CARTHAGE — Joann Grohman, wearing a slate-colored fleece vest and a brown leather hat to ward off the morning chill, gingerly makes her way from her brick farmhouse across the spring grass to her weathered gray barn. Her black, knee-high muck boots, along with a ski pole held firmly in one hand, help steady the 85-year-old woman on the soft ground as Willie, her West Highland terrier, runs around her, eager to join in this daily ritual.
The clucks and quacks of chickens and ducks become high-pitched squawks as Grohman steps onto the sawdust in the barn, collects some grain in a bucket and makes her way back to the milking parlor. “I don’t usually give her quite so much grain, but I will this morning,” she said. “Make sure she’s in a good mood.”
Almost immediately a Jersey cow, the bell around her neck clanking, comes clomping around the corner and makes a beeline for the grain, slipping her head into the stanchion without protest. Over the next few minutes, the close bond that Fern the cow shares with Grohman will be revealed in little ways – the gentle stroking of Grohman’s hand against Fern’s hindquarters, Fern’s relaxed body language, the air of trust infusing every moment of the milking. It seems like a bucolic scene out of a Hallmark movie, or a children’s story book, but there’s much more here than meets the eye.
Grohman, you see, wields influence much farther than this 30-acre farm nestled up against the western Maine mountains, near a bend of the Webb River. She is the author of the homesteading classic, “Keeping a Family Cow,” originally self-published in 1975 as “The Cow Economy.” The book has just been revised and updated for a new generation of wannabe cow caretakers. Last fall, Grohman spoke at the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Wise Traditions conference in Atlanta. Her topic: “When you have a cow, you have it all.”
Grohman has a website (accessible through keepingafamilycow.com or real-food.com), a Facebook page and a blog called “The Heifer Diary,” all based on her love of cows. People all over the country – the world, even – turn to her for advice on caring for a family cow.
How much space do you need? How much hay do you need for the winter? How much milk does a calf need?
Can I really do this?
She is the Dr. Phil of the family cow world.
A handful of similar guides exist, but Diane Schivera, organic livestock specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, always recommends “Keeping a Family Cow” to people who contact her for help. The information is good, she said, and easy to read. Grohman’s sensible advice gives readers confidence, Schivera said, whether they already own a cow or are considering adding one to the family.
“Position yourself and the pail and grab a teat in each hand,” Grohman instructs in the “Milking Your Cow” chapter. “Do not be tentative about this. Cows hate a tickly approach.”
A few years ago, according to Grohman’s son Martin, more than a dozen of her followers from all over the country convened in rural Maine to visit the family farm and meet their idol.
Grohman is knowledgeable about pretty much every hot-button cow issue around – the health benefits of raw milk, the demonization of saturated fat, the effect of cow’s internal gases on the planet – but she is, first and foremost, a champion of the animal. She doesn’t care who you are or where you live – she once grazed a cow on her suburban Scarborough lawn – Grohman believes that a cow will make anyone’s life better.
She calls owning one of the docile creatures “a multidimensional experience” that refocuses a family’s energy toward the home.
“It centers a family,” she said, “and it’s a source of joy.”
EARLY PROCESSED FOOD FOE
Joann Grohman was born in Rumford, just down the road from her 1820s-era farm.
Her parents lived in Dixfield when she was born, but the family moved from state to state – Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Washington. Her father, Joann says, was “a trust fund baby,” so they had freedom to wander.
Grohman studied animal husbandry and animal science at the University of California-Davis. She married three times; two of her husbands were scientists. Her first husband, Jack Luick, worked at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and they had six children together.
As a young mother in 1952, Grohman began an intense study of nutrition. She devoured the books of Adelle Davis, a nutritionist and health food advocate who became well known in the 1960s and ’70s for her opposition to processed foods and pesticide residues. By 1963, she was married to Merril D. Grohman, the publisher of the Pacific Sun newspaper in Marin County, California, and they had two more children. (Add in blended family, and there were 11 children altogether.) She became interested in goats during this period, and has raised them, on and off, her whole life. But hands down she’d rather have a cow.
“Goats are great, but for convenience of your milk supply and flexibility of what you can do with the milk, a cow usually works out better for most people,” Grohman said. “It takes about five goats to equal one cow. Goats are very bouncy, and the cream doesn’t rise, really. There’s so much you can do with cream. The thing about a cow is that when you have a cow, you have it all. It drives the farm economy. And she does it with pretty close to zero food miles. The idea that cows use up a lot of natural resources is without foundation.”
It was Merril Grohman who sparked his wife’s interest in cows. As a child, he visited his grandparents’ farm in California, and he fell in love with their Jersey cows, explained Kamala Grohman, Joann Grohman’s stepdaughter. He dreamed of having a Jersey dairy farm. In 1970, he packed up the family and they moved to Sussex, England, to operate a 60-cow Jersey dairy farm.
When they returned to the states in 1975, the Grohmans purchased Coburn Farm, the farm where Joann Grohman still lives. It was during this phase of her life that she cemented her identity as “a real food person,” says Kamala Grohman. “She was always making cheese and butter. She embraced that, and kept going.”
Martin Grohman, Joann’s youngest child (and Democratic candidate for the state Legislature from Biddeford), recalls shopping at the health food store with his mother when he was a boy, but they wouldn’t buy much. He still chuckles today remembering her reaction whenever he’d walk in the door with store-bought items. “When I was a kid, she was really almost militant,” he said. “There would be almost nothing from the store. Flour, and that was about it. She made our own mayonnaise, peanut butter, mustard, you name it. Now she’s backed off of it a little bit.”
The family alway had cows, and sometimes goats, and the extra milk would be clabbered and fed to the pigs and chickens so there would be pork and eggs for the table.
“I grew up with that whole lifestyle wherever we went, and we weren’t always in real rural places,” Kamala Grohman said. “In suburbia, sometimes we were the only people who had goats. That is so ingrained in me that when I actually left home, I took my two milking Jersey cows with me, as a young adult – who does that, right? – and kept milking and having chickens and all this right along going on in my life. It never occurred to me, ‘Oh, you could actually live without these things.’ ”
Martin Grohman remembers yearning for store-bought milk because it seemed so exotic. “I don’t prefer it anymore,” he said.
Except for a period in the mid-1980s, when she moved to Hawaii with her third husband, a medical doctor, Grohman has remained in Maine since 1975, and she has always tended cows.
Cows live about 13 to 15 years. Counting back, Grohman figures she’s owned eight, sometimes two at a time. Fern is 4 years old, and just had a calf in November, a chocolate-colored steer Grohman named Elvis. (“He’s a cutie pie,” she said.) Fern’s mother was Jasmine. Then, according to “Keeping a Family Cow,” there was Helen Hefferlump. Martin Grohman rattles off the others: Faith, Hope and Charity. Clover and Clarinda.
Joann Grohman may not be able to instantly recall all their names, but she does remember their personalities and that she lost one to milk fever, a metabolic disorder that is a risk after parturition – calving.
“A (family) cow actually is productive for quite a number of years, much longer than any commercial herd,” Grohman said. “Commercial herds nowadays often only keep their cows through two lactations, and naturally if you have a family cow, lots of times you can have it through 10 lactations. Most people retire them after that.”
SUCH A GOOD COW
Back in the barn, Grohman’s daughter Sally brings out the milking machine. Sally Luick arrives every January from her home in Alaska to spend the winter with her mother and help her with chores. (Summers, another daughter, who lives in Weld, helps out around the farm.) Grohman’s vision has dimmed with age and she needs help toting around equipment and getting Fern into the milking parlor. The rubber cups on the machine can get stiff on cold mornings.
“Do you think you’ll be able to hook it up this morning, mom?” Sally asks.
“You mean, do I need help?” Grohman replies. “Yes, I do.”
Grohman, sitting on a low-to-the-ground milkmaid’s stool, could milk by hand, but Fern’s teats are not easy to handle and Grohman is getting old and easily tires these days. Except for a low moo, Fern – who has already downed the grains Grohman left her – stands quietly and allows Grohman to wash her teats with hot water. Grohman knows that Fern won’t kick her. The trust goes both ways.
Then the cups go on without protest. “She’s such a good cow,” Sally said. “She’s just really an outstanding cow.”
The milk machine makes a rhythmic pumping sound as milk starts flowing through the tubes. It will take about seven minutes to get two-and-a-half gallons today; Elvis will consume another two-and-a-half gallons throughout the rest of the day. Having a calf is a good thing, because it means that Grohman has to milk only once a day, and she can skip some milkings, or at least pick the hour of the day she wants to do it. By the time a calf is 3 months old, she says, it’s capable of drinking all the milk its mother can produce.
Missing milkings is a concern many people have when they consider buying a cow. They envision themselves as slaves to the animal, never able to take a vacation, or sleep in, or have any kind of life outside the farm.
“That’s true, but that isn’t quite as onerous as you might think,” Grohman said. “It’s sort of like having children. You think ‘Oh dear, I won’t be able to go out every Saturday night.’ But you have them and you don’t want to go out every Saturday night.
“And her benefits are so clear. Somebody wrote me last year that before they had a cow, their whole family was sick every winter. And now nobody is sick.”
Still, vacations are rare unless you can find a relief milker, not as easy as it used to be. As usual, Grohman takes this potential negative and turns it on its head. Right now there’s so much enthusiasm for farm life in Maine that she thinks finding a relief milker soon will become more manageable. She also, in her practical way, asks people to reconsider the whole idea of vacation.
“If you have a nice little farm, with lovely fruit coming on, and every week there’s something different, the idea that you’d need to get up and go somewhere and stick your feet in the water doesn’t seem quite so important,” she said. “It would be more fun staying here and trimming the rose bushes.”
After the machine comes off, Grohman milks Fern by hand, a few squirts into an empty coffee cup. Then she drinks it.
Although she’s a staunch advocate of raw milk, for years Grohman never cared for the idea of drinking the milk warm, right out of the cow. Her son Martin convinced her to try, and she found that she liked it. After a few weeks of drinking warm milk twice a day, she says, the arthritis in her hands improved.
At this time of year, the taste of the milk is changing, Grohman said. Instead of eating her winter diet of hay, Fern goes out to the pasture after milking to start her day’s work – converting grass to milk.
“It tastes great all year round, but when she starts getting fresh grass, there’s a new dimension of flavor,” Grohman said. “And also it increases the volume. There’s some kind of magic in grass that they haven’t figured out how to put into a test tube. The milk production always goes up when the fresh grass comes on and the cream content also goes up.”
Grohman, meanwhile, does her morning chores, collecting eggs and scooping out food for her four sheep and two lambs to eat when they come in at night.
The symphony of squawks reaches a crescendo as Grohman checks a red hen’s nest. “It sounds like somebody laid an egg,” Grohman says. “That particular vocalization means she laid an egg, but I don’t know where she laid it.”
She searches the coop, then raises a white hen who has remained suspiciously still and quiet on her nest. “How about you?”
Grohman’s hands are spotted with red, where her chickens have pecked her. They are not as patient as Fern, and they want to sit on their eggs.
“These are real free-range chickens,” Grohman said. “This time of year we get two or three dozen (eggs). The commercial laying operations manipulate the cycle by using lighting, and chickens that don’t do anything but lay eggs their whole life.
When Grohman started selling milk and eggs years ago, people bought them because they were cheap. Now they tell her they buy her eggs because they taste better.
“They weren’t interested in quality at all,” Grohman said. “But now people are interested in quality. They really care.”
OPEN FOR DEBATE
The centerpiece of Grohman’s kitchen is a huge red Aga cooker she brought back with her from England. Brickwork has been built around it, including a small wood-fired oven. Pots and skillets hang from the ceiling, and the shelves and counterspaces are filled with spices, books and the usual kitchen clutter.
Over a cup of coffee, Grohman expounds on the dairy-releated topics she loves to debate. Be warned: She holds no truck with people who prosyletize about strictly plant-based diets that leave out her favorite food group entirely. But she does give props to animal rights activists for exposing the dirty underbelly of the industrial food system. “It only keeps going because of built-in subsidies to the system,” she said.
Grohman keeps up with the latest thinking on saturated fats, whole vs. skim milk, raw vs. pasteurized, real butter vs. alternative spreads. She never knows when she might need these facts so she can debate a vegan or impress a reporter with her articulate arguments and quick wit.
On saturated fat: “Animal fat is really important. The idea that it’s bad for you is essentially ludicrous. What’s bad for you is artificially created saturated fat like margarine and trans fats. It became so enormously profitable, and common sense went out the window.”
On skim milk: “Cats won’t even drink it. And it doesn’t work either. The more you drink, the less weight you lose. There’s been a commercial motivation for encouraging the use of skim milk, and by selling the cream separately it becomes a value-added product. The market for ice cream has always been strong. People never gave up ice cream. They just pretended to live on skim milk, and then they went and had an ice cream to make up for it. And then the processors got paid for what they used to have trouble getting rid of, and then they also got paid value added for the ice cream.”
On people who say they feel better after giving up dairy: “Anytime somebody gets religion and decides to go for a natural food diet, no matter what natural food diet you select, if it cuts out sugar and artificially saturated trans fats, you’ll start feeling better within the next day.”
On plant-based diets: “The arguments in favor of the plant-based diet are not sound. The idea that it doesn’t matter whether or not you have any animal food is not supportable. I’m prepared to defend that statement.”
It goes without saying that Grohman is a fan of raw milk, and the current “relentless” campaign against it disturbs her. She so believes in its health benefits that when, at the end of milking, she kisses Fern’s nose, it’s not a sign of affection but a vaccination of sorts. She kisses the cow whenever she knows she’s been exposed to a cold or some other illness. Grohman believes the cow will produce specific antibodies for her.
“With careful handling, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have healthy milk,” Grohman said. “If they have a choice, nobody chooses pasteurized milk because it doesn’t taste as good. It doesn’t have as good culinary qualities. I think the emphasis on disease is what scared people away from using raw milk. It’s so ridiculous that people can actually get put in jail for selling it, whereas 250,000 people can get sick on lettuce without anybody going to jail.”
Grohman elaborates on these topics in “Keeping a Family Cow,” in her blog and in essays on her website. She wrote the book with her husband in 1975; they printed and distributed it themselves. Over the years, she has rewritten and revised the original thin volume many times, and the eighth edition is now nearly 300 pages.
Are there many others like Joann Grohman, owners of a family cow?
Based on the number of inquiries she gets, Diane Schivera of MOFGA thinks the ranks of family cow owners have grown steadily in the past five years, as many people develop more interest in local foods. Martin Grohman roughly estimates their numbers at 30,000 to 50,000 around the U.S.
The impact of Grohman’s book is apparent among these folks, both in print and on Family Cow online forums, where people from around the world have been chatting and seeking advice since 1998. They post pictures of their new heifers, ask about hoof trimming, and freak out about problems like sudden, mysterious knots in a cow’s throat. “Newborn calf just not right… help!” one post reads. An entire section is devoted to “911 calls” – cow emergencies. Others cover off-cow topics, like recipes and natural remedies.
Offline, Martin Grohman recalls traveling in Phoenix and wanting raw milk. “We found a place, and sure enough they had (a copy of) ‘Keeping a Family Cow.’ It’s better odds than not, if you find somebody with a family farm, that they’ll have that book.”
Joann Grohman is thrilled that her book has found a new generation of readers interested in the nutritional advantages of milk, especially in raising “well-developed, healthy, intelligent, functional children” with “good bone structure and excellent teeth.” These things, she says, are not accidental.
“I’m especially happy that some of the basic concepts that I set forth in the book are beginning to get some traction,” she said. “There’s so much misinformation about cows loose in the world. They’ve had absurdly bad press now for about 25 years.”
But on a personal level, Grohman knows that her time with Fern won’t last forever, especially now that her vision is failing. A cool morning will surely come when she will have to stop milking. She is waiting for life and circumstances to tell her, “Joann, enough already!”
She admits that she is “extremely attached” to Fern. But she says she knows from experience she can walk away.
“In times in the past, when I’ve had to leave for a while and put (the cows) in other peoples’ care, I was able to walk away without feeling totally bereft, because there are other things in life besides cows.”
Insert pregnant pause here, followed by a chuckle.
Contact staff Writer Meredith Goad at 791-6332 or at: