Opinion

Dinner on the farm powered by cow manure

As part of Lindell Smiley’s experiences on the farm he was able to help feed calves from a bottle. The Foglers’ Farm in Maine was one of the places he wanted to visit. - Contributed photo
As part of Lindell Smiley’s experiences on the farm he was able to help feed calves from a bottle. The Foglers’ Farm in Maine was one of the places he wanted to visit.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Lindell, 7, has always wanted to be a farmer, except for when he’s wanted to be an astronaut, a mailman and a dog. But Lindell doesn’t want to be just any farmer. He’s not that interested in growing plants or vegetables. He’s more into the animals and the manure.

Mostly, the manure.

During the year we were doing Dinner with the Smileys on a weekly basis, Lindell wanted me to invite a farmer to dinner. But it’s hard to find a farmer who works a little bit with vegetables, a lot with cows, and, well, is willing to talk about manure … over dinner. It never happened in 2012.

Then this May, I was in the last aisle of the grocery store when I realized I had forgotten lemons. I was annoyed to go all the way back to the produce section before checking out, but as I rounded the organic food displays, a woman stopped me.

“Are you Sarah Smiley?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Does your son still want to be a farmer?”

“Yes, but not any kind of farmer, he—”

“I have a farm with more than 1700 cows, and we power whole neighborhoods with their manure.”

Sold!

Two weeks later we were headed to Exeter, Maine, to visit what is commonly known as “the Foglers’ Farm,” but is technically Stonyvale Dairy Farm.

Exeter is a picturesque town of rolling hills dotted with cows and red barns. Stonyvale is nestled between those hills. The Foglers live in one house on a hill, and their two children and their families live in the other houses on the same hill. The cows—often referred to as “the girls” on our tour—live in several red barns across a dirt road.

When we got out of the car, I instantly recognized Mrs. Fogler from the produce section. She introduced us to her children and grandchildren. The air smelled earthy, like cows, but, surprisingly, not like manure (more on that later).

Kate Fogler led the tour, with husband, Travis, brother-in-law, Brian, and sister-in-law Liza providing input. Everyone on the farm has a job. Everyone pitches in.

First Kate showed us where the cows are milked. Like lactating humans, “being milked” is a welcome relief. The Foglers have no problem getting the cows to the correct barn when it’s time. Some cows produce up to 150 pounds of milk per day.

The next barn houses adult cows, which are kept cool with vents and specially designed fans that turn on and accelerate to keep the air below 50 degrees. We were surprised at the cows’ different personalities. Some were curious about us; others moved away. We came around one corner just as a baby calf was being born. Literally. Lindell was ecstatic. Ford, who at 13 knows a bit more about the miracle of life, thought he’d be sick.

Ford does not want to be a farmer.

Another barn houses the calves—adorable, fuzzy guys with long legs—and the one beside it holds the “teenagers.” The boys said it was like “cow school”: preschool, kindergarten, middle school, etc. But when Lindell asked, “Where do cows go after they are done with ‘school’,” I awkwardly changed the subject. Farm life isn’t all rising-suns and grass-wet-with-dew. Farm life is filled with messy births, life and death—realities many of us try to forget in our sterilized city lives.

“Shall we go to the manure now?” I asked.

Down the dirt path are two “digesters” filled with manure and food waste. Each day, those digesters produce enough heat to replace 700 gallons of heating oil and to power 800 homes. The top of the digesters expands with methane gas into perfect domes, kind of like your stomach after Thanksgiving dinner.

And on that note, it was time for dinner.

Inside a house that used to belong to the oldest Fogler’s grandparents, a spread of potato salad, chips, hotdogs and hamburgers awaited us. I mentioned the irony of eating hamburgers on a dairy farm. Then Kate, looking first to see if any kids were in earshot, told me the burgers actually were “from the farm.”

Oh.

Later, over the best sheet cake I’ve ever tasted, Bob Fogler told Lindell what farm life really involves: getting up at 1:45 a.m. every day, all year, to feed the animals. The Foglers don’t get vacations. Their lives revolve around the cows’ feeding and milking schedule. (And you thought that first year of motherhood was tiring!) But that hard-working nature came through as pure genuineness and openness at the dinner table. These are salt-of-the-earth kind of people. And while the screen door slammed as the kids ran in and out for another bite of cake, I thought I didn’t want to leave.

Except, I didn’t want to get up at 1:45 to feed cows.

And, honestly, neither would Lindell.

But that day in the grocery store, when I forgot the lemons and met Mrs. Fogler, I guess you could say became lemonade — a sweet and wonderful memory of a farm on a hill in Exeter, Maine.

See photos of the Smiley’s day on the farm and learn why farmers put magnets in cows’ stomachs in the Dinner with the Smileys Facebook photo album.

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