Things Relearned in 2013

As we head into 2014 I am excited for what the year holds for us. There are lots of things on my list that I would like to do like so many others – lose that last ten pounds, watch our home budget closer, plant a garden this summer, prepare healthier meals and snacks for my family and myself and take time to blog a bit more (!). But I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, preferring instead to focus on the day to day, stringing together a year that we can look back at and say “not bad.” I think I’ll be doing just fine if I am able take these lessons re-learned in 2013 into 2014 with me.

Here’s my version of taking inventory of 2013:

  1. Time sure does fly; don’t forget to live in the moment. For the first three months of Baby E’s life, I told myself as long as I can get through these first three months and we can establish some sort of routine, I’ll be all set. Guess what? In hindsight, those first three months passed like a flash and all of the sudden Baby E was smiling, rolling over and cooing. And now that he is approaching ten months, I find myself realizing that I didn’t really need to “wish” that time away. I just needed to find more patience.
  2. Patience, patience, patience. I always thought I had a lot of patience without having to think about it. What I found out with two little boys 19 months apart, a full time job and a dairy farm is that maintaining patience is a skill that needs to be practiced. Sometimes things seem to bubble up until I can’t take it any longer, and yes, I need to walk away, but I’ve found that by maintaining perspective I’m able to get through the tantrum meltdowns, fussy babies, never ending farm work, late-night catch up work sessions and even the constant clutter that doesn’t seem to unclutter itself. A reminder or perspective-check from conversations with close friends, family and the DF helps to keep that big picture view.

    One of the "farmer-rigged jobbies."

    One of the “farmer-rigged jobbies.”

  3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. TK is BIG into tractors, particularly pulling wagons or some other sort of farm implement. At first, he used red implements that went with red tractors and life was copacetic until…he started wanted to use the wooden train cars as wagons. For about a week I tried to explain to my two year old that it could not be done. They were not the same and the two things didn’t go together until…one evening after a particularly pathetic meltdown I had a brainchild to use a twist-tie from a bread bag and hitch the two things together. Voila, problem solved. Besides, I had it on good authority that Santa was bringing him a new green tractor and green wagon and blue tractor and blue wagon and I wouldn’t have to deal with my “farmer-rigged jobbies” anymore. And yet he still comes to me, now saying “Help you?” wanting to mix up the sets again.
  4. Take time to connect with the people you care most about. A friend of mine lost her battle with cancer a few days before Christmas. Not in close contact and having recently seen her vibrant and full of life this summer, the news of the downturn in her health caught me off guard. She went into hospice care shortly after Thanksgiving and her family started a blog where they posted updates about her health. People could also leave messages for her. Once you posted, an email notification was sent each time someone else did too. To say it was inspirational to read about the impact this woman hand on so many lives seems too simple. How often do you have the chance to say thank you to someone for the impact that they had on you in your life’s journey? And she impacted so many! She was one to share her thoughts openly and honestly in a way that endeared her to you, making you feel comfortable to share freely as well. Just a thought, but maybe if we took the time to say thank you a little more often we might live fuller lives and help others to feel more free as well.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. In turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home and a stranger into a friend.”- Melody Beattie

Thank you to my family and friends who fill my life.

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On Sustainability, but Not Really

I was thrilled when my friend Tyler wanted to write a guest post for farmlifelove.com. He chose an important topic, perhaps the most important topic that unifies all farmers who simply wish to continue to farm especially if they plan to pass on a healthy business and way of life to the next generation. My DF and I think about this more often than we realize. It’s in the air up here. We ARE the next generation currently picking up the ball to give it a go at running this farm. While the next “handoff” is a bit off in the future, it’s exciting to think that we may actually be looking at their faces when they get out of bed each morning. Enjoy.

I hear farmers talk a lot and I like to listen to them. Not just to what they say, but what they mean. When I hear them talk about “sustainability” it’s like they put on someone else’s clothes, or start speaking in French or Pig Latin and pointing to clouds in the sky. They don’t seem to be using words that mean the same things to them as to the people who want them to use those words.

Here’s what I think they mean: Being sustainable is being able to pass the farm to the next generation. Black and white.

Behind that decision point follows a lot of other fractionally impactful decisions . Those are the ones that the neighbors seem to want to talk about, but not really.

At that point in the conversation I think farmers end up talking past their neighbors; they cite the improvements in technology or technique that have made an impact on their farm’s ecosystem. No till, cover cropping and minimal spray techniques are all a little too technical, and seemingly insignificant to the observer. It’s a whole lot easier to see and understand and still the impact of cover cropping across so many acres is going to be difficult to understand for someone not used to thinking in those terms. And when a farmer has made a decision not employ a certain beneficial practice they often hear, “Why aren’t you organic?”, frequently phrased as an accusation, and have to justify their decision to a stranger. Each farmer has made a calculation balanced with cost and impact about what to do and what they can afford to do. Sometimes that means waiting to do something impactful until they can afford to, not because they don’t want to.

Most people don’t talk about money away from their kitchen table, and most never talk money with their neighbors, but believe you me, there is nothing less sustainable than handing an under-qualified successor an unprofitable farm. If the farm has struggled for a long time, it’s entirely possible the kids have already given up on it. And likewise, it’s hard to be a positive force in the community as an overworked farmer with limited financial resources who’ is hustling but still losing money. When a neighbor asks a farmer to donate to their church’s food pantry, it’s hard to know if the farm can spare the foregone income or not. It’s not about being a good and charitable person; it’s about paying the electric bill.

Let’s not forget that some very profitable farmers and some very progressive farmers are taking risks here. Sustainability measures that some communities most want to see enacted could be a death knell for farms in the name of global environmental progress. Or simple NIMBYism. Or both. Then a community on the urban edge is faced with a change in values: a farmer is selling his farm and we don’t want a housing development there. Unfortunately his farm wasn’t sustainable and now the town has a broader tax base . Personally, the farmer is probably devastated, or angrily bitter about his change in direction. Or just defeated. Who knows how the rest of his family feels.

Being sustainable for the sake of being sustainable is a non-starter for most businesses, and I feel like that’s not enough of an open secret to the neighbors who want to influence their neighborhood businesses. It kind of feels like a shakedown, with some cartoon thug cradling a Louisville Slugger with a big scripted “sustainability” across its barrel. “Sustainability” needs to have a positive incentive and a more personally realized effect for it to be valuable. Otherwise it’s a convert-or-die mentality that doesn’t have any room for tolerance or alternatives. Farmers are frustrated that their neighbors don’t see the connections they do, that things like no till across 1,000 acres of silage corn can have a huge difference in water quality in the community. Frustrated most of all when they are characterized and generalized as destroying the environment. First, they work in the environment and understand it very differently than the abstracted version in the “conversation” and second, why would they ruin the land they want to pass to the next generation?

It’s hard to know the inside of somebody else’s farm and what factors led them to the decisions they make . It turns out that issues of sustainability are much harder and more personal things to have a conversation about than is realized by those neighbors who “want to have a conversation about sustainability.” Because they’re probably not talking about the same things. Not really.

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Tyler Matteson is a freelance writer and farm finance expert, working as Controller at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury, MA. He has previously worked for Farm Credit East and the Boston Flower Exchange and written for Green Profit, Grower Talks and Progressive Forage.

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What Makes Farming Worth the Heartache?

Recently I can’t help but notice so many blog posts, articles and pictures of heartache related to farming and ranching. My heart goes out to those producers in South Dakota that lost so much to the recent unexpected October blizzard. So many cattle, horses, hours, years of building genetics, so much.

Another blogger recently wrote about wanting consumers to feel the struggle that we go through as farmers. I know we’ve had ours but I’m sure there are those that have it much worse.

And I’ve seen not just a few posts about city gals marrying farmers and what farm life means. Most of it seems like they’re bending and getting used to life on a farm, maybe even falling in love with it too, though capturing what can be isolating and heartbreaking as well.

So, what keeps farmers going? Why do we put up with the heartache  and uncertainty? I’ll admit I’ve looked at my own DF and asked, why can’t we just have a house in a town somewhere with 9-5 jobs and a paved driveway?

I think farmers are built a little differently. I think the wives or the husbands that fall in love with them accept that and move with them to where they need to be. You have to understand that you can’t change a person, no matter how many J Crew pants you buy them. (I’m still learning to love the tapered leg jeans my DF prefers.)

I’m not city. But I’m not totally country either. I’ve had the farming bug most of my life. I bought my first Jersey calf when I was nine years old. I had a little insight into the heartache and the responsibility that goes along with owning, caring for and loving animals. My very first calf, Annabelle, got sick when she was very young and we had to let her go. This experience, along with many others, led me to making this choice to farm with my husband with my eyes wide open.

And there has been heartache. There has been dearly loved old cows laid down to rest. Young heifers lost by a spell of bad luck. Days where two steps forward gets you three back. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it feels like a ton of bricks gently laid down on your chest.

But this writing isn’t about the heartache. My question is, what keeps people farming, if not financial return?

For me, it’s mostly about the animals. It’s the cow who somehow finds herself on the other side of the fence separated from the herd and shows up at the back of the house, bellowing as if she knows you’re in there and you can fix things. (This happened the morning I started writing this and I just shook my head with a little laugh.)

It’s the promise that a newborn baby calf brings, especially when she looks at you with those big brown eyes. The latest girl born here, Amaryllus, had a tough time walking on her back legs as she was a big calf and her dam (mama) had a difficult time birthing her. It’s the moment you realize she’s going to be just fine walking on her own.

It’s Towanda, age 6 now, who was born too early, in a cold, frozen free stall barn whose mama abandoned her that I nursed back to health with many towels, a hair dryer, some help from my brother and another friend and a lot of loving. She’s making the most milk of any of the jerseys now, though she’s still a peanut of a cow.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had a little help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak back then - Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had some help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak – Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

 

It’s the rush you feel when all the cows surround you in the pasture as you walk out to greet them.

It’s the beauty of the place around you and the sun on your face on a crisp October afternoon while your son is on your lap and you take a spin around a few fields on the gator.

It’s the fact that your son’s first word was “tractor” and the greatest thing on Earth is to ride in his daddy’s lap while he gets the day’s feed for the cows.

Maybe we need the heartache. Maybe it makes these things all that much more endearing; entwining our beings with the farm life so that you have no choice but to give it your best. All your best.

Some people are born into farming, some have the seed planted early in life, like me, and still some are bitten by the bug much later in life. Whatever the case, it sure is hard to shake!

Care to share what keeps you farming despite the heartache it can bring?

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September, What September?

September has been a blur. It seems like life is moving at warp speed lately. I’m working on a few ideas for blog posts, but to actually get something posted, and I’m stealing this idea from another blogger, I thought I’d share five things (she did 10) that I learned in September.

1. I actually can get calves fed while toting the baby and dragging the toddler along, though it takes me about 3.5 times longer than if I did them free-handed.

2. I was right not to plant a garden this year. I haven’t even been able to keep up with the few container plants that I have near the house.

That's a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

That’s a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

3. I’m learning PC Dart, the software we use to keep track of herd management details (like when cows have calved [had babies], were bred and how much milk they’ve made) and my DF appreciates it. At a herd check-up earlier this month where our veterinarian comes out to check the cows to see if their pregnant and also to vaccinate the calves that are of age against certain diseases, it was so easy to just print out the list from the program versus the other convoluted way of getting the information that involved determining the position of the sun that my DF used to use.

4. My dog is afraid of thunderstorms and he needs my help to suffer through them. We tried a few different strategies throughout the summer to help try to keep him calm, hoping to keep everyone else sleeping while he was up pacing about. I found myself explaining the situation when I had family coming to visit and realized that I have just accepted that he still needs me too. So if there’s a thunderstorm in the forecast, I make sure there’s a clean sheet on the couch, a spare blanket if needed and an acepromazine pill in the cabinet (for the dog! not me).

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

5. Bedtime is more fun and seems to go smoother when both Mommy and Daddy can attend. In fact, TK hasbeen wanting his dad to carry him to bed lately…and I’m totally okay with that. After lots of nights pulling solo duty as a “crop widow” I welcome the help for sure. Besides, hearing my husband read “Goodnight Moon” makes my heart happy.

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Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

I’m excited to share this next post with you. I’ve invited my friend Terri Lawton, dairy farmer from southeast Massachusetts, to write a guest post about her farming operation and her background. Terri sells raw milk and is a technical

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

expert on the subject, raw milk food safety and regulation and has addressed national audiences about the topic. The last two posts I’ve shared have been about why raw milk is a somewhat complicated issue. I’ve said that even though we have decided to not sell it, we are not against other people selling or consuming it. Terri and I spoke about my recent experiences and my posts and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about what she does with a few suggestions regarding raw milk, if you are interested. She can be found on Facebook and has her own blog at terrilawton.wordpress.com and okarealmilk.wordpress.com.

From Terri:

I’m an 11th generation farmer. I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass. I always loved cows, and spent most of my time on the farm as a child, pretending to be a cow, feeding the cows, milking the cows with my parents or gettingmy 4-H calf ready to show.

When I finished high school, I went to college and studied agriculture. I got my associates degree in Production Agriculture, with an emphasis on feedlot management from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Because I felt like I still had a lot to learn about farming, I transferred to Purdue University where I was a double major in Animal Agribusiness and Agricultural Communications. I was also in the crew club, dairy club, and Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. I also did livestock judging for three years of school and dairy judging with Purdue.

Because I had a strong background in dairy and several food science/food safety classes at Purdue, I thought that being a dairy inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be a good way for me to get involved in the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. Several farms I inspected were selling raw milk directly to families. I had been drinking raw milk my whole life. I was amazed when I realized that some people drove more than an hour to get raw milk.

After I finished up as a dairy inspector, I wanted to get closer to farming. I enjoyed being around cows, and owned several which my parents milked for me. I had planned to start making cheese, but needed an income while we were building the cheese room, and developing our cheese recipes, which is why I looked at selling raw milk retail.

I knew that my experience as a dairy inspector could help me harvest and bottle a superior raw milk. After developing a milking and bottling protocol that minimized potential risk, having the farm and retail area inspected by the dairy inspector, and having my milk meet exceptionally high standards, I received my license to sell raw milk in March of 2006. I started selling raw milk from grass fed cows on a pre-order basis so that I could ensure people got the freshest possible milk. Usually it was only a couple hours old when customers picked it up and brought it to their homes.

I decided to put food safety and integrity first from the beginning.

I know that selling and drinking raw milk can be risky. Based my experience as a dairy inspector, education at Purdue, and personal research about food safety and microbiology, I believe it is a risk that can be managed successfully. I also have seen farmers that were not up to the rigorous integrity and obsession with food safety that I think is necessary to do a good job producing raw milk for retail sale. However, for some farmers it is not much of a stretch to produce an exceptionally high quality raw milk.

I am grateful to be able to sell raw milk directly to families. I like having the folks come to the farm to pick up the milk. I enjoy meeting folks that care so much about food and supporting their local farmer. If I could encourage raw milk drinkers in one thing-please get your milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. It is a lot of work to keep raw milk clean. Inspected farms are held accountable, and must adhere to standard good practices. Integrity is very important in selling raw milk. Our customers need assurance that we are working hard to keep the milk safe. Inspections, milk quality testing and licensing are good tools to provide that assurance.

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We’re Saying No and Yes to Raw Milk

This is a follow up to the post, To Raw Milk or Not to Raw Milk.

It was a pretty clear decision for us about whether or not we would sell raw milk: No. However, we say yes to if you want to consume raw milk in general. That may seem like we are talking out of both sides of our mouths, but after my first post, I’ve learned that it’s a topic that many others feel conflicted about as well.

Thanks to the folks who joined in the conversation on my Facebook page. Lots of great information was shared while others raised questions about raw milk and wondered what it was all about. I thought I would explain the issue to the best of my knowledge here, share why we have chosen to stay out of the raw milk market and also share some great comments friends made about my previous post.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized or treated with UHT (Ultra High Temperatures) to eradicate potential harmful bacteria while preserving most of the goodness of milk. Raw milk advocates will tell you that this process also kills off beneficial bacteria, enzymes and other pathogens that help boost immune systems, ward off allergies and even cure asthma. The trouble is the harmful bacteria pasteurization kills off can be REALLY harmful and even in the cleanest of set-ups all it takes is one outbreak to cause serious damage.

Lots of people who grew up living on farms drank raw milk and still do today. I myself got to drink some from time to time even though we didn’t live on a farm… and no, I didn’t get sick. Most swear by it – they grew up on it and were healthier for it. These folks however, tend to understand the risks associated with Raw Milk itself but also with selling the stuff. A dairy farmer friend summed it up well on my last post, “All it takes is one person to say the milk made them sick and you lose everything you’ve worked so hard for.”

Put another way, a friend from business school commented, “The EV (expected value) of selling raw milk is highly negative due to the potential liability…even if they signed a waiver.”

Another friend who is a dairy farmer-turned vet student shared, “I grew up on raw milk but it came from my farm. My body was able to produce antibodies to the bacteria that was found in it because it was introduced to it from a very early age and they were endogenous to my farm and my environment. I may have gotten very sick had I gone to another farm and drank their raw milk. But I may have been fine. Food borne illnesses are very hit or miss. My biggest fear is that the consumers do not have enough education on how to properly handle raw milk and will make themselves sick by improper handling and it will come back to hurt the farmer and the dairy industry as a whole. It is a personal choice and one that if we can build in safeguards to the farmer that would require proof that they were negligent before lawsuits could be filed than I have no problem. But I have to tell you as a veterinary student and studying many bacterial and viral diseases that can pass thru to humans thru raw milk–I would not drink even my own anymore.”

And he’s right – those harmful bacteria and viral diseases are nasty stuff. To share an example, recently in the news – The Family Cow in Pennsylvania, a raw milk seller, recently had its third outbreak since January 2012. This time it was Campylobacter. Campylobacter is a found in cow manure and infection symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, fever and abdominal pains that can last anywhere from two to ten days after consumption. Listeria, e-coli and salmonella are a few of the other more “popular” foodborne bacteria related to raw milk among others.

Not only would we risk a potential lawsuit, something we don’t have enough resources to suffer particularly as we are really still starting out, but there isn’t enough insurance out there to indemnify the guilt I would feel were someone to get sick from raw milk we sold them.

Please don’t get me wrong, millions of people drink and sell raw milk every day and nothing bad happens. And quite frankly, as another commenter implied, I’m happy they are drinking milk in some way! I certainly do not want to play into any Fear Industry marketing (I feel there’s enough of it out there). So, to be sure, there are not many outbreaks reported. In 2013 through May, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been four outbreaks of campylobacter and salmonella related to raw milk and cheese consumption including 69 illnesses and 15 hospitalizations in the U.S., (this does not include the recent Family Cow outbreak).

On the other hand, there have been zero outbreaks in pasteurized milk. If you’re interested in learning more specifics about the risks of drinking raw milk, I found a great resource for raw milk risk facts on this website: realrawmilkfacts.com. To be fair, here’s a pro-raw milk website: realmilk.com, however, I don’t agree with its characterization as an “extremely” low-risk food. It classifies this statement using the term “when handled properly” which I think is an understatement. A recent recall for potential botulism-causing bacteria contamination in milk powder sold to Chinese companies by Fonterra, the world’s largest milk processor based in New Zealand, shows that mistakes or just plain bad luck can happen to anyone. (By the way, this recall occurred before any illnesses have been reported as of this time.)

On a personal note, I’ll continue to feed my kids pasteurized milk. It truly is a nutrition powerhouse with lots of good calories, essential nutrients, protein and other nutritional benefits that are still being realized. And as far as exposure to pathogens and other bacteria goes, I think they’ll eat enough farm dirt in their childhood to build up an arsenal of immunity if they haven’t already.

Any other thoughts or questions about this subject?

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To Raw Milk or Not to Raw Milk?

Over the weekend we were approached for the second time in one week about selling raw milk. Not a light subject. Or is it?

Both people who asked were just visiting – the size of our town actually doubles in the summer time with snow birds and other vacationers. The first person was easy to turn down. It was at a town festival where we were selling our jersey beef and sampling cheese and I simply said, “Thanks for asking, I’m sorry but no, we don’t sell raw milk.”

The second was a little tougher. A neighbor had a visiting family member who had a few goats at home from which they get their milk. She and her young daughter were having a great visit and were hoping to take home some jersey beef to try as well as to drink some raw milk while they were here. Our neighbor called to see if they could come by and get the beef. She also asked on the phone about the raw milk to which I said that I was really sorry but no, we don’t do that.

A few minutes later, they arrived at the farm to pick up their beef. They all got out of the car, the dogs greeted them, I ran and got the beef, mixed up their order a bit (I blame the mommy brain) and then enjoyed a little small talk while the little girl played with the dogs. I then noticed the woman visiting had a jug in her hand, which confused me (I had said my line on the phone, right?), and she tried to persuade me in person to take some milk from the tank.

It was hard to still say no to her – so many thoughts were going through my head:  It would probably be just fine. What would the DF do? She’s only here for two more days. Are we even allowed to sell it so casually in Vermont? What do we risk? What about insurance? To top it off – our neighbor in a mom-like way said something about finding/sharing milk with our “neighbors,” (I didn’t fully hear what she said with all the thoughts swirling around in my brain but I can sniff a guilt trip a mile away.) Oh boy.

I voiced some of my thoughts:

Me: Did you try guy up the hill who also has goats?

Her: Oh, we did, they are all dry.

Me: I’m not sure we’re allowed to sell milk.

Her: Oh, in XX state you can sell up to 20 quarts or something and it doesn’t matter.

Me: We’re not really set up for it.

Her: Cocked eye-brow with an “I’m not buying it” look.

Me: I don’t… I don’t really feel comfortable without talking to my husband, the Dairy Farmer.

The whole time we were talking, I kept watching the little girl and thinking of a news article I read a few days earlier about victims of illnesses derived from consuming raw milk and where they were now. One was about a young girl who was still dealing with issues a year later. Her life was never going to be the same.

I talked to the DF that night and we stood firm on our no-decision. He said to put it on him if I needed to. So sweet… I sort of already did that 😉

The truth is I’m torn about this issue. I can see the side where hey, if the folks know and understand the risks associated with consuming raw milk, why not. It’s a few extra dollars right to our bottom line and they leave happy campers. Chances are nothing would happen – many gallons or pounds of raw milk are sold throughout the country without issue. I can actually hear a dairy farmer friend of mine in my head saying big deal – just give it to her.

On the other hand I wonder if they really understand the risks associated. Insurance and ability to continue to operate aside, how would we feel if something ever did happen? Now that would be some real guilt. We have had some excellent quality tests on our milk lately, but you just never know. I remember a few years ago a family dairy with a processing plant and an impeccable history of hard work, dedication and top quality had some outbreak in the milk they sold directly to consumers – and that was pasteurized milk. The message there underscored the importance of food safety: if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

So, what would you have done? Did I overreact? Am I overthinking the situation? It’s a hot debate no doubt.

Regardless, I will add “research the raw milk regulations in the state of Vermont” to my never-ending list of things to do.

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