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

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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.