By Ed Staskus
When Hannah Inglish interned at the North Country Creamery in Keeseville in far northern New York near the Canadian border for six months she didn’t know it was the penultimate step in her transition from Cleveland, Ohio, yoga girl to cow herder maven and cheesemaker.
She also didn’t know that a year later, eight years after she began studying pre-Christian non-theism, rolling out a yoga mat, and changing her eating habits, she would be making arrangements to move away from where there were 5000 people per square city mile to 15 people per square country mile, with only her boyfriend in tow, and take up farming.
“I didn’t know it was going to happen so quickly,” she said.
“But when I was at Yogaville” – a teacher training facility and retreat center in Buckingham, Virginia, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains – “I read Shivananda’s writings, especially the parts about adapting, adjusting, and accommodating, so the change has been kind of easy.”
Born in Oklahoma, she and her sister grew up in Lakewood, an inner-ring old school suburb of Cleveland, and graduated from Lakewood High School. In her senior year she started reading Alan Watts, the British-born philosopher and populariser of Zen Buddhism in the 1960s and 1970s.
“He was an awesome philosopher, trying to explain the deeper meaning of things, the underlying energy you always feel,” she said. “It makes the unexplainable easier to explain.”
After high school she experimented with raw foods and vegetarianism and began commuting across town to Cleveland Heights to the Atma Center, a holistic studio dedicated to Satyananda Yoga. “They taught traditional yoga, with pranayama and chanting, not your typical soccer mom hot yoga. I wanted that.”
Satyananda Yoga professes an integrated approach to the practice and is known as the yoga of the head, heart, and hands.
The next year she signed on and went to Yogaville for three months to train as a yoga teacher.
“It was a great experience. I cut my long dreads and went by myself. All of a sudden I looked and felt different and I was around completely different people, waking up at 6 AM and meditating.”
Once back home in Lakewood, certified to teach the hatha style of Integral Yoga, she freelanced, teaching around town, but was disillusioned by the high cost of classes at studios and the prevailing focus on yoga as a workout.
“For me it’s more of a lifestyle, and the benefit of yoga is being present in the body and learning to relax. That isn’t really taught in a lot of classes.”
The next summer, with her boyfriend Max, she returned to Yogaville for another three months, but this time as an intern cooking for the ashram’s community.
“We worked in their big kitchen, cooking for hundreds of people, buffet-style, vegetarian and organic. It was another great experience.”
Returning home that fall, inspired by her kitchen work at Yogaville, she found employment at the Root Cafe, a local vegetarian restaurant, organic bakery, and espresso bar doubling as a community clubhouse featuring local music and art.
“It was my first serious cooking job,” she said. “I was the youngest person there. It was tough, although I got the hang of it. It was a lot of fun.”
But, the next summer she broke her wrist while crowd surfing in the mosh pit at a heavy metal concert and was unable to do kitchen work for several months.
“It was bad, really dumb, but I feel like it was almost like life telling me to slow down.”
After her slam danced wrist got better she returned to work, but her job at the Root Café having been filled, she instead found a new job at Earth Fare, an organic and natural food market in neighboring Fairview Park.
“I was doing my own thing at first, with the fruits and vegetables, but I kept getting transferred all over the store, and the managers were really rude, and it was just unfulfilling.”
Destiny has been described as the opportunities that arise to turn left or right when coming to a crossroad. Sometimes it takes karma to work out the windings on the road from Yogaville to Cheeseville.
“I was looking for another job, and not having any luck, but I had been thinking and looking at farm internships when I found an organic farm website I liked.”
It was the website of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition. Hannah Inglish filled out an application for an internship, posted her resume, and sat back to wait. She didn’t wait long.
“Steve Googin from the North Country Creamery in Keeseville called me the next day, even though I hadn’t applied there. There are only a few little organic farms in Ohio, but when you look at New York state it blows up.”
According to the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, most of today’s young American farmers are first generation farmers, primarily interested in growing organic foodstuffs and grass-fed dairy and beef.
“He told me I was accepted. I made plans right away. My mom drove me up there, and it was so much more than I expected, all the young farmers and the movement that is going on there.”
Steve Googin and his partner Ashlee Kleinhammer, co-owners of Clover Mead Farm and the creamery, bought and rehabbed a small trailer for Hannah to live in. They tore out its thin carpet, replaced it with hardwood flooring, and parked it under the stars. A stray cat showed up. She went to work milking the twenty cows, feeding the calves, and doing the many odd jobs that farms have an endless supply of.
“All the cows have names, like Nellie, Petunia, Trillium. Trillium was my favorite. I would pet her and she followed me around, sticking her neck out, looking to be petted. They were all such gentle giants, except for Ida, who was cranky, not so gentle. If you got too close to her she would head butt you. Once, I didn’t realize she was right behind me and she got me, which was a big pain in my butt.”
No sooner than she had gotten the hang of herding and milking the shorthorns and Jerseys in her care than the plans Mr. Googin and Ms. Kleinhammer had been making to open a farm café to sell their milk, yogurt, and cheese bore fruit. They hired a cook with experience at New York City’s Blue Hill at Stone Farms to manage the café and put Hannah in charge of the cheese.
“I think Steven really wanted to make cheese himself, and he did a few times, but they’re so busy doing everything else so they asked me to take over the cheesemaking.”
Cheese is sometimes seen as milk’s leap towards immortality, although age matters when you’re a cheese. Making cheese turned out to be the fulcrum that would take her back to Keeseville.
“Making cheese is 90% washing dishes and cleaning everything so it’s sterile, but I loved it, and besides, I really like cows. When you’re milking them they get so relaxed. I’ve seen them fall asleep right on the spot. It’s funny hearing a cow snore while you’re milking it.”
By the end of October her internship was over and she went home again to Lakewood, saying, “I was ready to come back and see my boyfriend.” No sooner was she home, though, than she started making plans again.
“I want to be a farmer,” she said. “But I can’t go out and do that anywhere. I have to go where I can learn from people, and Keeseville is where I decided to go. Even though I asked them so many questions when I was there, they weren’t saying there’s this dumb city girl, and all that. The community there is so attractive to me, the people actually doing it. Whatever it takes.”
With her mother’s help she bought a house in Keeseville and when spring comes is moving there with her boyfriend. She will go back to work at the creamery, milking cows and making cheese, and raise chickens and keep bees on the side on her own. “There’s a beekeeper across Lake Champlain in Vermont who breeds Northern Survivor Hybrids that do really well in the north country. I’ll see what I can accomplish.”
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field,” Dwight Eisenhower, whose forebears were farmers, once said.
Farming is hard work and farmers are compelled to start over again every morning, very early in the morning, valuing their work, love of land and water, and their communities. It’s early in the sack, early to rise, no black limos for getting to work.
“The farmers around Keeseville, at Clover Mead and Mace Chasm Farms and Fledging Crow, they’re all young and it’s inspiring to see them doing that,” said Hannah.
“It’s hard, hard work, but super rewarding. Eventually I want to own land and build my own cob house. That’s the plan.”
From farm to table is the cheese way. From city girl to cheesemaker to farmer is the way Hannah Inglish has made for herself. When a cow crosses her path it means the animal is going somewhere. Here comes the cheese.
Once your plan has been signed sealed but not yet delivered what remains is bringing home the cows and getting them all on the tune of om on the milk machine so they can slumber away on their feet happily snoring.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.