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The family cow

My grandmother Mary Lillian Bowman Dalton with one of her cows, c. 1925, Laurel Fork, Virginia

Yesterday while walking back from the mailbox, I was admiring one of my neighbors’ pastures. It has a good fence and a thick stand of grass ready to turn lush as soon as spring arrives. I realized that, in rural areas like this with a history of family farms, it would be relatively easy to bring back the family cow.

Consider how quickly backyard chickens have come back into fashion. There is even a new bimonthly magazine for backyard chickens. Chickens, of course, require far less infrastructure, less space, and less labor than a cow. But if the day ever comes when we see severe unemployment (meaning that people find themselves at home most of the time) combined with inflation in food prices, I suspect that some hardy rural people who have the pastureland will go back to keeping a cow.

In talking with Ken Ilgunas last weekend about my oath to measure my success here by how effectively I can turn back the clock to 1935, I mentioned how I was the last generation to witness, and, in a child’s way at least, to participate in the operation of family farms. Neither the economics nor the infrastructure of the family farm is mysterious to me. Almost all of my relatives lived on small farms, and some of those farms were in operation before 1900. I have gathered the eggs, seen cows milked, seen butter churned, seen mules pulling plows, unloaded hay, fed and watered the horse, helped with the tobacco crop, and seen the wood cookstoves blazing and steaming while Sunday dinner was cooked. Apart from the land and the infrastructure required for a small farm, it’s a matter of labor. Somebody has to be home all day. A few strong young’uns are an indispensable asset.

Would I like to have a cow? No. I don’t have the pasture space. I’m also content with soybean milk, which I could make for myself if I had to. But cows have an amazing capability that ensures them of a niche in a relocalized economy — they can turn grass into milk.

There’s a lot of material on the Internet about family cows. This is a good place to start.

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