WWOOFing in Jumilhac-le-Grand, France

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Yup, I’m that weird girl who felt the need to go back to a goat farm in a very small town in France.

My first wwoofing experience was so unexpectedly eye-opening that instead of taking the risk and trying a new farm, I went back to the same one. I made a connection with the people and animals at this farm so I wanted to return. It was cool to come back and see what had and hadn’t changed since about a year and a half ago, and to increase my knowledge of the organic lifestyle. If one of the main goals of wwoofing is to inspire people to incorporate organic and sustainable activities into their daily lives, then they have succeeded. I am planning to try to grow some tomatoes and herbs on my terrasse next spring/summer, and I want to make an effort to eat more seasonally.

That's me leading Olek the horse and Génoise and Éra the cows

That’s me leading Olek the horse and Génoise and Éra the cows

As a non-vegetarian and a non-pet owner (although I want my own cat so bad), I am not the most animal-obsessed person in my life. I really enjoy being around animals though – being more familiar with the farm this time around allowed me to pay attention and form little bonds with individuals goats and other animals. There was a 2-month old baby boy goat who was allowed to stay with the 100 or so lady goats. We quickly became “friends” during la traite, since he would come up to me and want to be pet, and try to eat my clothes. So adorable! I had to be reminded several times that he would grow up to be a huge goat and no, I could not take him back to Paris with me. Sadface.

He has no name yet but it's the year of J names

He has no name yet but it’s the year of J names

As part of the work team of the farm for the week, I witnessed the highs and lows of life on the farm. One day, most of the goats escaped from a field with normal grass to a neighboring one that held a different type of grain, not to be consumed at this time of year by the goats. The following day, they had horrible diarrhea – it was pretty disgusting. Gundula, Louise, and Maëva handled most of the dirty work, but I did help a bit with la traite and was terrified that they would poop on me (one of them did on Gundula!). The daily cleaning of la chèvrerie took much longer that day since we needed to put a ton more hay and straw down to absorb it all. More importantly, the reaction to the grains that caused them to get sick is potentially fatal, and can also have effects on the goats’ milk production. Luckily, they healed the next day, but it was a smelly reminder of the perils of farming. Just like that, all the “tools” needed to produce one’s product could perish.

bio

bio

On to less stinky subjects…it was a good choice to come in the height of summer. I ate fresh, organic, local tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and onions in some form every single day. The mirabelle plum trees were perfectly ripe, and Maëva taught me to shake the branches to make the ripest fruit fall. She hadn’t even been tending super well to her garden since she has been so busy, but there were still mint leaves to be plucked up as an all-natural breath freshener, and other herbs and veggies that we could “harvest” and use at our whim. Over at the farm, I made a salad one day using a big head of lettuce that I picked out of the garden. We went blackberry picking and managed to grab a whole kilo, enough to make 5 small jars of jam. I’ve already finished one! I could go on and on, but basically, gardens are awesome and I’m wondering why the hell I live in Paris?! Hopefully I can live somewhere with garden space at some point in my life.

Organic vegetables at the Sunday market in Jumilhac-le-Grand

Organic vegetables at the small but mighty Sunday market in Jumilhac-le-Grand

I loved getting to know some of the people in this town, inhabited by 1200 people (according to Wikipedia). Maëva is friends with the coolest people – the other organic farmers (we had apéro at the produce guy’s house, that he rebuilt himself with his wife), people who make homemade pizza in wood-fire ovens located in a squat, the guy who delivers homemade organic bread for €2. I got the gossip about everyone we saw, down to the bitchy butcher’s wife.

A trio of organic purveyors at the market

A trio of organic purveyors at the market

I’m so happy I went back to the farm. Not only was it great to see everyone again, but if I randomly was forced to drop everything and run a goat farm, I feel like I would be well-equipped to do so. And I’m no longer under the delusion that living in a small town is as boring as we make it out to be. There are plenty of advantages to a lifestyle outside of a big city, things that I forget about when I’m in my hectic Paris rhythm. It’s just nice to remember that there are other ways to live in the world, in case I ever tire of big-city life.

CHEESE

CHEESE

WWOOFing in France – Cheese

So every day when milking the goats, I wondered how the milk would turn into cheese. Louise is the cheese-master (cheese-mistress?); every few days there were times when in the middle of a meal she would need to run up to la fromagerie to deal with the cheese. It turns out it’s a time-sensitive process. After getting to know her a bit I gathered the courage to ask if I could come watch her make the cheese. Before she could respond, the reaction of Gundula and Maëva gave me the impression that few were allowed to enter the fromagerie. Louise didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either.

Well, I must have passed some sort of test because the next day we made a plan for when I could come watch. I was so curious because just as with everything else I’d witnessed on the farm, I realized I’d been benefiting from the deliciousness that is cheese, gorging on it in countless sinful dishes of mac n cheese, dips into fondue, numerous grilled cheese sandwiches, and more my entire life, without really knowing how it comes to be.

So, allow me to show you how goat cheese is made!

During la traite, the milk is pumped into the room next door through a big vat, up a pipe, and into another big vat that lives in the fromagerie (cheese-making room). This room is completely sterile – I had to wear those shoe covers that surgeons wear! It’s starkly different from the rest of the farm.

Scrubs!

Scrubs!

Vat of goat milk

Vat of goat milk

If the milk is coming directly from the goats, it will be around 35°C and needs to cool down for a few hours. If it’s been sitting all night (she doesn’t make cheese every day so sometimes this happens) then it needs to be warmed up. After it has reached the right temperature, she adds some sort of acid or mineral or something (didn’t quite catch the word, and as I’m clearly never going to be a journalist I didn’t write anything down at the time or clarify later) to help something happen in the process…Then the machine is turned on and a whisk-like attachment moves around in the milk which has thickened because of the mystery thing that was added. This separates the curds (les caillés) from the whey (le petit lait). Like the nursery rhyme!

Mixing

Mixing

First the curds, which have a jello-like consistency, stay on the top surface and little designs from the blades appear. Gradually the whey comes out and it begins resembling a big pot of soup with chunks in it. Then it looks entirely liquid as the curds become even tinier. This process takes about 30 minutes (hence Louise having to dash off at the correct moment).

Can you see the lines in the curds?

Can you see the lines in the curds?

More whey has come out

More whey has come out

Separating curds and whey

Separating curds and whey

Then approximately 20% of the whey is drained into a separate vat below the fromagerie. They feed some of it to the pigs and sometimes they sell it to a local woman who makes soap out of it. The remaining curds and whey are mixed again to ensure there are no lumps too large. The curds become so small that the mixture looks like a big thing of really wet cottage cheese. Appetizing…

The next step is the molding process. She uses her hands to scoop up some curds into a mold. The molds are in a circle shape, with an outer solid plastic piece and an inner mesh sieve piece that fits right inside, and a lid that goes on top. Out of this batch she made 3 huge ones (the diameter of my forearm?), maybe 15 medium ones (the diameter of my hand?), and a few small ones. The molds are lined up and stacked neatly on a metal counter, then pressed down with a weight. They are left there for a few hours to drain off as much whey as possible. (No pictures of this because my camera died.)

The cave: salt bath and drying shelves

The cave: salt bath and drying shelves

After they’ve been pressed on both sides, they are bathed in a salt solution for 24-48 hours, depending on the size. Then they are covered in some dirt-looking stuff (again, fabulous journalistic ability here) and left on racks in the cave to dry. The oldest ones she had were 1.5 years old!

aging cheese

aging cheese

Two days a week, Louise or Maëva drive over to nearby Limoges to sell cheese and milk at the farmer’s market. One of the days I went with to help/see the town. It was fun to be on the seller’s side of the market for a change. It was a simple process, but I was slightly intimidated vending products to French people. I relied on my cashier instincts from my high school job at Beauty Center and felt totally comfortable behind the table – who knew that job would ever have come in handy?

The market in Limoges

The market in Limoges

Louise at her stand

Louise at her stand – the “AB” sign is an official sign meaning it’s organic

The other vendors at the market were very interested to meet an American girl and very curious to know what I am doing in France. A beekeeper “assigned” me this question to answer and gave me a few minutes to gather my thoughts: What is the difference between the US and France? I couldn’t decide whether I was more amused or more annoyed – it’s not that simple and I am just one person! But, I gave him an intelligent and thoughtful answer based on my own experiences. He listened, we discussed, and then he proclaimed my statements to be “student-level and undeveloped.” I was a bit perturbed by his dismissal of my ideas, but promptly changed my mind when he asked me if Miami was in California! I guess it’s not only Americans who are less-than-stellar in geography. In all seriousness, I don’t blame him because the US is a huge country and it’s not even his own.

Anyways, it was so cool to see cheese being made, from goat to market (/my belly – the ladies gifted me with a HUGE bag of cheeses to take back to Paris with me). If you have the opportunity to do the same, I highly recommend it!

Clockwise from bottom left: tastes like a mixture of goat and blue cheese (my fave), a young goat cheese, one with chili powder in the middle, an aged goat cheese, the chili one again

Clockwise from bottom left: tastes like a mixture of goat and blue cheese (my fave), a young goat cheese, one with chili powder in the middle, an aged goat cheese, the chili one again

*Update: Click these links for my introductory wwoofing post and my posts about Le JardinageLes Chèvres, and my second trip there.

WWOOFing in France – Les Chèvres

GOATS!

GOATS!

GOATS! Goatsgoatsgoatsgoats…this is what my friend Dan and I used to yell at each other in his mom’s car when we saw the goats the city of Oakland would place on the side of the road in our neighborhood to eat all the extra grass and prevent wildfires. That was my only interaction with goats prior to my experience on the goat farm!

One side of la chèvrerie

One side of la chèvrerie

If you have even one pet you are aware that they require a lot of maintenance. So consider 200+ goats and you can imagine farm life. This is why they take so few vacations! Besides all the cleaning and feeding, milking the goats is the most time-consuming aspect of goat farming. On the very first day I assisted with la traite (the milking), mere minutes after Maëva told me a story about her sister getting pooped on by a goat during the milking process. Yikes! Luckily I avoided being pooped on the whole time!

La Traite

This process needs to happen twice daily with the same amount of hours in between each milking. On this farm, it was 6am/6pm.

First, the goats are fed before rounding them up to bring into la salle de traite (the milking room). A wheelbarrow is used to distribute a sort of kibble-like food mixed with powdered minerals and vitamins. There is a hole in the wheelbarrow so when you walk quickly down the row, the food pours out in a line. My job was to follow the wheelbarrow with a broom and sweep the stray food back towards the goats’ eager tongues. They eat so voraciously that food gets propelled far out of reach of their mouths.

Feeding time

Feeding time

The first time I witnessed this process, I was amazed by what I saw and heard. As soon as the goats would hear the food being poured into the wheelbarrow, the sound of a stampede would fill my ears as they ran to line up at the gate and wait expectantly. The second the food was distributed, a frenzy of floor-licking would begin. It seemed as though they hadn’t eaten for days. Burps and gulps echoed off the dusty walls. I kept thinking, “they eat like such savage animals” and then I would remember, DUH they ARE animals! Some extra-greedy goats would even twist and squirm around the bars so they could place their legs and hooves on the platform and scrape more food towards themselves, preventing nearby goats from accessing the surrounding food.

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The next step was to herd them into the salle de traite. There were two raised concrete platforms on which they stood, butts facing the middle of the room where the we would stand. The difficulty of this process is getting each goat to place her head into the narrow space between two long metal poles running along the platform. Some of the goats would obediently walk to the right place, but some would try to run back to la chèvrerie, which in turn caused all the other goats to follow. We were all equipped with small wooden sticks that we used to tap them on the butt or side to encourage them to move when we needed them to move. Their collars or even their horns made excellent handles to pull them into the rows. 🙂

La salle de traite - getting ready to pump

La salle de traite – getting ready to pump

Once 20 or so goats were squished onto each side, we shut the gates and commenced milking. There is a set of pumps for every 3 or 4 goats. I quickly realized that it’s much harder than it looks. The first hurdle is that sometimes the goats really didn’t want the pumps to go on them, so they would repeatedly kick me or squish their legs together so I couldn’t reach. I could sometimes sneak it on them by winding the pump behind their legs, but then they would use their legs to push it off. Often, I would have to give up and ask for help. Once a goat was being particularly stubborn and I asked Gundula for help. With a nice caress on the goat’s side and a few murmured words of comfort, the goat immediately calmed down and accepted the pump. I was really impressed and amazed, and even more so when I tried to do the same thing and was met with still more kicks – this woman clearly has a way with goats. A goat-whisperer! It’s really cool to see the random talents people have – for things I’d never even have imagined.

Pumps on

Pumps on

Stubborn goats aside, many of them were complacent. Once the process has begun, the next difficulty is tending to the pumps in a timely manner. At the beginning of each set, I would start 3 to 4 goats pumping. Once I finished attaching pumps to the last goat, the first goat would be done, so I’d have to run over and move the pumps to the next goat. And so on. It’s best to avoid leaving the pumps on for too long after the milk has been pumped out, so it’s really important to stay on top of who’s teats are empty (ew I hate the word teat but that’s what they are! In French it’s la mamelle, a less gross word).

Hand-milking a goat!

Hand-milking a goat!

After we brought them back from la traite, they were given du foin (hay), de la paille (straw), and de la luzerne (dried alfafa). Usually they were fed these dried varieties of hay 4-5 times per day, plus they spent all day grazing in the grass. They were constantly eating! The more they eat, the more milk they produce.

Run free!

Run free!

Me and the goats!  I'm holding a fouet, a sort of whip, but you just use it to get them moving when they get distracted by a tasty-looking flower nearby.  It doesn't hurt them since they end is very flexible.

Me and the goats! I’m holding a fouet, a sort of whip, but you just use it to get them moving when they get distracted by a tasty-looking flower nearby. It doesn’t hurt them since the end is very flexible.

I was present for the full cycle of life during my time on the farm. On the second morning, one of the pregnant goats (in French you say elle est pleine = “full”) started going into labor. I expected one of the women to stick around with her to help, but Maëva just said to let her stay off to the side and do her thing. When we got back from feeding the baby goats, she had birthed her baby! I was so excited to see it – he was tiny and cute. His cries were very high-pitched and eerily similar to those of a human baby. We left them alone so the mother could deal with him in his first moments of life. But, a few hours later when we came back to check on them, the baby had died. Apparently it was far too early and the baby shouldn’t have been born for another month or so.

Dark pic of the baby goat who was born prematurely

Dark pic of the baby goat who was born prematurely

Another older goat fell sick while I was there – she was born in 2002, one of the first sets of goats from this farm! When we were moving her group from one area of the barn to another, she refused to get up. The whole week, we let her stay in that spot, moving her every few hours and bringing her water in a bucket and her own food. As the days passed, her eyes got more and more clouded and she seemed even frailer. Another goat fell sick too, and stayed by her side. When I would come in the barn, they would be cuddling, surrounded by healthy goats. Sometimes the healthy goats were there to steal the food we were leaving for the sick goats, but sometimes they were simply there for moral support. The sick goats died in their sleep before I left.

It was sad to see these goats die, but c’est la vie. I can say with confidence that they lived the happiest goat lives possible – the fields they spent their days in were lush with grass and surrounded by open skies and pretty forests. They were well-cared for by three women who clearly love and respect these animals.

Here are some pictures of the kid goats to cheer you up:

Curious lil guy

Curious lil guy

Snuggle

hi!

Snuggle time

Snuggle time

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I really loved the goats! There is no sense in being scared of them. They are very sweet animals. If I was ever standing still around them, they would approach me and nuzzle me so I would pet them. They reminded me of puppies – sometimes they would chew on my pants if I wasn’t paying attention! Also, the cheese made from their milk was delicious. That will be my next and final wwoofing post.

*Update: Click these links for my introductory wwoofing post and my posts about Le Jardinage, Cheese, and my second trip there.

WWOOFing in France – Le Jardinage

More about WWOOFing! During my week at the farm, I spent a lot of time helping Louise and Gundula set up their garden for this year. Check out my first WWOOFing post for more background info.

The 4 plots I worked on - the one in front plus three plastic-covered sections

The 4 plots I worked on

There were four plots of land that needed to be reworked. All but one had been used for gardening last year. The one exception had a lot more grass that was more deeply rooted – it proved very difficult to remove. Grass is seriously a force to be reckoned with – don’t let it get out of control! (It wasn’t until I began writing this blog post that I remembered I had already learned this lesson a few years ago when I was living in a house that had been uninhabited for a year or more and I had to de-weed the front and back yards. I definitely blocked those few days out of my memory!)

La grelinette on the really overgrown section

La grelinette on the really overgrown section

Anyways, with my trusty grelinette (brand name of the tool shown in these pics) and weed-wacker, I conquered most of the grass in these areas. Once everything was passed over with the grelinette, then I went back over each section and used a hoe (ha!) to render the earth finer. It was important that very few clumps of grass and roots were left behind to avoid any maivaises herbes popping up as things start growing and to make it easier for whoever will be using the grelinette next year!

Me using la grelinette – those boots got totally destroyed during the course of the week

Me using la grelinette

At first, I was very careful to wear gloves while working. When mixing up this earth that had been covered and rained on for several months, I encountered some yucky things – tons of worms, anthills, rotting plants, as well as some stray horseradish roots which went into the pantry. I didn’t want to touch any of it because I can be kind of squeamish. By the end, I was sitting in the dirt wearing shorts, using my bare hands to remove the plain dirt from the old grass. Sometimes, I’d pick up a worm or two. Just the week before, I would have freaked out and screamed, but by the end of my week on the farm I just tossed it aside. I think my initial squeamishness was just a question of not being familiar with the work. As soon as I had a little experience under my belt, I was no longer afraid. If only people in the world could undergo the same transformations regarding more serious topics than worms…

1st pass done

1st pass almost done

Gundula doing 2nd pass – you can see the difference between the darker dirt in front and the lighter dirt behind in which the clumps are still too thick

Gundula doing 2nd pass – you can see the difference between the darker dirt in front and the lighter dirt behind in which the clumps are still too thick

After all the earth had been worked (sometimes a third pass with the hoe was necessary to make sure the dirt was fine enough), I sprinkled compost all over the plots with a pitchfork (and sometimes my hands!). Then the fun part began. Gundula and Louise consulted last year’s garden map to ensure that the new plants wouldn’t be planted in a section where they had been planted last year. They sketched out the garden and we measured out some rows for the broccoli and leeks. Early in the week, we went to a local farmer’s market to pick up seedlings they had ordered from a local gardener a few months ago.

Compost sprinkled on top

Compost sprinkled on top

Dirty hands – don’t care!  Who am I?

Dirty hands – don’t care! Who am I?

The rest was easy: we dug holes for each seedling, sprinkled compost in each one, mixed it in with the dirt, and placed each seedling inside. After a little water for each plant, that was it! I was so happy to see the little tomato, lettuce, broccoli, and leek plants.

Tomatoes!

Tomatoes!

Broccoli and leeks!

Broccoli and leeks with anti-hen fence erected

Working in the garden was so pleasant and gratifying. Some days it was a little rainy, but most days it was sunny and warm. The peaceful countryside was exactly the right antidote to the grating cacophony of the city – birds chirping, goats and cows bleating and mooing, the rooster crowing randomly, and one single car driving down our dead-end street, causing me to look up because I was noticing ONE vehicle (!!!), were all I heard.

The grelinette/hoe action was very meditative and difficult physically. I loved sweating and “earning” my big lunches and goûters with this work. Sometimes Gundula and Louise would join me, and we’d hang out and talk or just work together in silence. The hens and le coq would always come to eat the worms, and the dogs and cats would come to watch the action or sunbathe. My very favorite part of working in the garden was that without fail, within five minutes of beginning work, Lunette the cat would come find me and stay with me the whole time. She would rub my leg or the tools I was using – one time when I was squatting to dig a hole, she even climbed on my back and got comfy!

Lunette <3

Lunette ❤

Le coq and the hens pecking for worms

Le coq and the hens pecking for worms

As I was working, I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe farming used to all be done by hand!” This is just one tiny organic garden and I know that most produce being grown these days has a lot more machine help. But, I am glad I got to see how it feels to tend a garden by hand. It makes me appreciate food even more when I see how much hard work goes into creating it. It was also really exciting to see compost being put to use – I would put things in the green bin in the kitchen, empty that bin onto the compost heap outside, and right next to where I emptied it is where I would get wheelbarrows full of decomposed compost (redundant, but you get what I’m saying right?) to sprinkle on the garden. The circle of [plant] life!

Stay tuned for more posts about goats, cheese-making, and some visits to nearby towns!

*Update: Click these links for my introductory wwoofing post and my posts about Les Chèvres and Cheese and the second time I went there.