Updated: Jun 10, 2020
The last stop on the first half of my Northlands tour was a farmstay near Ruawai on the West Coast. My first Airbnb near Paihia had been a nice couple who were raising their own meat. My expectation was for this stay to be similar.
Due to my hiccups in planning this journey, I was behind schedule in arriving. One thing I wanted to avoid on the road trip was night driving. Of course, I was about an hour away and driving at night. Driving in New Zealand was a completely different experience. The ‘high way’ in most places was no more than a two lane (sometimes one lane) road. There was little light pollution because Northland is so rural, which also means I had a lingering feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. When I did see headlights behind me, I got nervous (I never claimed to be brave). Scenes of I Know What You Did Last Summer played in my mind. Granted, me and my high school friends did not hit and run a grifter last summer, but still... That vengeful man could be after me!
Finally, I made it to a town, my GPS told me I was only 10 minutes away from the Airbnb. I turned left, and the road was taking me farther and farther away from the city lights that had brought me comfort. Now rationally, it makes sense for a farm to not be in a city, but you couldn’t rationalize with me.
After another left, now I was on a gravel road, the GPS proudly declared “You have arrived”. And this is why my and Google have been beefing. I was still about a quarter mile from the nearest building structure and there were yet and still more in the shadowy distance.
Being from America, and furthermore Florida (notorious for the Stand Your Ground Law), I didn’t want to knock on the wrong door. Then my optimist side of my mind was saying: Girl, this is New Zealand. Statistically you are safer here, than back home. Regardless, my survival instinct that has served me so well said: But, you don’t knock on stranger’s doors at 10 at night in the States either.
Practicality won out though. I pulled in to the first building and saw signs saying that this was the right place. Then I called the number from the Airbnb to let the host know that I was outside. No knocking required.
Sarah, greeted me shortly after. She was super sweet and had stayed up to welcome me.
Anti-climatic, I know, but it’s a good example of how fear is a waste of imagination.
Sarah and Peter were semi-retired dairy farmers. Luckily for me, they offered me a chance to work on the dairy farm.
At twenty-something years old, I hadn’t thought much about the process of milk collection as a whole. I knew that I milk came from cows and Publix. As a child in the states, I’d gone on a field trip to the MacArthur Milk plant. I knew that somewhere there was a process to bottle it and ship it out, but the technicalities of it all hadn’t been a concern of mine.
Bruh… There was so much poop!
Peter, the Airbnb host, called me a townie. I’m pretty sure I’m okay with that! I am super proud of myself for not losing my mind when I had mystery liquid land on my forehead. I pray that it was just water from the hose. That’s what I’m going to say that it was, for the sake of my sanity.
Sidenote: the night before milking the cows I was speaking to the host Peter about how I have this seemingly magical ability to make animals (particularly dogs) poop, much to my dismay. But back to the story.
When we arrived early the next morning to the dairy farm I took in the sights. There was a line of cows that had just been milked and were exiting the milking area. Me and this one cow made eye contact. At this point, I freaked out because Animal Planet had said if you look away it’s a sign of weakness. Do I want to submit to this animal? Is it better to establish myself as the dominant one? Why is this cow still staring at me? Do cows charge like the bulls in Pamplona? Will that cow be able to jump over the gate between us? Is it pooping? Yes, this cow is just letting it all go while she unblinkingly looked me in my eyeballs. What does it mean? Did I just lose this staring contest? I think I just lost, because I’m (probably) not going to poop myself.
Eventually the cows behind it nudged it on. I held my ground while it moved on. It's a small victory but it was mine. To my horror, the cows in the line behind it marched unbothered through the fresh poop (it was probably warm, too). Some even slipped and fell in the poop.
Me and Miquel, the other guest at the Airbnb, were led to the milking area. The smell hit me first. Abashedly I will admit that I am sensitive to smells. Certain smells can induce me to vomit. I can’t help it. Peter and his family were already yanking my chain because of my naiveté in regard to farm life. My pride would not let me give them something else to tease me about. Keep it together Pella.
The milking process was not like I had assumed. There was an obvious disconnect about my understanding of the world and my expectations of a farm. When I told Sarah that I wanted to milk a cow, I had visions of me in some jean overalls, in a barn with a small wooden stool and a metal bucket.
I mean, when you tell me that New Zealand produces 3% of the world’s dairy products and generates USD $11 billion/year, I guess it makes sense that you won’t milk the cows by hand. I was still disappointed. Peter and his son Calvin were very knowledgeable about dairy farming. I learned a lot while there. I’d never considered all the science and politics it takes to produce the staple.
I’m going to apologize in advance for the lack of photos. I was trying to be ‘in the moment’… and also I didn’t want cow poop on my camera. I will describe to you in great detail, so that you can imagine… It will be just like you were there with me.
Picture this… a four-legged mechanical octopus with a hose attached. I’m sure it has some really cool technical name, but I’m going to call it a ‘quadropus’ (the plural is quadropi). You are wearing a Dickie’s onesie like a mechanic with a heavy-duty tarp like apron, and work rainboots (known to Kiwis as Gumboots). The un-milked cows are in a holding area from there, they split off into two queues of the milking area. This area has something akin to a dugout where the milkers stand. Me, Miquel and Calvin had the honors this day. There are several quadropi. Each leg of the quadropus was attached to a teat of the cows.
Me holding it together... oh, and a quadropi
The milk is collected from the quadropi and put through a machine that chills it almost immediately. The fresh milk is then later collected by the milk manufacturers. I’m sure it’s comparable to the MacArthur plant.
A portion of the milk is kept aside then put into a machine. Imagine a Gatorade cooler atop a wheel barrow. Sandwiched between the cooler and the wheel barrel is a ship’s wheel. Now imagine that the wheel has a pink teat attached to every poke. The teat-mobile was then driven to the pasture to feed the calves. I called it the teat-mobile. The original name in my head was Nip-mobile, but Calvin corrected me and told me that they were more accurately called teats.
My mind was blown. I had never seen anything like that. Again, this was a whole world that I had little knowledge about. It stuck out to me, that while all this was new and foreign to me, to Peter and his family, it was a way of life. There was a system and processes implemented. Miquel and I rode on the back of the four-wheeler to deliver the milk with Peter. I grew up riding ATVs recreationally, but on the farm it had a utility purpose.
In my time at the farmstay was great. I really enjoyed my hosts and fellow guest. These people where the type of people I’d hoped to meet, experiences I’d hoped to have, opportunities that I wanted to open myself up to while traveling.
Until next time,
- Pella the pilgrim
PS. Peter has informed me the "quadropi" are actually called clusters.