By Shelby Pendowski, Enterprise intern
Editor’s note: This is the first in a summer series of hands-on activities exploring Leelanau County. Next week Shelby will try being a marina dock attendant at the Elmwood Township Marina. If you have a hands-on activity of interest to Enterprise readers, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upon opening my car door at Joan and Denis Garvin’s farm in Cedar, an easterly breeze off Lake Leelanau welcomed me with the aroma of fresh cut grass, grains — and feces.
Farming has been passed down through many generations of Garvins, and today Joan and Denis, along with their son, Brent Garvin, run the family farm. The Garvins milk about 45 of their 70 cows twice a day. The other portion of the herd is too young to milk and remain in a separate pasture.
At 4:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. each day, the duo works on a variety of tasks including feeding the cattle, and milking and herding them to the pasture. This usually takes a couple of hours to complete. Thankfully, they offered to let me attend the evening round of chores last Thursday, rather than waking up at an hour that a cup of joe couldn’t make reasonable.
My previous experience with horses lent a hand to my transformation from Enterprise intern to Milk Lady. The pungent smell of livestock on a warm afternoon was one I had experienced before, or I might have passed out.
Everything else in this local adventure though, left me branded with a new knowledge. I never could have previously fathomed how much went into running the farm.
“Some people ask me how I work seven days a week,” Denis Garvin said. “But I don’t know how people work only five days a week.”
Living for the weekend or the chime of five on Fridays, I realize time off never comes to these farmers. Instead each day they rise early and go to sleep late.
Although they had been up since 4 a.m., Joan welcomed me to the farm openheartedly as Denis began the process of readying the machines to milk the cows. She gave me a tour beginning with showing me the newest addition to their livestock, six calves. Then it was time to herd the cattle from their pasture, across the road and into their stall.
Due to safety reasons, I only observed as Joan with just a stick entered the sprawling pasture to rally the cattle across the road. The cows followed Joan and Denis like ducklings. But I was like the big bad wolf to these cows.
Once corralled into their pen, I was instructed to stand out of sight in the debossed cement section of the milking room. The Garvin’s explained that cows have personalities. Like humans, they get nervous about change, such as a new visitor.
As soon as the first four cows were secured in the milking station, the lesson began.
First, the udders of the cow must be sanitized or completely washed to keep any bacteria out of the milk. Following the sanitization, four suction cups begin pumping the substance that I had on my cereal earlier that morning. Although machines milk the cows at the Garvin’s farm, it didn’t get me out of actually milking one.
While observing the routine, Joan turned to me and to instruct me on how to milk a cow by hand. Mimicking her actions seemed easier than it was. It took a little help, but I was able to get some milk out.
The experience didn’t end there. Once again Joan turned to me and said ‘give me your hand,’ and trustingly I did. Before I knew it one of the suction rings was around my thumb.
“Do you feel the pulsation?” Joan asked.
These machines don’t have a constant suction so they still feel like hand milking to the cow, she explained.
The Garvin farm is on the smaller end and doesn’t rival big corporation farms, but they still are able to sell the milk their cows produce. Ninety percent of milk stays local and is purchased by Leelanau Cheese. The other 10 percent goes through the Michigan Milk Producers Association to Yoplait yogurt.
As soon as all the eligible cows are milked, the milking room is cleaned and sanitized. A self-cleaning system in the milking system pumps all remnant milk from the tubes and sanitizes the machine. The milk is pumped into a tank where within a couple of hours it is chilled to the appropriate temperature.
Walking down the grassy knoll back to my car when chores had concluded, I realized I was leaving with more than grimy hands, a lingering stench of livestock and a red-ring around my thumb. It took stepping just beyond my comfort zone to appreciate the dedication of local farmers.