SARAH SMILEY

Dinner on a farm powered by manure

Lindell, 7, practices feeding a calf at Stonyvale Dairy Farm.
Courtesy of Anne Schmidt Photography
Lindell, 7, practices feeding a calf at Stonyvale Dairy Farm.
Posted June 13, 2014, at 11:24 a.m.
Last modified June 13, 2014, at 2:31 p.m.

Lindell, 7, has always wanted to be a farmer, except for when he wanted to be an astronaut, a mailman and a dog. But Lindell doesn’t want to be just any farmer. He’s not that interested in growing plants or vegetables. He’s more into the animals and the manure.

Mostly, the manure.

During the year we were doing Dinner with the Smileys on a weekly basis. Lindell wanted me to invite a farmer to dinner, but it’s hard to find a farmer who works a little bit with vegetables, a lot with cows and, well, is willing to talk about manure — over dinner. It didn’t happen in 2012.

Then this May, I was in the last aisle of the grocery store when I realized I had forgotten lemons. I was annoyed I had to go all the way back to the produce section before checking out, but as I rounded the organic food displays, a woman stopped me.

“Are you Sarah Smiley?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Does your son still want to be a farmer?”

“Yes, but not any kind of farmer, he—“

“I have a farm with more than 1,700 cows, and we power whole neighborhoods with their manure.”

Sold!

Two weeks later we were on our way to Exeter, Maine, to visit Stonyvale Dairy Farm, commonly known as the Foglers’ Farm.

Exeter is a picturesque town with rolling hills dotted by cows and red barns. Stonyvale is nestled between those hills. The Foglers live in a house on a hill, and their two children and their families live in the other houses on the same hill. The cows — often referred to as “the girls” during our tour — live in several red barns across a dirt road.

When we got out of the car, I instantly recognized Mrs. Fogler from the produce section. She introduced us to her children and grandchildren. The air smelled earthy, like cows but surprisingly not like manure.

Kate Fogler led the tour with her husband Travis, brother-in-law Brian and sister-in-law Liza providing input. Everyone on the farm has a job. Everyone pitches in.

First Kate showed us where the cows are milked. Like lactating humans, “being milked” is a welcomed relief. The Foglers have no problem getting the cows to the correct barn when it’s time. Some cows produce up to 150 pounds of milk per day.

The next barn houses adult cows, which are kept cool with vents and specially designed fans that turn on and accelerate to keep the air below 50 degrees. We were surprised by the cows’ different personalities. Some were curious about us, others moved away. We came around one corner just as a baby calf was being born. Literally. Lindell was ecstatic. Ford, who at 13 knows a bit more about the miracle of life, thought he’d be sick.

Ford does not want to be a farmer.

Another barn houses the calves — adorable, fuzzy guys with long legs — and the one beside it holds the “teenagers.” The boys said it was like “cow school”: preschool, kindergarten, middle school, etc. But when Lindell asked, “Where do cows go after they are done with ‘school,’” I awkwardly changed the subject. Farm life isn’t all rising suns and grass wet with dew. Farm life is filled with messy births, life and death — realities many of us try to forget in our sterilized city lives.

“Shall we go to the manure now?” I asked.

Down the dirt path are two “digesters” filled with manure and food waste. Each day, those digesters produce enough heat to replace 700 gallons of heating oil and to power 800 homes. The tops of the digesters expand with methane gas into perfect domes, kind of like your stomach after Thanksgiving dinner.

And on that note, it was time for dinner.

Inside a house that used to belong to the oldest Fogler’s grandparents, a spread of potato salad, chips, hotdogs and hamburgers awaited us. I mentioned the irony of eating hamburgers on a dairy farm. Then Kate, looking first to see if any kids were in earshot, told me the burgers actually were “from the farm.”

Oh.

Later, over the best sheet cake I’ve ever tasted, Bob Fogler told Lindell what farm life really involves: waking up at 1:45 a.m. every day, all year, to feed the animals. The Foglers don’t get vacations. Their lives revolve around the cows’ feeding and milking schedule — and you thought that first year of motherhood was tiring — but that hard-working nature came through as pure genuineness and openness at the dinner table. These are salt-of-the-earth kind of people. And while the screen door slammed as the kids ran in and out for another bite of cake, I thought I didn’t want to leave.

Except, I didn’t want to get up at 1:45 a.m. to feed cows.

And, honestly, neither would Lindell.

But that day in the grocery store when I met Mrs. Fogler, you could say the lemons I forgot became lemonade — a sweet, wonderful memory of a farm on a hill in Exeter, Maine.

Visit the Dinner with the Smileys Facebook photo album to see photos from our dinner and learn why farmers put magnets in cows’ stomachs.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

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