Farm Frustration

There are bright, sunny days where everything is smooth and I let the cows over the road crossing and drop the tape gate in perfect time for Digger to ride through on the two-wheeler with his aviator sunglasses and we feel like badass, bearded lords of the cows.

Then there are days like today when I lose count of how many times I yell fuck.

It started going downhill once I maneuvered the tractor down a hill into the paddock with the milking cows, ready to feed out the load of grass and maize. As I start the routine, I realize that everything is wrong.

One of the farm owner’s lackeys took the tractor into town yesterday and attached all of the hydraulic plugs into the wrong sockets when he brought it back. I’m no expert when it comes to farm machinery, in fact I’m pretty useless. I do what I can and use trial and error to get the door to raise, the chains to move and the blades to rotate, but I can’t figure out the latter.

I ring Digger and he tells me to drive the tractor to the cow shed and he will take a look at it. Really, man? I know you’re my boss but that is no simple task. I have to squeeze through three narrow gates — jumping out before and after to open and close — and up three hills.

I forgot I was in third gear and I stalled out going up the hill in the paddock. I back up and try again, but then I’m too close to the gate to make the sharp turn. Then I bumped the fence post and pushed the heavy gate off of its hinges, which I would later spend five minutes and five expletives trying, and failing, to lift back in place. I reverse and make a wide loop to approach the turn at a more favorable angle. Then I make the same mistake and underestimate a smaller hill and stall out and roll back down and nearly take out an entire fence.

Oh yeah, and this is the paddock by the road so everyone driving by — mostly farmers — are making fun of the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive a tractor.

I finally make it to Digger and he fixes the problem in a matter of seconds. He tells me to make sure I spread out the feed evenly this time. You always do it too thick, he says. Great. Now I have to drive back down to that paddock and open the gates and close the gates. Then spread the feed. Then drive back to the shed and open the gates and close the gates.

Eventually I make it back and have to feed the calves. Digger still hasn’t set up the big calf feeder with the trailer — it’s been “on the To-Do list” for two weeks now — so I have to carry 12 twenty-liter buckets of milk over to the calf pens everyday and try not to spill much on my overalls or on the ground. There is one calf feeder that is too fast and one that is too slow and the calves — growing stronger and fatter everyday with the massive servings of protein — constantly push and shove, jockeying for position. It’s an impossible task to get them all to drink the same amount and if I mess something up, they could die.

And he hasn’t given me any Colostrum milk — the “liquid gold” produced just after birth that is essential for new-born calves — in over 24 hours so I feed the babies the regular calf milk, which apparently makes him liable for a $200,000 fine, because it contains penicillin, if they are collected by the bobby truck. They are randomly tested for antibiotics and he decides he will take the odds. Strange, I didn’t take him for a gambling man.

Eventually we meet up for a team huddle and I tell Digger that everything went wrong this morning. He said he’s had a good one too. The heifers escaped and scattered all over the farm. He had to collect them and walk them back in groups of two.

Digger always seems to handle problems calmly. I’ll be sweating bullets and yelling fuck because the cows jumped a fence and I’m trying to keep them off the road and George rocks up and says, “Ahh, yeah, did they pull a sneaky on you? I bet it was number 12.”

He’s used to this and I’m not. He says farming will give you a whole new level of patience. You just have to accept that shit happens. You have to bottle it up and let it go. That’s why he smokes.

His response reminded me of the interviews with inmates in solitary confinement I watched last night during a New York Times video binge.

George Franco — who spent 20 years in the shoe in Pelican Bay State Prison — said if you have anger or frustration, “What do you gotta do? Just hold everything inside.”

Farming and owning land is the ultimate freedom, but it’s also the ultimate responsibility. Having all of these living things under your name. You can’t just leave them.

After my morning duties are finished, I walk back to the house for breakfast. I decide to do some yoga in my sun room — one of the four empty bedrooms — to stretch, relax and decompress. As I’m sitting there focusing on my breathing, I start to laugh uncontrollably thinking about how awesome it is that my biggest frustration in life is that the hydraulic plugs were attached to the wrong sockets on a tractor on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

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The Country Wave

The school boy rides his bike down the country road, flanked by dewy green paddocks, to the sheet metal bus stop. He stares at me in the cockpit of my tractor, transfixed. He waves admirably. He can’t wait until his Dad reckons he’s old enough to drive one of these awesome machines.

I continue on to the goat farm and meet the familiar face of the ancient farmer standing by his ancient tractor. He momentarily stops cutting the twine off the bale of hay, faces me and waves his blue-handled knife with a gap-toothed grin.

The local butcher shoots me a wave as we meet on the rural highway. He is making his morning deliveries and I am picking up silage to feed the cows. We both have places to be.

The bobby-truck driver — who takes the 4-day-old male calves to the slaughter — and the milk-tanker driver salute with solidarity as they make their rounds. They started out as farmers but now they have auxiliary roles, less responsibility and less excitement.

It’s a slow and dangerous game when we cross paths on opposite sides of a one lane bridge. He is faster and more experienced, so I stop to let him go first. He flashes his brights to say thanks for waiting.

If I catch a wave from someone in a car, ute, van or SUV, I know they are farmers. Ever eager to return to their animals and paddocks and fresh air.

I am an alien in this small town in this small foreign country but when I don my overalls and gum boots, I’m one of them. I’m only a visitor, a pretender trying to gain insight into this life, but the country wave makes me feel like I’ve lived here my whole life.

I’ve seen another side of the country wave with some casual work for the local furniture moving company. They ring me when they have a big day and need an extra set of hands. I love sitting in the middle seat and watching the interactions between the truck drivers. There’s another world above the cars.

Gary, the business owner, is a short man with a grey goatee. His beer gut is just a ruse to hide his old-school Dad strength enhanced by 15 years of lifting furniture. He loves to give me advice. It’s not about being strong, it’s about technique.

Nah, nah, nah, mate,” he says as I awkwardly lift a mattress. “Hold it above your nuts so you’re not waddling around like a penguin.”

On a Saturday morning — after driving 14 hours from the South Island the day before — he shows up to the yard with bags under his eyes.

“Fuckin’ Nic rang in sick,” he says. “Useless cunt.”

If he finds out he was on the piss last night, he will tear him a new arsehole.

Gary has been waving to other truck drivers for years and he is a no frills type of guy, especially today. He gives a dutiful raise of the hand straight up and then straight down. If he recognizes a driver, he will give a little extra motion to signal he’s a friend. As we cruise by his mechanic’s shop or another friendly business, he gives a toot of the horn.

The personality of the driver is reflected in their wave. The young gun, Noodle, a well-built 20-year-old with sleeve tattoos, gauges and an undercut throws up an over-the-top “west-side” style wave in front of the steering wheel. It mostly annoys the more mature drivers but there are always a few who match his enthusiasm.

On a sunny day, driving through the town centre is exciting. Everyone in town knows the furniture boys and people stop to wave. Gary lets out a quick double tap on the horn to greet his mates. It’s comfortable here.

I will always be grateful to the those generous souls in small town New Zealand who taught me how to farm and move furniture and be a man and to those who were simply friendly enough to recognize my existence with a wave and a smile. The country wave is a way of life. It says, You’re my neighbor and I will always have your back. We’re in this together.

Doubt

I almost left the farm.

I want to be free and drive south to Taupo, with her beautiful lake and mountains, or some quaint coastal town. Everyone else is traveling around the country and having fun and I’m slaving away on a farm communicating with one human and 200-something cows and 30-something calves. I want to go skiing. I want to live at a hostel. Work at a cafe. Meet new and exciting people. I want to drive my van around the countryside and sleep in the back. No Internet, read books. Go on adventures. Go tramping. Get into silly situations. Drift and create the stuff from which stories are made.

After a day of traveling and facing strange encounters, I immediately feel the need to write and it flows out effortlessly. They are novel and interesting, I think, but the best stories take patience. Some stories evolve and get better with time, like chili in a crockpot. Maybe your feelings change. Maybe you develop a new perspective. Some stories never end.

I wanted to leave the farm because I felt like a burden. When I first met Digger, he didn’t want to hire me. This story started when I met Jeremy…

I stayed at a hostel for my last month or so in Australia. I had moved out of my flat and needed an easy place to stay until my visa expired. The receptionist recognized me from the Wide Open Space music festival and knew I was “cool.”

I’ll put you with Jeremy,” she says as she looks at the hostel notebook.

I get my key and enter a dark room with a small TV playing Spiderman on DVD. There are three bunk beds covered in dirty sheets, candy wrappers, empty coke bottles, and one outline of a human body underneath a blanket.

I hear a raspy, cigarette voice come from the top bunk in the corner.

“Hey, bro. I’m Jeremy.”

I set my bags on the bottom bunk bed on the opposite side of the room and introduce myself. I tell him I’ve been living in Alice for about 11 months, just came back from a three-week road trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, and I’m going to New Zealand soon.

He slowly lifts his fist into the air and says, “New Zealand,” with as much enthusiasm as his hangover can handle.

Jeremy works at the hostel as the maintenance guy. His job consists of fixing shower heads and repairing the table he broke last night when he was on the piss. He can usually be found around the hostel, barefoot and shirtless in the desert sun wearing raggedy denim shorts with a black peace sign bandana holding up his unwashed blonde surfer hair. Just yell his name and you will probably hear a response. He walks tall on the balls of his feet with his chest puffed out. And he is loud. Very loud.

He's a loose cunt.
He’s a loose cunt.

When I come back from work and step out of my ute I hear his booming voice greet me from the other side of the hostel.

I wave because I’m too soft-spoken to yell across the hostel courtyard.

I’m not sure where the desire came from, but something told me I should work on a dairy farm in New Zealand. I didn’t know why or how, but that was my goal. Luckily, there are heaps of Kiwis in Alice Springs. They are drawn to the easy lifestyle and high wages. I had been talking to Jeremy and Matt, both from the Waikato, about farming in New Zealand.

Don’t work for an Indian,” Matt advises me.

They tell me I’m coming at the perfect time — late June — because the farm season begins on June 1 so everyone will be looking for help. They say some farmers prefer hiring new workers because they don’t have any bad habits. They say it’s easy to find a job. They say to expect a weekly salary of about $800, free accommodation and a freezer full of meat if the farmer kills a beast.

It seemed like a great gig, almost too good to be true.

I asked Jeremy if he could help me find a job on a dairy farm. He is from Matamata, right in the middle of some of the best farmland in the world. The next morning he tells me he called his old lady and she said I have a job starting on June 31. That would give me 10 days after I fly into Auckland to buy a car and make my way to the farm.

Once I made it to New Zealand and talked to his Mum, I found out he lied and there was no dream job waiting for me.

I thought I would have to try something else and give up on my farming pipe dream. The dairy payout in New Zealand is the lowest in ten years and most farmers are set to lose at least a quarter of a million dollars this year. Farmers are culling their animals, laying off workers, and not spending any money. That means no one wants to hire a completely inexperienced American guy who used to work in sterilized Washington, D.C. offices and tourist town bars in Australia.

Jeremy’s parents let me stay in his bedroom for a few days while I figure out my next step. On my second night they invited Digger, one of Jeremy’s best mates, over for dinner. He seemed like a very genuine guy. I told him my situation. He said he couldn’t hire me. He has been on his farm for less than a month and he doesn’t have a budget for me. I told him I’m looking into WWOOFing and willing to work for free. I just want experience.

Digger decided to give me a chance. The next morning he picked me up and we drafted his cows. The next day I put up a fence. The next day we lit some big bonfires and I took the thin foam mattress out of my van and onto the floor of one of the four empty bedrooms in his cold house.

For the first few weeks it was easy work and I would come and go as I pleased. Preparing the farm for calving, fixing fences, readying the milking shed. I was learning something new every day and I enjoyed being outdoors in the beautiful Waikato.

Once calving started, he said, “Well, I guess I should start paying you.”

Now we were talking hours and pay and everything was confusing. I didn’t want to be a burden and every time I fucked up and dropped a tape gate or let a cow escape I felt like I should be paying him for lost time.

He said he likes working alone because if something goes wrong he only blames himself. I could tell when he didn’t want me around.

I would work with Digger during the week but he said he would quiet happily work alone on the weekends. So I would sit in my cold room and smoke and watch movies and TV shows and browse inane travel blogs, not understanding how something so trivial and boring could muster 400 followers and 20 likes on every post. Just because you are somewhere noteworthy, doesn’t make your 200 word listicle post noteworthy. I would search for the bloggers who write with passion, who actually have something to say besides the best place to get a coffee in Queenstown.

I am happier when I’m on the farm, but the new rules about money and time relegated me to only being needed at certain hours. It’s a strange relationship having your boss, roommate, workmate and friend all rolled into one. It takes time to get a feel for how to communicate with each other.

After being in a funk all weekend, I perform my morning tractor duties and when I return to the farm Digger drives up and skips the greeting and says a heifer jumped a fence and can you stand here and be on traffic control duty. My mood immediately picks up and I remember that I have a place here and everything is right with the world.

I’ve realized that Digger and I both like having our own space and being alone, but we need each other. It’s getting busy now so there is always work to do. I am more confident and independent and we know how to work with each other. Digger can go into town to buy Mastitis drugs and I can milk the first two rows myself and hopefully not fuck anything up.

DCIM100GOPRO
After a victorious milking.

I can’t believe I wanted to leave this place just a few days ago. I love being here. I did so much badass shit today. I drove a tractor down the highway with a full load of silage. I taught two newborn calves how to drink and fed eight buckets of milk to the heifer calves. I shoveled soiled sawdust from the calf pens into the bucket on the tractor and then changed to the forklift to dump the rubbish bins into the trash pile. I rode a two-wheeler around the farm and chased cows and set up temporary fences. I got poo flung in my eye. My finger was caught between a cow and a metal bar. A cow kicked my arm into a beam. A cow stood on my toes while I was wrestling her back through the gate with her head in my arms grimacing, “Fuck you, cunt,” through my teeth. I’m sore and I’m tired but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This story isn’t over yet. I can’t just cut a story short because of a brief period of doubt. I have to see it through. It’s OK to be uneasy. It’s ok to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to move on and leave everything behind. I always want to travel and drift, but right now my place is here on the farm.

DCIM100GOPRO
At peace.

There is no right time to write. Everyday I become a new person. Sometimes I read back on what I wrote in my journal last year and I wonder how I ever thought these thoughts. I think that is the purpose of writing. To make yourself immortal for a day. Maybe there is no write time, it’s just right all the time.

My Stock Sense is Tingling

Everyday I learn a new trick to help me control the cows. My outstretched arm creates a magical barrier. My “hup” tells them to line up in the milking shed and a pat on the bum tells them to move up. The honk of the horn on the farm bike is a reminder that I’m in charge. It takes years to develop stockmanship, but sometimes it’s a simple matter of dropping into a full on sprint to get in front of her before she runs away.

The best way to learn anything is by messing up. If you want a cow to turn around, you can’t chase her down. I’ve tried zooming the two-wheeler between a couple of rouge cows and an electrified wire fence and ended up down in the mud with a bruised knee and a deflated ego. It’s much easier to jump the fence behind the cow and jump back over in front of her. Farmers would be great at track and field, if they ever had spare time.

I’ve learned that it’s better to let a few cows out of the paddock even if you only want one of them. But when I follow those guidelines during the next challenge, Digger tries to stop me before it’s too late. The rules are always changing.

Mate, it’s a mind fuck tryin’ to get inside the mind of a cow,” he said after we won a short victory over the mob.

We are three weeks into the calving season now, with anywhere from one to six fresh ones dropping every day. Digger and I have worked out a routine. Well, an outline of a routine that constantly changes according to what has gone wrong that morning. Every afternoon we have to gather the new-born calves from the paddock and bring their mothers to the shed for milking.

Umm, can I take your baby, please?

He’s been in charge of this farm for a little over two months and he is already well-acquainted with the troublemakers. He can easily recognize the brash cows who aren’t afraid of using their massive bodies to break the gate that’s been welded together three times and who will jump a fence even if they know they will get shocked.

Sixty-one there, she’s a bitch. A real slut cunt,” Digger says as we walk into the paddock.

Some cows come easily, while some put up a struggle. It’s all about their age.

The heifers, young female cows that haven’t calved yet, are the equivalent of 18-year-old girls, he says. They don’t really have a motherly instinct yet; they only care about themselves. Yesterday we couldn’t get a heifer to follow her calf so we had to chase her around until she was tired enough to walk out on her own, with the dignity of a free, independent woman. The older cows are much more likely to follow their babies out of the paddock and generally be cooperative. They have been doing this song-and-dance for a few years now and they don’t put up a fight.

They are also the ones who stop to moo and moan to their young when we take them up to the shed for milking. They just want to cuddle their babies but we force suction cups on their udders twice a day for eight months instead.

Interacting positively with the calves is very important. Teaching them to drink milk is a practice in patience, you can’t force them. A rough, short-tempered farmer can change a young cow’s perspective on humans forever.  It doesn’t matter how you treat the bobby calves though. The males are loaded up into the bobby truck after three to four days. They are usually ground up for dog food or turned into a delicious veal steak.

Caption!
Moving a healthy heifer calf into a new pen.

It’s important to not fall in love with the animals. They are money makers, not pets. Especially when you are out to collect the calves and you find two dead being licked by their mums. They are called slinks, the still born. It’s an eery feeling dragging a rigid, cold calf out of the trailer on a dark night. It’s almost as disgusting as picking up afterbirth. Fortunately, the slimy blobs of blood and fat stick together surprisingly well.

I have learned a lot from Digger over the past six weeks, but there is no better teacher than being alone with the cows. Some days I have to bring the milkers to the shed by myself. First, I make sure the series of gates are in the right position before I let them out of their paddock. Then, I ride the two-wheeler down and let them out then slowly follow them, encourage the mob toward the milking shed.

Once they are in the yard, I have to make them line up probably in the shed, while keeping them calm. Cows can sense your temperament just as you can sense theirs. If their farmer yells and pushes aggressively, they will balk at your commands. You have to ask nicely and look at it from the cow’s perspective. At one point, I wanted to send three cows back into the yard and bring in three good milkers, that didn’t have any udder infections.

Cows don’t understand that their heads are attached to their bodies,” Digger’s words echo in my mind.

To turn a cow around, you can’t just push their bodies, they are way too big and they don’t care about you unless they can see you. I climbed around and pushed their noses back. It worked. They got the message and I felt like a cow champion with all the girls lined up nicely with no trouble when Digger came back to inspect my work.

I’m only here for a few months so I’m not going to pretend I’m a hardcore farmer who knows everything, but I’m learning the basics and getting by. I have also gained a new respect for real farmers. Just last night the outlook for dairy prices dropped again. New Zealand dairy farmers are enduring rainy days of frustration and agony, and the vast majority won’t even turn a profit this year. I have never met a group of people so dedicated to their lifestyle. Respect.

The Tractor Run

“I don’t trust this cunt. He looks like a terrorist,” David says after being told I will be joining him on the tractor run tomorrow morning.

I can’t blame him. I was holding a thick 60 ml syringe full of penicillin and wearing my bright blue overalls, wool cap and my beard. But, still, there are probably better words to hear when meeting someone.

The wealthy businessman, Bob, who owns the 230-cow dairy farm I work on also owns a 1200-goat dairy farm and a farming equipment shop. He likes to keep his costs low, so he uses grass and leftover meal from the goat farm to feed the cows.  That means every morning someone has to drive the tractor with the massive muck spreader 18 kilometers down the main highway to pick up the cow feed from the goat farm. Starting tomorrow, that someone is going to be me.

The monster.
Full of grass and maize ready to feed the cows.

I wake up early the next morning and defrost the wind screen on the impressively sized McCormick tractor. Digger, the 21-year-old contract milker I work for, briefly taught me how to drive this machine last night. I’m confident driving the smaller Deutz tractor for simple lifting jobs around the farm, but this one was much more complex. Each gear has four clicks, for a total of 16 gears. And driving on the highway means more chances to embarrass myself or cause an accident. I’m terrified of stalling out or getting my gears jammed in the middle of the intersection of 27 and 29 with trucks, cars, workers, farmers, and tourists all laughing at me.

Once the frost clears enough, I slowly and cautiously drive the McCormick down the road to Bob’s warehouse where his collection of tractors, trailers and farm machines reside. David arrives a few minutes later and he gets in the driver’s seat and I sit in the child-sized folding seat next to him.

David usually works in the office at the farm equipment shop, but he always has his work boots and overalls ready to do call outs or deliveries. He is a short man in his 50s and has silky white hair. You can tell he has spent years working on farms by the way he easily dishes out witty banter to everyone around him. The fast New Zealand accent, farm slang and my quiet personality make it difficult for me to keep up with the boys.

“You’ll see every fuckwit in the world driving this thing,” he says as we get on State Highway 27 toward Tirau.

He tells me the story of a guy on a push bike who merged onto the highway right in front of the tractor. David tried to swerve to the right to avoid hitting the biker, but he saw a car trying to pass him so he had to come to a stop to avoid causing an accident.

I was about to have a go at the cunt.”

I love New Zealand. The vocabulary is so colorful.

The drive on the highway is pretty simple. Just watch your mirrors and try to pull to the side for trucks because they are trying to make money just like you. Cars can go fuck themselves. The only tricky spot is on the side road to the goat farm. There is a one lane bridge at the bottom of a hill. David explains how it’s important to slow down so you don’t break anything but make sure you still have enough speed to get up the hill. Stalling going up a hill, especially with a heavy load, is the worst thing that can happen. And if there is a car, truck or ute coming make a quick decision of whether to let them pass first or see if they are going to stop.

As we drive up the goat farm there is a man driving a front loader full of wet grass and feed ready to load us up. David and I get out and he tells me we are going to help feed some baby goats while we wait.

Getting loaded.
Getting loaded.

This is my first time here and I’m surprised by the size of this operation. It’s a huge sheet-metal shed with most of the area sectioned off to hold the 1200 adult milking goats. All along the right side of the shed are pens holding hundreds of baby goats.

There are some impressive beards in that shed.
There are some impressive beards in that shed.

They are fluffy miniature animals, some born yesterday, who lumber around and fall on top of each other. They barely come up to the top of my gumboots and they vary in color from pure white to light brown to grey to black. There are at least five workers, all foreign, sitting on buckets with a kid in their arms sucking on the rubber nipple attached to a water bottle full of milk. The South African woman in the pen we jump into asks me if I’m Canadian. I ask her if there is a secret to this as I try to put the nipple in my kid’s mouth. She says to just open their mouth a little bit. I give up on this reluctant drinker and grab a cute little brown one and he starts sucking immediately.

Lil' cuties.
Lil’ cuties.

It’s just like trying to get the calves to drink back at the cow farm. Some are little angels who will suck on your finger and then move to the rubber udder you slide into their mouth. Some are the dumbest little cunts I’ve ever dealt with. I’ll try the finger sucking trick and they resist and pull back. So I try to grab the top and bottom of their dumb little mouths and put it on the udder and they turn their dumb little heads sideways and their dumb little eyes roll back. Then I will finally get them to suck on the udder for a couple of seconds and think I’ve done it. I turn around and when I look back she is looking for an udder under the calf next to her. Whatever.

David’s kid is a screamer. Why do baby goats sound just like baby humans? It’s unsettling. After about 10 minutes and three kids each we head back to the tractor. My time to drive.

Everything is smooth. I masterfully take on the one lane bridge and the hill and I make it to the intersection of the highway. I downshift and the gear box jams up. This kept happening last night when Digger was teaching me to drive. He showed me how to reach underneath the tractor and jiggle the gears to free it up. I try the technique and I’m surprised that it actually works. I jump back in and we cruise down the highway toward Matamata.

We approach a slight bend as David is bragging about his daughter. She has the highest marks at Waikato University and is a professional singer and self-taught guitar player. She wants to enter into New Zealand’s Got Talent and The Voice. He interrupts himself to tell me I should have slowed down around that bend. Better safe than sorry.

At one point the road narrows goes through a ravine and the safety of having a shoulder disappears. When David was driving through here earlier, he slowed because a truck was coming. I slow down as we get closer, following his advice, but this time there isn’t anyone around.

Fuck that, take it fast,” he says as I push the throttle forward.

The cockpit.
Country roads.

We make it back to town and I drop David off at the shop and head back to the cow farm. As I drive by the college, a group of school boys give me the pull-the-cord motion signaling me to honk the horn. I just shake my head because I’m too focused on actually trying to drive this machine through town. I also have no idea where the horn is located. Give me some time, boys, and I’ll figure it out.