Magical Manure

Happy as a pig in organic, biodynamic shit.

It is six thirty on Saturday, and Peter and I are recovering from having cooked lunch for 11 people. (More on that to come.) I have goat milk on my pants, bread dough on my shirt, sweat everywhere, and I cannot tell you how much I do not want to go out for the second round of milking — which is set to begin in approximately 32 minutes. I’d love to skip it for tonight and just take a nap, but it’s difficult to shirk responsibility when it’s bleating at you from outside the window. (A side note: I realized this morning that I have become a goat racist. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to say this out loud — but I just don’t like white goats. They’re ornery and mean and try to kick you when you put a suction cup on their udder [though then again, can I blame them?] I like brown goats. Brown, short-haired, even-tempered goats.)

Anyway. There’s no point in going to the cheese lab to take a shower right now, given the fact that in a half hour I’ll have my hands covered in goat udder — so instead I thought I’d write an update on the past couple days.

First, my adventures in the cheese lab. By the end of the week, I’d gotten a bit better at some of my tasks — ladeling curdled milk into little cups to make chevre, for example, or making sure that the cream did not boil. (Woe upon the cheese maker who lets the cream boil.) I have not, however, gotten better at filling small plastic cups with jam. As mentioned previously, the goal is to use a pastry bag — filled with sticky jelly and open at both ends — to put exactly 12 grams of “confiture” into each yogurt cup. The two women who work in the lab do this by eye, squirting precisely the right amount over and over again, 48 cups per tray. I, however, am a nervous jam squirter, and like to weigh my yogurt cups, even if it means that the same task that the other women complete in three minutes takes me about 45. I’m sorry, but the difference between 12 and 16 grams of jelly amounts to approximately one apricot chunk, and I don’t want customers complaining.

But in addition to the ridiculous amount of time my method requires, there’s another problem — it tends to make the bag come open at the bottom. The first time this happened, I noticed what was going on before I spilled jam on myself, and got help. But the second time I was not so lucky. I was focusing so hard on my apricot measurement that I didn’t notice it when about two cups’ worth of jelly oozed out of the bag and onto my apron, the counter, and the floor. I uttered a hearty obscenity, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and managed to get most of the jam into a bucket before someone walked into the room — at which point I boldly announced, “Il y a un catastrophe d’abricot!” (There is an apricot catastrophe!)

After that, I requested a chaperone.

But that was less stressful than our recent experience with biodynamic agriculture. One morning — maybe Tuesday — Laurent announced that he needed six people to join him in the field to “preparer la composte.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about, but the night before people had been talking about biodynamic agriculture (a system developed by Rudolph Steiner that involves cosmology, psychology and letting things rot in deer stomachs — long story). There’d been jokes about how you needed to think good thoughts while planting corn, and it seemed like people were making fun of the idea.

But in retrospect, I think I was mistaken. Because when we got to the field, Laurent pulled out a medicine bottle full of mysterious brown liquid, put several drops in a bucket of water and began to swirl it carefully in a stick, first in one direction, then the other, for ten minutes. When I asked why he was doing it, he mentioned something about the idea that water was able to accept the energy from the universe, and that this was how you got the water crystals to open. (This was particularly odd because Laurent is a dry-humored, occasionally sarcastic guy whom I wouldn’t expect to have books that are sold at Cafe Gratitude.)

Then he revealed five small bottles of brown, humus-like material. I’d seen on the box that their ingredients were things like camomile and other herbs, so I was a bit surprised when they smelled like poop. But it turned out that part of biodynamism is to bury the ingredients in various animal organs (deer stomach, goat horn) and let them rot for six months before digging them up.

Laurent instructed Elder, the Portuguese apprentice, to make fifty holes in the compost, one and a half meters apart, and then handed each of us a bottle and arranged us in a line. Our job was to work our way down the field, each of us putting a tiny bit of our magical potion into one hole at a time, then covering them up as if planting a precious seed. It was very important that we a. work quickly and b. stay in order. Laurent followed us, putting a drop of water in every sixth hole.

I don’t entirely understand biodynamic agriculture in English — let alone French. But there are many things on this farm that I’m not sure about (why there are corks on the end of the milking suction cups, for example, or why I feed the baby goats by dropping corn on their heads). So I just took my place in line.

My first issue with this project was that while the other farm hands had wisely put on knee-high boots — a good choice when one is ascending piles of moist poop — Peter and I were wearing sneakers and long pants. “How am I not going to get cow shit in my socks?” I asked myself. It didn’t occur to me until I was actually on top of a pile, in the midst of getting cow shit in my socks, that the real problem was not my feet — it was the fact that we were supposed to fill in the hole with our hands. Oh yes. Take a small piece of rotting deer stomach, drop it in the hole, and then fill it up with moist cow turds, sticky and covered with flies. It wasn’t long before I had poop up to my elbow.

The chakras of this compost are very well aligned.

When we’d finished, Laurent walked up and down the pile using a bundle of grass to sprinkle the remaining water on top as Elder looked dramatically toward the heavens and made the sign of the cross.

Biodynamic poop aside, though, Peter and I both feel really lucky to have ended up on this farm with this family. They are generous, kind, and tend to have senses of humor about, well, us — which is something I’m very grateful for.

Peter, Elder, and the cutest dog at the farm.

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