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It takes a family to raise a cow May 19th, 2014 by

Emma had it all, including an award-wining advertising career in Nairobi, when she decided that she was tired of the rat race and wanted to spend more time out of doors. So she took some training in business management and in dairy, and since 2002 she has been driving out to the village some 50 km from Nairobi where her family had 10 acres of land, some cows and a barn.

Emma loves the cows and the dairying, but the low milk prices frustrate her, so she has a shop in a nearby town where she sells her own milk and her hand-crafted, bio-active yoghurt. She also sells dairy calves to other farmers.

Seven full-time workers on the farm tend the cows and raise the fodder: napier grass, some alfalfa and some maize under drip irrigation. The only problem is that thirsty antelopes come to eat the hoses, to get out the water.

Emma warmed up milk for us to drink, rather than tea. She hasn’t lost the advertiser’s touch; she’s always promoting milk. She gave us the smoothest explanations of how to make yoghurt, even while being interrupted to talk to suppliers and customers on the phone. Emma is articulate and friendly, an easy woman to like and to respect, so I wish I could end the story here, about how a clever, educated woman loved farming enough to make it a business.

But there’s another side to it. Emma lives in the city and commutes to the farm. If she’s sick or has something come up, she might not make it to the farm for a few days.

Her workers avoided our gaze. It wasn’t clear what they were doing, but they weren’t working very hard. There was clean, running water on the farm, but the workers had not bothered to wash the manure out of the barn or fill the watering troughs for the thirsty cows. The fodder had been allowed to get wet and was spoiling in the feeding troughs. The cows were caked in dung. One cow lay in the muck, panting with a fever.

Compare this to another farm we had seen, also run by Peris, a mature woman in the same part of the highlands. Peris also relied on hired workers for much of the physical labor, but her employees were busy sweeping the barn, and smiled when we caught their eye. The young men swept the dung onto the compost pit as they washed the floor. Each cow had a comfortable rubber pad to stand on. There were no flies and little smell.  Peris had a model cow barn.

The difference is that one of these dairy farmers lives right on her farm. Peris’s back door opens onto the cow barn. When she’s working with her cows she can see her kitchen window, and she sees her kids when they walk home from school. By always being on the farm, Peris can keep an eye on her herd and quickly set any mishaps right.

One of these remarkable ladies is farming like a business, but the other is farming like a family, and that makes a difference.

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