she
was in her store nearly every day, and consequently so was I. I would play house in the tents on display, hide-and- seek between the stacks of canoes and kayaks, when I was older, if I was good, she would let me work the cash register. Most of the time, however, I was a shadow. When she was not with customers, I would follow my mom around the store, watching her take inventory, looking over her shoulder as she crunched numbers, bouncing along beside her as she walked through the store in silent thought.
Many similarities exist between the way a retail store is run and the way a farm is
run. There are no cows to be milked, but everyday there are customers to be helped, orders to be placed, and budgets to be planned. As I grew up, my mother’s dedication and work ethic made her an inspiration. I strove to exhibit such qualities in my schoolwork, sports, and any other activities I pursued. I realize now that these qualities had been ingrained in her during her time on the farm.
Despite my mother’s best efforts, Appalachian Outfitters went out of business, as so many small businesses do. My family had dedicated much of its time, and much of its savings, in attempt to save the store, and its failure resulted in our being in a state of financial vulnerability. With college fast approaching, my parents encouraged me to get a summer job. In addition to allowing me to make a necessary financial contribution to my education, they felt that I was old enough to benefit from the lessons learned in holding a job.
I remember my first job as a lifeguard at Fort Meyer. It was a typical high school
summer job. My co-workers were all close in age; many also attended Washington-Lee High School. The pay was decent, and the shifts were short. Once I settled in, I began to pick up more and more shifts, often working from the opening of the pool to its close. Unlike many of my co-workers, I did not count the seconds until my shift ended, nor did I try to find ways to leave early. I focused on the positive aspects of my job, the money, the experience in first-aid and CPR, the tan. This mind-set mirrored that which my mother and her mother had always held—enjoy the things you have to do.
After my first year of college, I worked as a waitress at Siné Irish Pub. Unlike in my previous job, my co-workers were mostly adults, of varying age, many of them immigrants, who held this job to earn a living. They worked hard day after day, on their feet, carrying trays of heavy plates, putting on a smile and relying on the generosity of others. It was a different experience to be paid based on performance as opposed to by the hour. I strove to work harder, move faster, smile wider. I helped my co-workers when I could, bussing their tables, carrying trays when they had large parties—there was always something to be done. Generosities were exchanged, and helped the restaurant run smoothly.
Again, I picked up extra shifts, forgoing leisure time at the pool, trips to beach, nights at the movies. I found happiness in the sense of accomplishment I felt when my hard work paid off. Half of my income was dedicated to tuition and housing costs. The other half was my spending money, for clothes, activities, random purchases. Most of my half, I saved. My parents had always placed an emphasis on frugality—to buy only what was needed.
We give our thanks and bid our goodbyes to Dennis and Charlene, and head back to the car. My thoughts wander to my decision to go to medical school, a very different track than anyone else in my family. I question my motives for that decision. I wanted a career in which I would work hard, and my hard work would be rewarded; I wanted to have purpose and to make a meaningful contribution to my community and to society. Each of these values is a common thread connecting me to the generations before me. My outlooks on economics and finance, on generosity and community, on accomplishment and hard work,
have influenced my past actions and my decisions for the future. They were shaped by the farming lifestyle, and I have the cows to thank.