Teeny Tiny Cows!
I traveled to the Loire-Atlantique department of France this week to pick up the latest additions to our farm: four little calves. I suppose calves are always little but these four are Bretonne Pie Noirs, the smallest breed of cattle in France.
It was a bit intimidating traveling to a new part of France on my own, knowing I’d have to let my fledgling French fly, and driving with live animals in tow. I bought the calves from Elsa Daniel at l’Audace Farm. She offered to let me stay at her place the evening I arrived to save the cost of a hotel. I gratefully agreed and the whole trip proved to be one of my best experiences in France so far.
l’Audace Farm is a cooperative of five farmers who, in the midst of rampant industrial agriculture, have chosen a different model. Elsa raises cows and makes butter and cheese. Other partners include someone who raises sheep (one flock for meat, another for dairy), one who raises cattle for beef, one who grows mushrooms, and another who grows his own grain for his own bread that he bakes in an oven he built.
I arrived around 4:30pm and had a chance to meet our future herd. But there was still a lot of daylight left so I offered to help Elsa with whatever work was left for the evening. We walked to the edge of a grassy field, where her parents and sister were working to remove brambles from a hedge. I have no idea how to make cheese but I have lots of experience cutting brambles! So fortunately I was able to contribute for a bit and better yet, talk with her family members.
Her parents are retired teachers and, it seems, just genuinely nice people. They were extraordinarily patient with my attempts to speak and understand French, and offered pronunciation tips here and there. For example, Elsa’s mom taught me how to say “haie,” which is the French word for hedge. I’ve read it hundreds of times but didn’t recognize it when she said it. Fortunately we were standing right next to a hedge so all she had to do was point. In case you’re wondering, it’s “eh,” like “Eh, brambles.”
I spent the next three hours or so walking around the farm with Elsa and/or her family, learning about her operation, playing fetch with a dog who brought her own stick, pitch-forking some hay, walking to a distant field to see the mothers of our calves, and watching someone scrambling to scoop up a couple of tiny lambs who thought it might be a good idea to accidentally get stepped on by some big beef cattle who were eating their dinner.
Shortly after dark, I grabbed my overnight bag from the car and rode with Elsa to her place a few kilometers away. When I say "her place," I mean her yurt - the one she spent a month building with her boyfriend. And it was awwwwesome.
We talked some more and I was impressed, yet again, with her patience. Speaking with me is frustrating; I’m like a jumble between a three-year-old and an octogenarian who finds herself pausing frequently to search for words. Oh, and when all else fails I just pronounce the English word with a French accent. But when Elsa didn’t understand me, she made it clear. Instead of nodding and moving on, she just looked at me and waited while I came up with something better. Or sometimes she would jump in with what she thought I might mean. Super helpful.
I started yawning around 9pm and considered asking what time Elsa generally goes to bed. Since I don’t speak the language well, I always have to consider what I say before saying it, so I can figure out how to say it. And I was glad for the slight delay because all the sudden her dogs started barking at headlights in the yard.
Ruckus, ruckus, then three guys walked in! I had no idea what was going on so I just rolled with it. Someone tried on some snowboarding boots.There was lots of laughter and a meat/cheese/Dorito board came out and we all had beers. I listened to the conversations but only caught a word here and there; it was full-speed French so though I listened, my focus was more on the cheese Elsa had made along with some really nice salami. And I think it was my first time ever eating Doritos in France.
Then, as quickly as they had arrived, two of the men left and one stayed. Turns out he’s Elsa’s boyfriend along with being a great host and conversationalist. He was also extraordinarily patient with the elderly-toddler version of my French self. We talked about healthcare, politics, our families. Somewhere along the line more food emerged in the form of pizza, bread from l’Audace farm, pork pate and sausage a friend of theirs had made, and butter from the farm. Elsa and her boyfriend (whose name I never learned) were so welcoming the experience almost felt surreal.
I didn’t go to sleep until midnight.
Then I woke up again at 5:30 to the sound of squealing pigs being loaded for the abattoir. It was a stark reminder that in the Loire-Atlantique department, l’Audace is not the norm. But I’m hoping as more farms like l’Audace thrive, more and more farmers will choose methods that are better for animals (including people) and the environment.
I would of course like to add our farm to the list of successes and with this trip, we’ve taken our first concrete step toward selling products. These are no longer practice cows. This is our tiny herd of tiny cows whose numbers are so limited in France that they’re considered a threatened breed.
Our job now is to love them, care for them, and help make more of them.
When I got home, Wendy and the kids had planned a little welcome party for me. There were cupcakes and daffodils, and the kids were super excited to show me the pictures they had drawn. It was the perfect ending to my trip.