By AMY CHAPMAN
“Does anyone here actually have a cow?” Joann Grohman asked her audience at Gould Academy’s McLaughlin Science Center. “Anyone thinking about having a cow? No? Well, I’m sure you’ll all be thinking soon about having a cow.”
Grohman was in Bethel recently to speak about “The Changing Nature of Farming” and her more than four decades of keeping a family cow. Her talk was part of the Mahoosuc Land Trust’s “Changing Nature” series, which has also included presentations on the effects of climate change in Maine and educational initiatives for a sustainable society.
“I’m a big promoter of cows,” said the 85-year-old Carthage farmer, who is the author of Keeping a Family Cow, considered by many small farmers and homesteaders to be an indispensable reference. Originally self-published in the 1970s from the basement of her farmhouse, her book was released last fall by Vermont publisher Chelsea Green.
“Cows have suffered bad press for the last 25 or 30 years, so I spend a lot of my time trying to correct some misinformation,” she said. “Cows are your friends all the way.”
Nearly half of the earth’s land surface is covered by grass, and only animals that possess a digestive organ called a rumen, like cows, are able to survive on a diet of grass alone, Grohman said.
“The rumen is a fermentation bath; it’s full of a great mush of bacteria and protozoa that have the job of breaking down the cellulose in grass,” she explained. “The cow is the only farm animal who can get a full spectrum diet just from the product of its rumen. And out of its cellulose diet, it produces a food that’s truly a perfect food.”
Grohman is a believer in “real food,” including the whole milk, butter, cream, and cheese that she gets from Fern, her current family cow. She became interested in organic gardening in the early 1950s, a decade before Rachel Carson condemned the widespread use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in her book Silent Spring.
At the time, she had five children under the age of five, and was frustrated by how frequently they became sick.
“Then I got going on health food, and everything got so much better that it convinced me of the importance of really understanding nutrition, and having plenty of high-quality protein in the family’s diet. And the best way to have that, if you have a large family, is to produce your own.”
“You can count on the cow to produce everything that’s really needed for family health,” she said. “And then, of course, she has her other wonderful product from the other end, for our gardens, which can be made into terrific compost.”
Grohman dismissed the idea that cows, due to their production of methane, have an adverse effect on the environment. “Manure that falls on the open field does not produce methane, because there’s air around it, and methane is only produced when there’s no air.”
In fact, she said, open grazing can actually build the health of the soil.
“The carbon that’s in the grass is pounded into the ground, and it stays there to be worked on by soil bacteria, and it builds topsoil very efficiently,” Grohman said. “If grass is not grazed, it dies above the ground, and the carbon that is in it is oxidized and goes back into the atmosphere.”
She cited the work of the Marin Carbon Project in California, whose scientists found that when grazing land was spread with a thin layer of dairy straw compost, there was a 20 percent increase in the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil in each of the first three years.
The computer models used in the project suggest that if half of California’s 23 million acres of rangeland were treated with a single application of dairy straw compost every 30 years, the resulting increase in sequestration of carbon in the soil would offset all of the greenhouse gas emissions from residential and commercial activity in the state.
“Why shouldn’t we believe it?” asked Grohman. “This is the way soil has been built forever. The thick layer of topsoil on the prairies was built by the buffalo by pounding [manure] in, moving on, and letting it compost naturally in the soil.”
“They have to stay bunched up like that in order to do it naturally,” she said, describing the role of predators in keeping herds of grazing animals together and moving from place to place. “This is why we need some wolves out west. I think the folks out west that want to kill all the wolves are trying to create a nanny state for their sheep and cattle.”
Audience member Laurie Winsor asked about the economics of family farming.
“Well, you have to do it for something besides making money, most of the time,” Grohman acknowledged, “although I think more and more people are making money at it.”
She said the number of new farms in Maine is “increasing exponentially. Everybody wants to farm, and I don’t blame them, because it’s a pretty gratifying thing to do. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, at least it’s honestly made, and it comes from the original source of all wealth, namely, the soil.”
As more people become aware of the value of food that is grown locally and sustainably, they are willing to pay more for it.
“When we first started selling milk at Coburn Farm in 1975, people only bought milk from the farm—or eggs, or anything else—because it was cheaper than the store. Now people will drive miles to buy their milk from the farm because they believe in the importance of the quality of this milk—it tastes better, it’s creamier, and they are confident in its health-supporting properties.”
Bonnie Pooley asked about taking up farming in the later years. “For those of us who can’t really go back in time and start when you did, but still want to do as much as we can with growing our own food—what about being an older farmer?”
“Well, I think it’s just as easy to start at any time,” said Grohman. “You’re always making mistakes, no matter what age you are. And if you really want to start later on, well, I happen to have written a book that tells you all about how to do it.”
She herself learned many things through trial and error.
“I made cheese for quite a number of years,” she said. “I figured that people have been making cheese all of this time, and they probably weren’t any smarter than me, and I could probably do it, too. In the course of learning, I had to throw a lot to the chickens—they aren’t as fussy about flavor.”
Farming, she added, is “sort of like having kids—you may not know quite how to do it in the beginning, but it kind of comes to you.”
Since 1998, Joann Grohman has blogged about farming and keeping a family cow. Her blog can be found at http://www.real-food.com/heifer-diary/