Milkmaids

+ The New Female Food Revolution


Casey Galligan manages a female-led dairy farm in the Adirondacks that provides milk and cheese for their entire community.
This kind of small-scale farm, vertical business model, and dedicated way of replenishing the land is unique
but nevertheless growing in numbers across the U.S. 


We interviewed her on the farm in Upper Jay, New York on the first grazing day of Spring 2017.

 
 
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Nü House: Where are you from? 

Casey Galligan: I like to consider myself from here now, from Upper Jay, New York. But I grew up outside of Boston. Discovering agriculture was something that came much later. I lived in Spain for 2 years. And then went into the Peace Corps where I lived with agricultural families. It was something that I got interested in in Spain because the people are so much more connected to the farming world there. I retrospectively think that growing up in suburbs, a lot of things are hidden because a lot of things are done for us. Food is…you walk into a grocery store, and if you don’t feel like cutting your own carrots that night, those carrots are already there cut for you. And the meat is cubed for you and the chicken is deboned and skinned and…

NH: And doesn’t have the head, and doesn’t look anything like a chicken…

CG: We don’t have any idea where these things come from. So I started on this trajectory of agriculture at that point. I then lived in Panama for 2 and a half years, and after that wanted to give rural America, and specifically my land base, the East Coast, a chance. I eventually moved up here, to the Adirondacks. But growing up I never knew of this place because here represents something that is wholly different from the upbringing that I had in wealthy white suburbia. Those weren’t the options. The way to make a life and succeed in life is to climb the patriarchal ladder. It’s not to, and especially as a female, figure out how to do things for yourself. And that was principally what was so attractive to me about farming and working with animals and a land base at a grass roots level is figuring out how to make things for oneself.

NH: With capitalism encouraging people to give up their longstanding folk traditions for globally mass-produced products, it becomes a powerful and political gesture to choose to reconnect with the earth, with the body, and to do things for oneself and for one’s community. 

CG: We have such a disconnect in the U.S. In Spain I saw game hens being killed and went to pig slaughters and bull fights, and then afterwards the bull is butchered and made into a huge soup for the community. But I think that rurally––seeing rural America, being a part of rural America––there are a lot of similarities to international culture. Living up here, so many people are growing their own food on a tiny little scale in their own home just to be able to grow their own greens and strawberries. So I think rurally, that connection is still there. But it really has been lost in our cities and our suburbs. There isn’t really even a gathering around a table for a meal in American culture. It’s a lot of cereal in front of the TV or we’re so busy with all of our siblings’ schedules that we all eat dinners at different times and there isn’t this big celebratory thing around a meal. But we really do have an intentional food community up here that crosses our socio-economic divide, which feels special to me. That’s why I’ve stayed.

NH: It’s a really special thing to bridge the gaps. And food always does.

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CG: Yeah, food always does. Food always does.

NH: On the other hand, the food industry here in the U.S., which, among its many abhorrent flaws, is an industry that has arguably taken something that has traditionally been women’s source of power in society––to cook for and nourish their community, and turned it against them. We talk about how women have been gendered into domesticity, confined to the kitchen, as housewives, and yet this very industry prizes men as head chefs, celebrity chefs, CEOs. It is hard for female chefs, farmers, butchers, the list goes on and on, to get any recognition for their work. Even though these recipes, skills, ways of doing things were passed down from mothers and grandmothers.

CG: If you look at a female-designed farm, which are few and far in between, but they are out there, and there are more and more of them it seems, they're always so based on quality of life. Because women are nurturers. Women have had to nurture themselves, or have had to nurture something else. So when you look at females that have designed their businesses, it’s always so ergonomic, that they’re not hurting themselves, you know. I got into farming in France and it was a woman who had designed the milking parlor in her creamery, and she told me that if it hurts once, don’t ever do it again until you fix that system. And I have not seen that at all with any of my male counterparts who are in cheese or farming. For them it’s like, if you're grunting, then you’re doing work. Whereas I've seen so many females for whom it’s, if you’re grunting, fix it. Something’s wrong. That’s not to say that you need to make your work easy, you just want to make it right for your body because you want to be at it for a long time. This is work you want to do forever and you want to nurture the whole system, so looking at this thing holistically, don’t look at anything shortsightedly. Look at huge long picture of making everything work, for the living creatures you're working with and for the mechanisms you're dealing with and participating in. Which is interesting, like if we’d let women design the world, you know. 

(laughter)

NH: Yes!

CG: And I think looking at agriculture specifically, women played a huge role in it. Like when it was home farms, there’s always been a dairymaid. The woman has always milked the cow. That was what our history was, especially in the U.S. You would bring the milk inside the house and that’s where the cheese is made, by the fire. And the male’s role was always outside tilling, doing things like that, doing hay, the work that requires more grunt labor.

NH: Work that doesn’t relate to the body as much. 

CG: Yeah it’s not as sensual, as I always say. Like when you’re milking a cow, your whole body is pressed up against that cow, we are always with an anus, with a vagina, with an utter, with teets. You know? And there’s something I recently read that once on gentleman farms where the more wealthy landowners could afford to hire people, their most important hire was their dairymaid. They would hire the local whoever to do the other labor, but they would go through interview processes to hire the woman who was going to milk their animals and make their cheese. Because before we came up with this crazy thing called science and learned what microbes and bacteria do, it was believed that cheesemaking was alchemy. So the way you related to your animal was kind of this intuition-based thing, like you were either a cow whisperer or you weren’t. It was just a part of you and your soul, or it wasn’t. If you were the wrong person for that line of work, your milk would sour, and you wouldn’t be able to make cheese. And what we know now is that the people who were good at those jobs were ones that would just pay attention to detail. They were cleanly, not being sterile, that is a very new thing in the farming world, definitely just in the last seventy to one hundred years this sterility thing has come into us, but the women who were nurturing and who were caring for their animals and their cleanliness and consistent and mindful in their practices would make really awesome cheese. These women were seen as alchemists but it was just this intuition-based thing, and this intuition based on caring for something else.

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NH: Talk a bit more about the daily workday here. 

CG: We’re three people on this farm. So at 6 in the morning we get up and milk our herd of 10 cows, sometimes it’s 12 cows––it fluctuates. And then we only make cheese twice a week. And we’re almost totally a vertical business. So with the exception of making our own food for our animals, we’re doing everything from raising the animals, grazing the animals, to selling our own product. And then during the summer, we have an added-on aspect, which are farmer’s markets.

I think the dairy industry sometimes gets a hard rap. People will say “Oh you’re holding them as sex slaves, or keeping them pregnant so they’ll stay and milk.” But I think of us more as part of the herd. They’re the ones who are dictating our livelihood so if they’re not getting cared for, they’re not going to make great milk for us, and we’re not going to be able to make great cheese if their milk is poor and we wouldn’t be able to sell that cheese then. So the be all end all is the care of our cows and the health of the cows and everything comes after that. 

NH: Do you feel you have a different mindset than most people working in the industry?

CG: Yeah, I think the scale that’s going on here is unique. Basically if industrial systems had not come about and farmers could farm on this scale, you would of course care that much about your cows. But what has happened especially in dairy is that everyone is tied to the milk market. Because they're milking cows to sell to a conglomeration where their milk gets co-mingled and then they get a certain price for it, which is controlled by our supply and demand and our government. So people have been incentivized to grow their herds. They're milking thousands and thousands of cows at a time and they're exhausted and they're having to hire people who are underpaid and overworked. 

But on this scale that we work with, you need a lot more specialty in skill. We're practicing animal husbandry. Margot is able to breed all of our cows, so we have our own breeding program. We’ve all been lucky enough to have an education, which has provided us with the opportunity to know what resources we need to get here. So we're relying on ourselves.

I believe that just being a small ripple that then can grow and grow is the way that we can potentially change perspective. So that's our hope of the way that we're farming here and the way that we're providing food for our community is that, we're also providing something else: something that nourishes the soul and not just the body, by allowing people to come and visit our farm and allowing people to be part of our process. And part of that life and death cycle that happens here. 

NH: And it’s cultivating the community around you. There's something sacred about that. When you put so much care and attention and energy into something, the entire thing changes. So maybe that is alchemy… 

CG: Right, we've always been called witches …

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NH: Talk a bit more about running a successful business as women in this particular landscape. 

CG: Yeah, definitely. Agriculture hasn't been a part of what the Adirondacks is. It's been logging. The history of the Adirondacks has been raping the land of wood, of a natural resource, as opposed to replenishing, which is what agriculture should be and can be.

NH: Right.

CG: And that’s what our practice is. So we see ourselves as healing this 23-acre patch of land as opposed to harming it. And rape is a strong word, but I think logging can be that. It can be really destructive and I'm sure there are safe ways to do it, I don't know since I'm not in the logging industry, but it seems like it can be very harmful. So there isn't a deep history of farming. And you see it in the people we interact with…

NH: Are they surprised?

CG: I think they're surprised. And I think there's a little bit of belittling like, "Oh, isn't that cute, a bunch of lady farmers,” because it's not just us two in agriculture up here. There are a lot of predominant female figures up here who have started their own farms and really successful companies…

NH: The meat company…

CG: Right, that meat company, and there's another dairy down the way that has a female owner. I think this new wave of farming happening in the Adirondacks is really just in the last six years. And the majority of the farms, let’s say half of the farms, are female-dominated or female-run, which feels exciting. So I think people are surprised by it. But we do often feel treated as “women.”

NH: And yet here you are. 

CG: Yeah, and it's like we're absolutely doing all of this. Female business owners have a different way of thinking about what growth looks like. Like the focus here is on nurturing what we have, not looking to have more, which has tended to be a more masculine view of what growth means.

NH: Yeah, like the greed of capitalist society.

CG: Well, this is my thought right now. We, and this farming that we do, can be the antibodies to greed and hate.

NH: Yeah, I believe that.

CG: Every time we have social interactions with the public, there's always some kind of comment about being female. That is first and foremost what is seen. Because you don't fit into that thing. 

NH: Right, that image. And with Margot being pregnant and doing all these things still––

CG: Yeah, exactly. We talk about that a lot too. A female body is always being eyeballed, and either appreciated or judged. 

NH: Or fetishized. 

CG: Exactly. We are always feeling that gaze. No matter what we're doing, we always are being looked at by men and women. And it's so interesting to see Margot pregnant and the ownership people are taking over her body as well. Like when women are pregnant, it's almost like that gaze doesn't have to be behind shaded glasses or hidden anymore, you can just stare. You can stare and you can touch. It's almost like I feel more protective of wanting to prove that she's a woman, and she's like, I was just going to say she’s more than a woman, but what's more than a woman? Woman is the best thing. That's it. You know, young farmers are fetishized right now too. Fetishized, is that the right word? But, like glamorized. We're the celebrities in the community so there's a lot of ownership in general over our lives and the way we live, and seeing us move and grow. That's just like an interesting aspect of...like an added gaze. Not only are we being looked at and judged as females in society, but also female farmers in society.

NH: We’ve been experiencing this “buy local” wave amongst many of our more privileged communities. What would you say to consumers who may have good intentions of supporting farmers but perhaps not enough information? 

CG: Yeah, it's tough. Because it's a socioeconomic issue. So people who have the time, the will, and the resources to educate themselves have no excuse not to. And that's absolutely what they need to do. I think food is, first and foremost, the medicine that we need as a society. I think what's rough is the lower socioeconomic bracket who does not have an excess of time, education, and resources to discover things for themselves. I do see it as this hugely systemic issue of malnutrition. Malnutrition that is causing the obesity. That's a huge, huge issue in our culture.

It's hard to even know where to start to educate yourselves because these labels are pretending to do the work for you. The labels are coming out and saying organic and they're saying 100% grass fed and they're saying things like sustainable and happy cows and all of these words that are making you feel good about buying the things. But then there's all the labels that are not on there, like processed and underpaid labor and poor soil management and pesticides and fertilizers. I always wish that we had to label the process that our food is undergone, not the ingredients that go into it.

I don't think consumers are doing the best that they can, but I think that with farmers' markets becoming more popular in cities, the hope is that cities will start that ripple that then goes out and helps other consumers. We do have to work for it. We have to ask those questions. And I think it is the work of people who have the resources and the education to know how to educate themselves to help others then too. I don't think it's a possibility for everybody to educate themselves. And I think that's with anything. I think that's with the food system, with what our government is, with what healthcare looks like. It's a ton of work and it has to be a ton of work. If it feels easy, something's going on.

I mean, we need to have a huge revolution on the way that we eat. We feed ourselves three times a day. It's something that we all do. This is our common ground as humans, is food. And somehow it has been taken away from all of us. And it is the only thing, that and death, are the only things we have in common, and what is happening, and it's paralleled right now, is the healthcare system is trying to make us believe that we're immortal and the food system is trying to make us believe that we have nothing to do with what we put into our bodies, and that's it's controlled by them. So the two things that are ours, that are ours as humans, have been taken away from us. And we need them back baby.