Camels in the Cornfield

A poet’s venture into dairy farming becomes a journey of mud and guts, faith and trust.

by Luke Blakeslee ’11

Venus is autumn’s morning star.

I am not.

In the first week of October the planet is dazzling the horizon, already three fingers up by the time I head out to the barn.

I’m half awake and a half-step behind my wife, the early riser who convinced this poet to start a camel dairy. Fifty shades of brown matter now replace the graphite smears I used to wear on the side of my left hand.

It’s no wonder Amber stays upwind of me. Unlike me, she’s a picture of the world’s most attractive natural grit. I’ve seen her pull her hair back, tuck a clean button-up into fitted jeans, and squeeze five pints of milk from a camel in a minute and a half. She once impressed me by unclogging a manure pit drain with those same bare hands.

Customers enjoy hearing this whenever they sniff her handmade camel milk soap and sample our hand-churned ice cream. They want details that are easy to buy, hard to forget. So we fill our traveling shop with fresh hay and even fresher manure; a calf that bellows at babies; another camel that chews sideways in every selfie. A few people respond by approaching me with a game of blood-and-gutsmanship. They say something gnarly like, “I heard camels can crush a man’s skull,” then pause for me to tell some near-death story they’ll use to impress their friends back home.

I get it. For them, farming isn’t about the swish of cottonwoods or the smell of rain beaded on crisp leaves in the cornfield. It’s about the crazy goat that breaks your brother’s arm and gets eaten by coyotes, or the neighbor who dies when the auger catches his flannel shirt. Amber and I hope our kids learn a different perspective, one involving less blood and guts and more milk and honey. So instead of exaggerating for manliness points I describe some picture of farm life recently planted in my mind, like feeding muskmelon rinds to the camels after supper: Priya and Lance standing barefoot at the top of the gate as five dark mountains stride through the pasture to greet them, great humps just visible at the edge of twilight.

 

This morning our way to our camels is through a heavy sliding door stuck in its tracks. I meant to fix it last month but set it aside to replace a broken window instead. The old glass couldn’t hold out a month of La Nina storms. The camels seemed unfazed by the constant rain crashing like pea gravel against the sides of the metal barn and cutting channels in the dirt floor like shallow wadis in desert soil. But milking in a pool of mud and calf scours is not a dairyman’s dream.

The window is now mostly fixed. I tell Amber I’ll work on the door when the Christmas rush is over. She laughs with the sarcasm of Katherine Hepburn.

That’s the problem with being more poetic than practical on the farm. My best plans tend to coddiwomple—move with purpose toward a vague destination. I’ll pray over an idea and then hope the stars align to make it work. It’s a good way to get whipped by Orion’s belt.

A loud scraping rips through the morning as we wrestle open the jammed door. Scared camels can kick, bite, trample, smash, or throw a person by the head with the right provocation, but we find ours inside lying in a circle on the loose dirt, necks bowed like palm trees bending toward water, sculpted legs folded like collapsed columns of a four-poster bed.

The calf stretches to sniff my pockets while Amber straddles Daisy’s hump with the confidence of Cleopatra. It’s a new test for Daisy, our fifteen-year old with no riding experience. At 1,300 pounds, she would need a good four seconds to lift her seven-foot frame skyward if she suddenly spooked, leaving Amber enough time but little room to jump out of the way.

There is little risk of that. Other than the mangled door, the barn is a sanctuary. There are no sharp edges, no blind spots, no dark corners. Mothers of all types are easygoing when they don’t have to worry about their environment, and only easygoing mothers will produce the milk our dairy needs.

Using the calm tone of voice we’ve mastered sending our toddlers to bed, Amber and I call everyone up. Ginger requires that I scratch her poufy head before she allows me to feel for her unborn calf. I fit my hand beneath her ribcage and sway her belly side to side. Nothing yet. Amber inspects the sore on Jenny’s leg and checks Journey’s tail for signs of lingering diarrhea.

As we apply fly spray on bellies and legs and try to breathe through the plumes of dust raised from brushing off their backs, we talk to the girls about the day ahead, about the weather, Cubs baseball, anything to embed the sound of our voices deep into their memory. It’s a routine as much about survival as it is affection. Camels will weep over the loss of a favorite handler; they might stampede a stranger.

The ease with which we fell into these routines makes us forget that camels weren’t in our blood to begin with.

I wish we could hand down traditions of camel husbandry passed through the family from the days of Solomon, when the Queen of Sheba first brought silk and incense to Jerusalem by camelback. But our road to camels wasn’t paved with myrrh; it was strewn with dandelions.

A few years ago we no longer enjoyed mowing our seven acres and set out to find a weed-eating animal to do the dirty work. Goats were too wily. Sheep were too stupid. Horses eat money and kill more people than sharks, bears, and alligators combined.

So the obvious choice was camels.

To Amber, anyway. I was still tethered to my prairie upbringing, which means I thought she was insane. It took a Bedouin to convince me.

We met Saleh at a cameleer training clinic in Michigan, smartly covered in a headscarf while the rest of us swatted horseflies from our hair and blistered under the July sun. Saleh was a nomad who grew up in the Bedouin culture drinking milk straight from the camel’s teat, perhaps the only thing about him we wouldn’t try to emulate. Each of his training sessions evoked an ancient ballet of man and beast rising and falling, Saleh’s quick movements dictated only by the camel’s flicking tail, cautious breath, glaring eye, or slight twitch.

Amber and I attempted the same with an unwieldy female whose favorite step was directly sideways, repeatedly penning us into a fence. We drove home bruised and sunburned, but completely hooked.

Our goal for the next two years was to pull all the best information from our new mentors without annoying them. A rugged Texan taught us that nothing kills camels faster than parasites. A wiry Australian who ropes feral camels in the Outback explained how to avoid a crushed skull when catching a bull. Out of Michigan, Colorado, India, and California an outpouring of knowledge filled a stack of notebooks piled on our dining room table.

It was time to crank up a herd fund. Camels aren’t cheap. A young camel costs the same as a small car; a milking camel is more like a large truck with the insurance policy of a tour bus. We wanted both. Restaurant tabs shrank. Water instead of Coke. Homemade soap, homemade haircuts, garage floor alternator repairs.

While I prepared the farm, Amber grew our bank account by selling soap and lotion that she crafted with camel milk purchased from another dairy. Aromas like coconut lime verbena and yacht club began catching guests by surprise as they entered our home; they started opening their wallets on the way out.

Around this time our infant daughter was dealing with an allergy to cow’s milk that wrecked her digestive system and left patches of eczema like ripe strawberries on her punky legs. Camel milk and Amber’s products soothed her body so effectively that other families in similar situations began turning to our products for relief.

The connection between autism and camel milk solidified our commitment. Rachel, Carl, and Jacob were teens Amber and I mentored years earlier in a local autism social club. Rachel was all about karaoke. Carl was a chess fiend who between each move would talk about Catholic monks. Jacob directed mystery plays and once brought seven different flavors of Mountain Dew to a party. They showed us that beyond the visible signs of autism lay a world of real, complex, and uplifting personal relationships that actually mentored us.

When we discovered libraries of anecdotal evidence linking camel milk to autism reversal, we wondered: Could we build a farm that could help find a cure?

With a full head of steam we prepared to launch.

 

Camels aren’t cheap. A young camel costs about the same as a small car; a mature milking camel and calf pair is the cost of a small car and large truck with the insurance policy of a tour bus. Restaurant tabs shrank. Water instead of Coke. Homemade soap, homemade haircuts, curtains, dresses, alternator repairs. Amber and I set up a GoFund Me to bring friends and family on board.

But at just the wrong moment no bank would fund the rest of our business expansion. It seems the words “camel dairy” can raise bankers’ eyebrows an inch higher than they’d been raised before. To them it wasn’t a question of return; our business plan was promising enough. It was more a question of risk. Where we saw cutting edge they saw only exotic, i.e., quixotic. And with their hesitation, our plans blew away like the dried heads of dandelions we knew we’d be mowing forever.

I call the events that changed their minds “the three blessings,” and they are another story altogether. Suffice it to say they changed our hearts and our future. We began to feel not resignation, but a bittersweet contentment. On our long walks Amber and I recalled a verse from Proverbs, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps,” and from Isaiah: “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” We realized that we had been building a future based on our own imperfect timing—none of this was going to go exactly as planned.

Then came news that should have been a death blow—our milk supplier closed up shop, effectively closing our soap business with it. We pushed the banks one last time, and a visionary lender finally understood our urgency to expand. In a few weeks we had a resurrected business plan lean enough for them to fund and practical enough for us to accomplish in the window of time they would give us.

Reality dictated care in proceeding. Camels lactate for no more than 8 to 15 months after giving birth and drop their milk in small quantities under precise conditions. After that they remain dry until their next calf is born, 13 to 18 months later.

Our accountant helped us process these figures by scribbling a heavy black dot on our books to show where our bottom line would need to be to pull this off. He didn’t leave much room for coddiwompling.

 

On some of these dark October mornings it’s easy to let that black dot hang overhead like a pillar of storm cloud. With the girls awake we need to hurry with milking, not just because Jenny is impatient for the grain I poured when we entered the barn, but because her milk won’t wait for us to lollygag. Once it fills her udder we’ll have 90 seconds before she pulls it back up.

So this little sanctuary must remain a shrine of efficiency. I tow Jenny into the stanchion. Amber cleans the udder while I weave Journey past the others into the parlor beside her mom. She dodges and weaves and finally leaps into place, leaning in under her mom’s warm belly. The whole operation depends on her instinctive tongue and rubbery lips triggering the udder for a full let down.

Amber and I crouch to watch for signs of oxytocin flowing through Jenny’s body. Her shoulder stops twitching, her eyes fix forward, her feet shift slightly, then freeze in place. Then the calf pulls with every muscle in her mouth like a kid sucking a thick milkshake up a straw.

Amber whispers into the little one’s ear and guides her away from the stanchion. With one hand I wipe the calf’s tacky saliva from each teat and with the other pop on the vacuum-powered milking equipment. The teats explode at once and warm milk cascades through a system of tubes and filters into our waiting bucket.

Except for the steady thdope, thdope, thdope of the suction pump, the barn falls silent. There’s nothing to do now but enjoy the stillness, my favorite part of the morning. For the first time since creeping out of bed, Amber and I can exhale fully. She gently works burrs from Jenny’s beard. I sink one knee into the damp straw and let my mind wander.

I think about how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go on this journey of faith. That’s how I see the unfolding of our dream, not as some romping tale of bravado but a meditation on trust—in each other, in God’s promise to carry on a good work. Can Amber’s craft continue to sell? Can I keep the farm functioning when winter slams us hard and deep? Can our kids be blessed as they see their parents carry on through the blood and guts, the milk and honey? I picture them in their light-up boots racing out to the barn. And I start to pray.

Amber nudges me awake. The milk is down to a trickle, a heavy bucket telling us Jenny gave a good five or six pints. When we’re done cleaning her up she’ll let down several times more to feed Journey before I lead her out to the pasture with the others. And when the world has turned over I’ll bring her back in, a dark mountain heavy with milk again.