Spending my youth and early adulthood between suburban Boston and New York City, the austere beauty of New England and the American Northeast says ‘home’. Four distinct seasons offer a diverse bounty of vegetables, flowers, grasses, and critters. Summer tomatoes, fall kale, winter squash and preserves, and spring lamb recall seasons gone by and harvests yet to come, as young blossoms sprout and autumn leaves wilt. Indeed, the Northeast is rich with the small-scale, ‘slow’ food that Lucy’s Whey supports.
Northern California is another such breadbasket and beacon for small farm and slow food production. Some forty, twisting minutes inland from coastal Mendocino, my brother has happily relocated and married into a family of pastoralists. Snuggled between looming glades of Redwood and serene hills and meadows yellowed by the California sun, Tick Valley Farm counts some thirty sheep, twelve horses, three beef cattle, and numerous chickens, duck, geese, and pheasants amongst its litter. The valley produces vegetables, fruits, meat and wool, all of which are collected as raw material and processed for pickling, canning, and knitting by my talented brother and sister-in-law.
Josh and Laurel take pride as stewards of the land. Using minimal machinery and sustainable agricultural methods, they produce a wealth of scrumptiousness, enrich the soil, and provide their animals an unconfined, happy life.
Perhaps the most exciting addition to the farm is a beautiful Shorthorn dairy cow named Connie, whom I met on a visit in October. True to her English heritage breed, Connie is docile and friendly, both a wonderful farm companion and a productive resident of the farm: since calving in September, Connie is faithfully producing nearly seven gallons of milk each day.
Tick Valley’s Shorthorn dairy cow and her calf, Connie and Diva
Now, I consider myself decently versed in farm life for a city boy, but I was wholly unprepared for hand milking. Every morning and evening, Laurel heads to the pasture where Connie and her calf, Diva, both eagerly await their hay, alfalfa, and oats. Requiring levels of feel, skill, and energy that I could not have imagined, my hands seized up every five minutes. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law efficiently and neatly milks away, lazily tripling my pace. For an hour, Connie munches and Diva greedily sucks her bottle, while Laurel milks with agility and endurance into a shiny steel bucket. Two gallons go to Diva, while the remaining five are brought up to the house.
The quality of the raw, un-skimmed milk is superb, perfect for airy ricotta, a hot mug of creamy milk and honey, or transcendent cultured butter, grassy and tangy. Laurel’s farmer cheese was brilliant dolloped across tarts of heirloom tomato and caramelized onion, while a truly homemade cheesecake, littered with foraged huckleberries and served with local honey wine, brought cheer to all. Even more exciting will be Connie’s transition to pasture in the springtime, where she will feed on the valley’s various grasses, grains, and flowers, adding new complexities and sweetness to her milk.
A tart of garden tomatoes, caramelized onions, and fresh ricotta!
Apart from a wonderful visit with loved ones, my time in Mendocino County was a reminder of the hard work and passion that are the foundation of small-scale, sustainable farming. For Josh and Laurel living on a small farm, caring for their land is caring for their animals, which in turn, is caring for the vegetables, which all care for the family itself.