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Cornwall Message: Have a Cow

By Maggie Behringer | Litchfield County Times

For our city- or suburb-dwelling parents or grandparents, clinking glass bottles of milk left on the doorstep by a friendly milkman was quite the normal way to get the day's supply. In the country, someone's morning chore might have entailed trudging out to the barn and fetching the milk straight from the cow. Whatever manner in which it used to arrive at our homes was far more satisfying and personal than today's routine of pulling cartons off fluorescent-lit shelves at the supermarket.

As the food movement in America continues to strive for local, non-processed foods, the idea of owning a cow is working its way into the conversation. Surprisingly, Debra Tyler of Local Farm in Cornwall has been promoting the idea of keeping a family cow for 10 years and with her "A Family Cow" workshops, she been giving people the tools to make the notion a reality.

"I knew that this was the most beautiful place in the world and this was where I wanted to be," said Ms. Tyler, a native of Wisconsin who spent childhood summers with her father's family in the area. Referring to the summer after high school she worked on her aunt and uncle's dairy farm, she added, "I fell in love with those cows."

After a post harvesting grapes in France, she returned to America and enrolled in agriculture school. However, foreshadowing her future interests, she found the concentration on commercial, large-scale enterprises in conflict with her ideas of farming. Ms. Tyler settled after a time in Canaan, teaching at North Canaan Elementary School. Cows were never out of the picture, though: She milked a neighbor's cow in the mornings before school.

Her present career managing Local Farm emerged from an idea between three friends to establish a farm education center, a way to blend the practical need to make a living and the general desire to do what they loved. Ms. Tyler eventually decided to go it alone and bought out her friends' share of the venture. Licensed to sell raw milk since 1992, she focused her energy on getting the farm up and running before revisiting the thought of farm education. A trial-and-error process refined the balance between the workshops and managing Local Farm, as did Ms. Tyler's simultaneous development of what would become Motherhouse, a nonprofit group dedicated to providing space and guidance to all mothers and teaching old world life skills like bread making, canning and woodworking.

For Ms. Tyler, it all starts with the cows.

"Cows, to me, speak of such peace and understanding. Milking a cow is so soothing and such a meditative time," she said as she approvingly surveyed her sleepy-eyed herd recently during morning chores.

Thinking back on the first workshops, she remembered that most people were attracted either by the novelty of the experience or motivated by a desire to expose their children to the source of their food. Now, people are seeking practical instruction they will put to use.

"The majority really do intend to have their own cow," Ms. Tyler said. "That's really due to the rise in interest in raw milk. It's an idea whose time has come."

A Family Cow is run through Motherhouse and held at Local Farm. For a morning, afternoon and the hours afterward when people tend to linger at the red barn, Ms. Tyler and her right-hand woman, daughter Margaret, talk about the basics of owning a cow: Where to get a cow and how and where to keep it, including milk production, breeding, feeding, fencing and health concerns. The group, of course, learns how to milk a cow, both manually and with a machine and also uses the fresh milk to make yogurt, cheese, butter and ice cream.

It might seem like a family cow in this day and age would ultimately be an inconvenience. However, the workshop and elements of Ms. Tyler's own setup at Local Farm belie that notion, proving just how feasible the idea is.

Ms. Tyler, who owns six cows herself and cares for the remainder of the herd for other owners, breeds Old World Jerseys. Though she does sell cows, she also suggests that families approach farmers when buying their family animal. Since there are numerous reasons a cow won't perform optimally at a commercial dairy, farmers usually have at least one cow they are willing to sell at a reduced price.

"It's good to establish good relationships with farmers because they know way more about cows than you'll learn in your lifetime," Ms. Tyler explained.

To answer the question of where to house the animal, the workshop covers how to convert existing structures like garages and sheds into barns and arranging to rent land for pastures. Ms. Tyler has three separate landlords who own Local Farm's 20 acres of pasture. She pointed out the abundance of land in the region, much of which is unoccupied during the week. Part of her pasture is a weekender's property. This has become an advantageous arrangement for both the family, which has someone watching its property, and for Ms. Tyler, who has a place for her cows. Portable electric fences also allow her flexibility in marking out pasture in separate tracts of land.

When it comes to milking family cows, the workshop covers how to work with the cow's natural seasonal cycles rather than employ the methods of large-scale dairies. Ms. Tyler does not incorporate grain into her cows' diets, feeding them only grass and hay. Though less of an artificial diet, this method means during the winter months the cows produce less milk. Ms. Tyler only milks them once a day during that season instead of the typical twice. Also, when calves are still nursing, she does not separate them from their mothers, allowing them to get the morning milk instead of Local Farm.

"That's totally contrary to max production, [but] it's fine on the small scale" Ms. Tyler explained.

Pasteurization involves heating milk to kill bacteria, but milk from major companies is ultra pasteurized. It is heated well over the necessary temperature to eliminate all bacteria, which in the process alters flavor and wipes out natural proteins and enzymes. To remedy the side effects, synthetic vitamins are added. Ms. Tyler characterizes processed milk as a "dead substance." Raw milk, which is not pasteurized, is seen more and more as the healthier alternative, even garnering support from doctors, and by extension, a family cow is beginning to seem more plausible.

Looking over the animals she describes as "soft and fuzzy," Ms. Tyler, said, "[A family cow] can be totally realistic."
For more information on workshops and Local Farm, visit


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