Call Me Garlic Man
Crash Barry Reports From a Maine Farm
My mouth caught fire.
Raw garlic oil, alive and intense, overwhelmed my taste buds, scorching my tongue and the insides of both cheeks with a Jalapeno heat. I chewed the clove a couple more times, gulped and swallowed. I felt an electric charge pulse from my brain to my toes, from stomach to fingertips. My body radiated a throbbing, rhythmic energy that moments before had been buried beneath the fertile soil of the Nezinscot Farm, atop a hill overlooking a river in the western Maine town of Turner.
The clove, from a bulb of Bohemian Red, had been planted the autumn before, spent the snowy winter hibernating, then sprouted with the spring heat, bursting through straw mulch, a green stalk reaching for the sun. Underground, the single clove had magically multiplied into a cluster of ten, forming a giant bulb that weighed a quarter of a pound.
Modern science tells us that when you chew raw garlic, a component of the herb called alliin reacts with an enzyme in the cloves called alliinase to create allicin, a powerful antibiotic. Recent studies have shown that eating three or four cloves daily can eliminate lead and other heavy metals from the body, lower cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, and fight liver and heart disease.
Herbalists refer to garlic as the second-oldest medicine (after ephedra, the traditional Chinese cold cure). Ancient healers used garlic to treat ailments like leprosy, cancer, infections, and digestive and heart problems. Until the discovery of penicillin, garlic concoctions were used to fight infections on the battlefield.
I find a garlic tincture helps stave off colds and coughs, flus and fevers. Plus, if you eat lots of garlic, ticks won’t want to drink your blood.
Nearly a year has passed since I picked my first bulb. I had no idea signing on for the garlic harvest would lead to an ongoing apprenticeship at Nezinscot. And I hadn’t planned to switch to an organic diet consisting almost entirely of local meat, dairy products, potatoes and vegetables. But since I’ve been on this “all-you-can-eat” food plan, my waistline has shrunk by three-and-a-half inches and all my stress has disappeared.
My wife Shana and I are hoping to buy 40 acres of neglected pasture and overgrown woodlot in the hills of Western Maine. There we will settle, reclaim the land, and build our homestead. The ultimate goal is to achieve self-sufficiency. Our Nezinscot experience has been like boot camp for ag recruits. We work and learn on the farm three days a week, sleeping in the yurt by the donkey and horse pasture.
Fourteen-hour days are common. I milk 100 cows twice daily, and provide organic, herbal, homeopathic healthcare to 50 calves. There’s castrating, de-horning and ear-tagging to be done. Plus tending three breeding pigs and 300 laying chickens, herding goats and helping shear sheep. Seeding, weeding, and harvesting herbs and vegetables. Driving tractor and skid steer. Building and repairing fences. We work long and hard, and even in summer there’s never enough daylight to get everything done.
I’m lucky to have landed at such a diverse farm. My skill set has grown and improved immensely, as has my comfort level working with animals. I’ve carried members of every species on the farm except the horses and donkeys. Being a big guy, it’s often easier for me to lug, rather than lead, livestock. I carry goats, sheep, pigs, baby camelids and calves as routinely as other folks carry grocery bags.
Not to brag, but during the Great Chicken Escape in April, when about a hundred birds got through a downed fence to freedom, I was able to carry eight chickens at a time, provided someone else loaded me up. My solo record is six birds. The trick, of course, is to hold ’em upside down, by their feet.
My proudest feat so far was planting the 2010 garlic crop. I hoed a pair of 160-foot-long, eight-foot-wide, raised beds. Nearby, in a smaller section of the garden, I hoed another 15 raised beds, a dozen feet long and six feet wide. Then I built a planting board using a piece of oak with eight evenly spaced protrusions for efficient sowing.
We planted 85 pounds of garlic of a dozen varieties — about 5,000 cloves. The planting process was simple and only took three days, with Shana helping half the time.
I’ve learned a lot in the past year, yet I’m still very much a novice. The epiphanies I’ve experienced on the farm have changed my life. I’m healthier, happier, and more optimistic than I’ve ever been.
Call me Garlic Man.
Know thy farmers
Gloria and Gregg Varney, the owners of Nezinscot Farm, have been married for 22 years. That’s one of their myriad accomplishments.
Nezinscot was the first organic dairy farm in Maine. These days, in addition to a grass-fed milk and beef herd, the Varneys have a thriving farm store, bakery, cheese room and café, all on their property in Turner, about 20 minutes north of Lewiston/Auburn. They have fields and gardens, animals aplenty, and five awesome kids. They also have the respect of their farming peers and their community.
They never have a day off. Gregg and Gloria have never gone on a vacation together. Not even a honeymoon. (They still have a gift certificate for a B&B on the coast that they received for their wedding.) This is what real farming is about: chores twice daily and a to-do list without end.
Gregg grew up on the land they farm today. It was his father’s and his grandfather’s property, back when Turner was the agricultural capital of Maine, not a bedroom suburb for L/A, Portland and Boston. It seems like half the people in town are Gregg’s cousin and the other half wish they were. Almost nobody farms anymore.
Gregg certainly doesn’t seem 56 years old. When he was younger, he raced canoes on white-water rivers and dove for scallops on the coast. He hunted, worked in his wood lot and built a log cabin. These days, he’s chair of the town planning board. High school girls say he looks like George Clooney. He demurs when I proclaim him to be the strongest man in Western Maine.
“No,” he says, “that’s Gloria’s cousin, Gerard. He was a real bull in the woods.”
I beg to differ. I’m six-feet-two and weigh 225 pounds. Gregg, who is a tad shorter, often makes me feel puny. He’s heavily muscled from a lifetime of hard labor.
As a kid, Gregg lugged milk buckets. While a student at the University of Maine at Orono, where he learned the business and science of agriculture, he chain-sawed and split roughly 2,500 cord of wood to pay tuition.
Gregg has maintained his herd of cattle for over 8,000 days in a row. On his croplands and some nearby fields he leases, he grows most of the hay and high-moisture corn the cows consume. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of tons of food per year that Gregg has planted, reaped and hauled around.
Earlier this spring, Gregg slipped in the dairy barn. Hit the ground hard. He either broke or badly bruised his ribs, and was in pain for more than a month, but a couple hours after the accident I spotted him swinging a 25-pound sledgehammer — with one hand and arm —trying to break the casing off an old hydraulic cylinder.
Gregg’s handshake is surprisingly gentle. He grins often. I’ve heard many tales of his toughness and endurance: wrestling bulls, manhandling tractors, mowing machines, hay balers. Farming is a dangerous business. Gregg’s escaped death and serious injury so many times that he seems invincible.
Not so, he insists. He just takes his time and tries to stay focused and aware of his surroundings — mindful, as Gloria always says. “Rush on the farm,” Gregg says. “That’s when things go wrong and you really get hurt.”
Gregg is also an inventor and an engineer. In the forest beyond the barnyard sits his wood processor. Two men can cut and split five cord an hour using this mammoth contraption. He built it out of scraps and parts salvaged from other equipment. (Gregg thinks it took him about two years; Gloria says it took five.) It’s an amazing and oddly beautiful machine, the ultimate example of what’s known on the farm as a Varneyization.
His latest venture is running a grain mill in Auburn for a group of Maine organic dairy farmers. So, in addition to the farm labor, he’s now responsible for the processing of hundreds of tons of bulk feed that arrives by rail and is distributed on trucks to co-op members. He’s also developing a feed-bagging business on the side for organic farmers and animal keepers.
If anyone could make Gregg look like a slacker, it’d be Gloria. (Granted, she’s more than a decade younger.) Six mornings a week, she’s in the bakery by 5:15. On the seventh day, she sleeps until 6. Here’s some math: Since 1993, Gloria has baked, on average, about 300 loaves a week; that’s over a quarter-million loaves of bread.
Gloria works in the bakery and café until early afternoon, when the high school help arrives. Then she spends time in the garden. She’s a biodynamic grower, adhering to the fascinating agricultural philosophy of the Austrian thinker and spiritualist Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic gardeners sow and reap by the calendar of the sun and the moon and the stars. The method is beyond organic — it’s holistic.
The garlic I planted got a little thirsty in mid-May due to a dry spell, but because we’re growing biodynamically, we didn’t water. When we need rain, thank the stars, it rains.
Beautiful, healthy gardens surround the farmhouse and store. Over by the earth oven are the medicinal herbs grown for tinctures and balms, lotions and soaps. Near the gravel parking lot are the fragrant culinary herbs used in the café and sold in the store, plus hot peppers, beets, cabbage, carrots and chard. Behind the farmhouse, Gloria grows the taters and tomatoes and peas, the garlic, pumpkins, squash, soy beans, green beans, and purple pole beans. Behind the “market garden” and Gloria’s new greenhouse is her vineyard (the grapes are destined to become wine vinegar). And she’s constantly picking from a long row of ever-bearing raspberry bushes, whose fruit lasts until the second frost of the fall.
For Gloria, late afternoons are time for animal chores: feed, water, bedding. She tends to dozens of sheep and goats, geese and ducks, three donkeys, seven camelids, four Devon heifers and a baby named Ike who’s destined to become an ox. She’s training a team of Halflinger draft horses, beautiful mares whose good looks and blonde manes bring supermodel Fabio to mind.
She does “a lot of things,” she says, “but not a lot of any one thing.”
Gloria is also a businesswoman running a retail shop. Hiring and firing. Payroll and bills. Plus beekeeping, and yoga, and fiddle lessons; planning a workshop, an open-farm day or a barn dance. Helping a kid with homework or an intern with a problem.
Then there’s her cheese-making operation. Brie, camembert, chèvre, Boursin, and more. Her hard cheeses are extraordinary, too, particularly Jack and Willie, a pepperjack named for a pair of beloved dogs.
Gloria frequently fields phone calls from gardeners, fellow farmers, and the media. Everyone wants something: advice, lessons, or a good quote, because she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s fiery, opinionated, a truth-teller. She’s a devotee of the organic movement, but belongs to no clique.
Raised on a farm in Livermore, a town just north of Turner, Gloria paid for her degree in community health from UMaine-Farmington with money she made helping her father, a farm butcher. From her mother, she learned gardening, canning, cooking, baking, and sewing, among other crafts.
Gloria didn’t plan to be a farmer, but she and Gregg fell in love, and that’s what happened. A few years after they were married, a local yarn shop went out of business. Gloria, a fiber artist, saw opportunity. She bought the inventory and set up in the farmhouse in Turner. Customers would come for wool, smell bread baking, and ask to buy a loaf. They bought the extra veggies from her garden. They’d see her canning pickles and place an order for a dozen quarts of dills.
The store grew gradually, organically, like everything else on the farm. It expanded into the old barn next to the farmhouse, now a homey café and cheese room with a tea house out back. The store sells organic produce and wines, Gloria’s farm-made bread, butter, cheese, cookies, cakes and pies, plus shelves of her jams, relishes, pickles, sauces and chutneys. There’s a whole section devoted to health and beauty aids, salves and soaps. There are eggs and yogurt and sauerkraut in the fridge. The freezer is full of organic, grass-fed beef and all-natural pork, lamb, goat and chicken.
You’ll also find copies of Gloria’s first book, The Painted Turtle, a true tale about the farm, a painted turtle, a ghost, an animal communicator, and a wise and talkative llama named Bernice.
The yarn shop is upstairs. Gloria sells the wool she makes from her animals, hand-dyed in bright colors. Music lessons are also held on the second floor. An amazing Ayurvedic healer does weekly bodywork sessions in the loft above — a sleeping chamber that sometimes doubles as a hostel for traveling bicyclists.
Despite all these endeavors, calculated by the hour, Gregg and Gloria earn far less than minimum wage.
But money, as they both like to say, is only good for paying bills. The store and the milk operation bring in revenue, but the cash doesn’t hang around. Gregg calls it “farming on the edge.”
The costs of running a farm are substantial. Machines routinely need parts and fuel. Health care for the herds is expensive. Government regulations are a hassle and licensing is costly. Once the expenses and the banks are paid, you’d be surprised (and depressed) by how little is left over.
At least the Varneys eat well. The bulk of the food comes from their own farm and other local growers whose products Gloria sells in the store.
Shana and I have joined the family for many feasts filled with fine food and laughter. As a learning experience, these meals have been as valuable as the days we’ve spent in the fields, barns and pens. The stories — which are always farm stories, because Gregg and Gloria hardly ever leave the farm — usually end with a lesson. Accounts of accidents are invariably accompanied by Gloria’s plea for mindfulness. There are wonder-filled retellings of natural phenomena — a farm animal did this, a bird did that.
I’ve heard about moments of joy and splendor, as well as brushes with evil and malice. On balance, tales of success outweigh those of failure.
I’ve watched the way this farming family lives in these high-tech times. For the kids, it’s lots of chores and almost no TV. I’m convinced that if you’re not raising your children on a farm, you should be. The Varney kids are all remarkably resourceful. The three oldest are the hardest-working, most intelligent young women I’ve ever met. The boys, ages 8 and 10, are inventive, adventuresome, and hilarious.
Child-rearing, it seems, is yet another of the Varneys’ talents.
These days, I spend more time with cows than people, and I’m not complaining. I’m on a farm where kindness to the animals is the rule.
I don’t know how to feed a human infant, but I’m capable of giving 23 calves their bottles of warm milk, ensuring their bedding is dry and the waterers are full and clean. I fill the hay feeders for their older cousins with the grass Gregg grows down the road. When the calves are born, I dip their navels in iodine and tickle the babies into drinking their first bottles.
My paternal instinct kicks in when I hear a cough or see a runny bovine nose. I’m always looking at their eyes, ears and manure. We treat all ailments with natural remedies: cider vinegar in their water, garlic tea and aloe vera drenches at the first sign of problems. It’s electrolytes with molasses if they’re dehydrated, acidophilus to help with digestive issues. We use arnica on bruises and sprains, and lavender as a sedative. I’ve de-horned calves using a scented lavender facecloth to keep them calm.
(We have to de-horn, by the way, for the safety of both the cows and the farmhands. In the close quarters of barns and milking parlors, udders and humans alike can be pierced by horns. While it might be unpleasant for a couple minutes to have them removed, the calves don’t miss ’em.)
Last December, Shana joined me on the farm more often and relieved me of my chores in the calf operations. I was transferred across the barnyard to the milking parlor. It was daunting at first. Milking involves all sorts of confusing pipes, hoses, switches and tanks, but after a couple weeks I started to understand the process.
It’s not practical to milk a herd this size by hand. Hasn’t been done that way for a long time. At some of the factory dairy farms, robots using lasers find the teat and automatically attach the milking machine. We still milk the old-fashioned way, using humans to attach the machines to the udder.
We roust them a little after 5 a.m. and push the line up one lane and down another to the entrance of the milking parlor. For the next couple hours, it’s like factory work mixed with traffic-cop duty. There’s room for 12 ladies at a time. It takes six or seven minutes per group.
Milking doesn’t hurt. It actually gives the cows relief. With empty udders, it’s easier to graze in the pasture, visit the feed bunk, or lay down in a stall for a nap.
I look forward to seeing my favorites: Jersey Girl, Big Momma, Mary, Horny, Delta, and Number 47. When we’re done, it’s time to clean up. We take our janitorial duties seriously and feel a sense of accomplishment when the parlor and milking room are sparkling.
Come four in the afternoon, the ladies saunter back in and trash the place again.
I love cold, raw milk. Rich and creamy, high in nutrients and omega oils, I drink it raw because pasteurization and homogenization are completely unnecessary, provided the dairy is clean and the milk is kept cool. Raw milk keeps its taste for a week. I can’t stomach even the thought of skim or low-fat milk anymore. There’s no need to mess with perfection.
Milk has long been a big industry in Maine, employing thousands and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Back in the old days, Turner had dozens of 30-to-40-cow family farms. The Turner Center Creamery was a major player in the New England dairy business (the operation eventually became part of the H.P. Hood empire).
Most modern industrial dairy farms have huge herds milked by robots around the clock. The cows are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. They rarely see the light of day and never taste pasture grass. Such operations have to be large-scale to make the investment pay off, because the price of conventional milk is kept artificially low.
The Varneys’ decision to go organic back in 1993 was a smart move. Organic milk is more valuable because those who care about quality value organic milk. Nezinscot is a longtime member of the Organic Valley Cooperative. These days, most of the milk the farm produces ends up in Stonyfield Farm yogurt — the company recently expanded its partnership with the farmer-owned co-op.
Over the past century, modern Americans have typically spent between 20 and 45 percent of their income on food. Today, around 12 percent of the average household budget goes to feeding the family. Factory farms, with their poisons and monoculture, have made food cheaper for now, but the long-term costs will bite us all in the ass. After factoring in the costs of factory farming’s damage to our health and environment, Maine-grown, organic food is more affordable.
That said, a strictly local diet is unappealing to me. Though most of what I eat comes from Maine, I still want avocado, pineapples, olive oil, tea, sugar and taco shells.
Fortunately, most places in Maine are less than an hour away from a diversified family farm where meat, butter, eggs, cheeses, yogurt, and even salad greens are available year-round. The more people demand local foods, the more farmers will produce it.
Gregg and Gloria are proof of this. Their mercantile model, despite all the hassles, works. And in my opinion, it works much better than the community supported agriculture (CSA) set-up, where it seems you get a glut of bok choy and dill and never enough potatoes or garlic.
Take it from the Garlic Man.