By Novella Carpenter, March/April 2010
Every morning, I pat the milking stand, which is housed in the laundry room of my apartment in a rundown neighborhood of Oakland, California, known as GhostTown, and say, “Come on up, come on up,” in a singsong voice. With her black-cloven hooves, Bebe steps up and I wipe her udder with a moist cloth. NPR’s Morning Edition usually plays in the background—I like to get some news during my milking sessions.
The milk comes out in steady streams into my improvised pail—a thrift-store Le Creuset pot that lost its top. I nuzzle my cheek onto Bebe’s flank; her udder is soft and pliable, warm, even on cold mornings. The baby goats—now 9 months old and not quite babies anymore—stand at the back door and cry, jealous.
I bought Bebe, my first milk goat, two years ago as part of my experiment in urban farming. I had already managed to raise turkeys, ducks, rabbits and two pigs on a vacant lot behind my apartment. Now, I was ready to try my hand at milking.
Bebe was four months pregnant when I went to meet her at a small farm in Lake County. She was speckled with black and tan markings and had a long white face. Her eyes were golden. It was February, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never milked a goat, and I had no clue what goats eat. I had a vague idea about making cheese.
“She only gives two cups of milk,” the goat farmer warned me as we sampled some of the herd’s milk. The farmer had been raising Nigerian Dwarf Goats with her children for 4-H shows. They had been disappointed with Bebe’s milk output. I looked at Bebe, regally gazing out at the far distance. Two cups didn’t seem that pitiful.
I had wanted Dwarf goats because I love goat’s milk, but the lot I am squatting is only a tenth of an acre and could not support full-size goats. I was surprised how sweet, creamy and downright delicious the Nigerian Dwarf milk was. Wearing a milk mustache, I signed the transfer-of-ownership papers.
Bebe’s kids came on St. Patrick’s Day. Two of them: tiny as puppies, one pure white, one brown with white streaks. After a few weeks, I weaned them, and started milking Bebe. This involved me picking her up, while she kicked, and setting her onto the milking stand. It took me almost an hour to squeeze out two cups, Bebe resisting the whole time. Goats, I started to think, might not be for me.
Despite the difficulties, my little urban farm suddenly had milk. I stopped buying half-and-half. I discovered the joys of goat-milk cappuccinos. I even made a little yogurt. Two cups of milk, every day, did add up. But not enough to make cheese, which I had discovered required at least a gallon, sometimes two.
In order to ingratiate myself with Bebe, I scrounged the dumpsters and collected cabbage leaves, which I turned into sauerkraut, which she loved. I saved whatever pennies I earned as a freelance writer to buy her high-quality alfalfa and organic corn, oats and barley.
Once gaunt, Bebe grew sleek. Her coat became shiny and healthy. She soon started jumping up onto the milking stand on her own, and she would let me milk her without complaint.
In December, I bred her again. I took her to the farm where she had once lived, for stud service. “Still two cups?” the farmer asked me.
“Yep,” I nodded. “A really good two cups,” I added with pride.
In May, Bebe gave birth to two gorgeous black-and-white kids. I helped with the birth, and Bebe seemed grateful. I doted on her babies. No longer standoffish, Bebe started snuggling up to me. We would sit for hours in the backyard, me reading a book, she nuzzling my side and keeping careful watch over her kids. I weaned this set of twins, and began milking Bebe again.
On the first day of weaning, Bebe got on the milking stand and I did a double take: her udder looked enormous. I set to milking. The pail soon filled with milk. I had to reach for another container. Bebe munched on her oats and barley as usual, her gold eyes looking straight ahead. Six cups. I kissed her flank. I thought it might be a fluke, but she regularly milked out four to six cups.
I had to let the farmer know. She seemed surprised to hear about Bebe’s increase in output, shocked even. My fridge became filled with gleaming white jars, and I realized I could start making cheese. And so I did, starting with chevre and ricotta, and eventually graduating to blue cheese, cheddar and bloomy rind cheeses, which I age in the guest-room closet of my apartment.
Why did Bebe finally start giving more milk? I attribute it partially to the food I fed her, and partly to the fact that her kids were larger and thus demanded more milk. But I also believe that Bebe had finally accepted me: as both a parent who provided food and shelter, and as a kid, who needed her milk.
Novella Carpenter’s inner-city farm in Oakland, California is the subject of her book Farm City and her blog Ghost Town Farm (novellacarpenter.com), where you can follow Bebe’s progress.