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The Milk House: Foreigner’s guidebook to over-thinking a farm visit

Ryan Dennis Published on 24 February 2014

As I write this, I am staying with my sixth farm family in Iceland while working on a book project about the island’s dairy farming. The people here have been overwhelmingly gracious. One of my biggest concerns before arriving was figuring out how to charm my way into the houses of people I didn’t know, particularly as a foreigner.

Calling up random farmers from a directory, I was nervous and nearly embarrassed for what I was asking for. I was taken back when most of them immediately replied, “Sure, you can stay here. Why not?”

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There’s an art to being a good visitor, and after traveling to a few farms I began to become conscious of the dance between the host and the person hosted. The first 20 minutes are paramount. They’re curious about the person they let into their house. Maybe they’re nervous about their level of English.

I fire off as many dumb jokes as I can on the theory that fake laughter is better than silence. Usually, dogs are a visitor’s best friend: You can fill the awkward moments by petting their border collie, and everybody likes it when you like their dog. In Iceland, however, dogs are only allowed in the mudroom. You’re on your own at the kitchen table.

Because they’re good people, the host family never means to make me feel like I’m on trial. However, because my project is dependent on staying on farms and that is made easier by getting recommended by other farmers, in some ways I was.

Ultimately, being a visitor is becoming aware of the different rhythms of a family and inserting yourself into them as seamlessly as possible. Visiting someone in another culture adds another element to the experience.

On Icelandic farms, there is often only one main meal – either lunch or dinner – but they eat many times during the day. Before and after they go out to the barn. There is cheese, bread, butter and crackers placed on the table, and many times cold cuts of lamb (it can come in any form, from a paste to a sheep’s face sitting on the plate with a horrified look).

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I’ve found out that gauging how much to eat depends on if the farm has a robot. If it did, the things I could help with were fewer, and I would likely gain a few pounds during my time there. If not, I would take an extra piece of toast.

The fulcrum of a farm visit, regardless, is what happens in the barn. I would follow the farmer while he showed me what to do. If his English wasn’t very good, he’d simply say “Like this,” and then demonstrate.

Although feeding hay or brushing manure through the grates are simple tasks I’ve done over and over, every farm has its own methods to replicate. I’d try to remember the routine so the next day I could repeat parts of it without asking, trying to strike the right balance of taking initiative without being assuming.

It would seem like sweeping the alley was just that, and washing the milkers was another basic task – and maybe that’s all they should have been. For me, however, there was more at stake. In our first conversations I would have told them that I was from a farm too.

The things that I did, however, would have to prove it. I tried to wash the udders swiftly and effectively, getting them clean. I tried to shovel the silage with a grace that suggested I had done it many times before. I moved from chore to chore quickly to show I was efficient – without appearing hurried. I scraped the manure from the end of stalls in sharp confident motions.

The end goal, of course, is simple. Success is when the farmer thinks “That was a nice guy, and I’m glad he was here.” The paths to getting there are likely many. At times, I’m probably too eager to please. Most of the time, I’m sure, I overthink things.

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Perhaps that comes from my own insecurities, or too much time to think on the six-hour bus rides to reach the farms. Maybe the things I wanted to prove to them were things I was trying to prove to myself. In any case, before my seventh visit, I’ll try to convince myself that all a person really has to do is relax, eat the sheep face and see where it takes him. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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