OF COWS AND COLLEGE STUDENTS
Written By: Katie Runk
Published: April 20, 2020
Picture this: you walk along a rural back road on a brisk February morning, pebbles crunching under your boots as you breathe crisp, cold air deep into your lungs and let the symphony of chirping birds and rustling trees ease your soul. A smile spreads across your face as you catch sight of a long barn. You can’t help but duck through the gate and trudge through the straw and throw your arms around the neck of one of the cows. Her soft coat brushes against your cheek as she stands steady and calm. You look into her eyes, lost in the depths so warm and kind, and as your heart melts, you forget that the real world exists. For a few moments, it’s just you, the cow, and the rising sun.
For seven days, that was the reality for several lucky college students from Susquehanna University, including myself. From March 9th to the 13th, we became guests at the Gita Nagari Eco Farm and Sanctuary in Port Royal, Pennsylvania. For us, the trip was facilitated by Susquehanna’s Sustainability Coordinator Derek Martin, and I certainly can’t thank him enough for his initiative. Maddi Laubscher, Ashlynn Searer, Jimmy Burden, Kaitlyn Gardineer, Ali Binder, Jedi Lomax, Matt Marshall, Noah Fenstermacher, and myself as well as Derek joined other students and their advisors from Penn State and Plymouth State University for what was called an “environmental leadership retreat,” but what we experienced was so much more. Our days were filled with delicious home-cooked meals, environmental workshops, group farm work, bee keeping, oxen driving, hikes, and, most importantly, cows!
When we arrived at the farm late Monday morning, we were
greeted by an adorable face which would make frequent appearances throughout or stay. Gopi, the resident barn cat, was more than happy to let us pet her as our group director Shaum introduced us to their way of life at the farm and how they approach agriculture using the value of compassionate living. At Gita Nagari, every life is valued, from the smallest sapling to the largest bull, and every life is worthy of being cherished and respected. And there was certainly plenty of life on the farm, including their innumerable peacocks who felt it necessary to startle us with their shrill cry, though eventually their calls would fall into the glorious background of our everyday lives.
After being acquainted with two of the farm’s many animals, we were introduced to the welcome center and its yoga studio where we would end up spending much of our time. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering, as was the case with all of the buildings, and we happily obliged as we slid across the hardwood floor to the adjacent conference room. There, Shaum told us about how Gita was founded in 1974, and for almost 50 years the farm has been constantly expanding and innovating to create a pseudo-ecosystem where every aspect can be interconnected and interdependent. So, the forest whose biodiversity they preserve can take in the methane emissions produced by the cows, and the crops can utilize the nutrients from the manure.
He also told us about the mission of Gita Nagari, to “actively honor the sanctity of life, regenerate the environment, and cultivate meaningful relationships,” and that our stay at the farm would hopefully help to further that mission. After the inspiring lecture, we donned our shoes and were taken on a tour of the property by another resident volunteer with Gopi in tow. Our first stop was the empty milking barn where we were shown a preview of where we would be milking our own cows, and next up was the creamery where they process their milk and make their own cheeses. He showed us samples of some of their products, including Pepper Jack and Cheddar cheese.
At that point, we were eager to get a glimpse of the cows we were promised, and he didn’t disappoint as he led us to another section of the barn. For our first introduction to the many bovine residents, we were acquainted with the farm’s only two calves, Lalitha and Vishakha, as well as their surrogate mother. As the calves bounced around and licked our hands, we quickly realized that cows were nothing more than grass puppies, and as we scratched their heads and became covered with hair, we couldn’t help but fall deeply in love with the two younglings. Just when we thought we didn’t have any more love to spare, we were taken to another structure styled like a large enclosed lean-to which housed about 20 cows.
That barn was reserved for the older retired cows who tended to be more aggressively playful and included the largest cow on the property who we playfully referred to as “Alpha Cow.” It was also home to their oldest cow, a female named Bhakti who had managed to reach the age of 27 years! He told us that she was only in that enclosure because she wanted to be, since she was known for being able to scale any fence or gate, unhindered by her advanced years. Despite their reputation, the horned creatures allowed us to pet them without trouble, although we were advised not to enter their enclosure.
Lunch hour was peeking over the horizon, so we made our way to the fire pit behind the Welcome Center for our first meal. As we settled around the empty pit in the barrage of lawn chairs and benches and let the sun warm our faces, we watched as the resident volunteers unloaded the food from the kitchen. For our very first meal, we had chickpea burgers with homemade buns and fresh toppings as well as sweet potato fries and a vegan yogurt topped with raspberries for dessert. Needless to say, everything was beyond delicious, and I often find myself daydreaming about the food we were treated to throughout our stay.
After lunch, Derek facilitated a workshop on Adaptive Thinking where we were paired off into groups and asked to develop and present our own “sustainable” product where projects ranged from flying cars to at-home recycling systems. Then after some fire pit free time, we moved into the yoga space for a Resilient Thinking presentation manned by our very own Derek Martin once more. We discussed reacting to threats and opportunities with resilience by constantly adapting to circumstances while sustaining the identity of a system. After that session, we had dinner of broccoli-cheddar soup and homemade biscuits and returned to the campfire for an evening of playful conversation and games.
I’m not going to go through the specifics of every single day as I previously did, but I will give you a summary of the routine we comfortably fell into. Around 7 a.m. we would either help out in the kitchen for morning cooking services with kitchen head Esa or head over to the milking barn to assist with the first milking of the day. Then, after breakfast ended at 10:00, all of the groups would have some sort of presentation/workshop pertaining to sustainability, such as Jessica King’s presentation about the National Resources Conservation Services. Afterwards, groups would split up for their respective activities which could include cow cuddling, beehive box painting, clearing out the barn, or working in the greenhouse, as well as many others. After lunch ended at 2:30, groups would shuffle to another activity and continue until 6:00 where we would regroup for another group activity or presentation. Then, dinner would commence from 7:30 to 8:30, and our scheduled day would be complete. Our time afterwards would usually be spent mingling with students from other schools and the resident volunteers around the bonfire or in the yoga space.
Now that I’ve thoroughly introduced you to the many wonderful attributes of Gita Nagari, I’d like to focus on a few activities we partook in throughout the week, the first, of course, being cow cuddling. Understandably, this was one of the most intriguing objects on our itinerary, and we were certainly not disappointed. Shaum and Damodara accompanied us to the main cow barn which was a much longer version of the retired lean-to and contained around 80 cows! Each of us joyously branched off to different cows and commenced the cuddling, our activity photographed by Damodara who also photographed us throughout the entire week. Some of the names we learned were Mars, Kumari, Lakshmi, and Kishori. I took a liking to Kumari who allowed me to lay against her on the straw and scratch her ears.
At this point, you may have noticed that the names I mention are not ones you would traditionally expect from a rural Pennsylvanian dairy farm, though I hope I’ve convinced you this isn’t exactly a traditional organization. In addition to being a sanctuary, Gita Nagari is home to a temple where followers practice a Hindu spirituality called Bhakti Yoga. Because of this, many names on the farm are derived from Sanskrit and often have meanings rooted in Indian culture. Because the purpose of this article is to document and reflect on the experiences of the retreat, I won’t be talking much about the logistics of their religious practices, but if you wish to learn more, you can visit their Facebook page which will be linked down below.
As we engulfed the creatures with hugs and cuddles, Shaum told us a bit more about the milking cows, of which there were roughly 20. The oldest cow still being milked was named Tammy who had been producing milk for almost six years when the usual lifespan for milking was two or three. Traditional dairy farms artificially inseminate their cows twice every year in order to keep them producing milk and will outsource the male calves to slaughterhouses for veal and beef. Gita Nagari is very different in that they are the first and only USDA Certified slaughter-free dairy farm in North America. This means that they do not kill their cows when they stop producing milk, but care for them for the rest of their lifespans.
They also don’t practice artificial insemination, which might be a daunting notion to most dairy farms. Gita Nagari has found that as long as they treat their cows with compassion and respect, they will produce milk without having to be impregnated for much longer, and also produce a higher milk yield per cow than traditional dairy farms. They also find that milk yield increases during visitations from colleges as the cows have more interaction with people than they usually would. It is believed that the cow’s basic instinct is to produce milk, and because all animals can sense when they are cared for, their milk production persists.
In fact, when you interact with the cows at Gita Nagari, you can perceive an innate sense of mutual trust, much like you would with a family pet. The cow trusts that you will assure their safety and wellbeing, and in turn you trust that the cow will not wish to harm you. In spite of the popular belief that cows with long horns are aggressive and threatening, the resident oxen handler Kesi told us that they have never had a person injured on the farm due to a rogue cow, and that oftentimes it’s the biggest cows who are the sweetest. Throughout the week, a few of us would often sneak back to the cow barns for some extra cuddling.
As far as manual labor went, there were a few activities which certainly left us in need of a quick shower, the most intense one being the barn cleanout. Above the milking section of the barn was a loft completely filled with dry, dusty straw, and it was the duty of the college groups to clear it out for it to be turned into a yoga studio. After several long but rewarding hours of shoveling straw, the loft certainly wasn’t cleared, but we had created a significant mound which we exhaustedly piled onto for a group photo. We were also tasked with the strange chore of rock picking in the fields and were asked to clear the field of any significantly large rocks so that their seeds could be planted without being hindered. While at first the assignment was strange, we quickly turned the labor into a competition and had a great time digging giant rocks out of the ground to see who could find the largest.
After cleaning out the barn loft, we headed down to the milking barn for our first lesson. We partook in an “adopt-a-cow” activity where we chose the cow we bonded most with during the cuddling session to be our milking cow. After the girls were herded into their stalls, we brushed them off and went through the process of milking, dipping their udders in iodine for sanitation and testing the milk clarity by squeezing out a quick splash. Then we attached the milking machine to the udders and allowed it to do the rest of the work. It was a fascinating experience, and we were excited to finally learn the modern methods for dairy production.
Later in the week, our aforementioned oxen handler Kesi led all of the students on a hike through the property’s vast forest, equipping us with tree-identification booklets so that we could follow along. He happily showed us the various types of trees that populated the ground, including Birch, Hickory, and Maple. He also told us about Gita Nagari’s mission to re-diversify the forest and help it recover from the extensive logging that had occurred many years prior to their ownership. They’ve gone through the process of removing invasive species and planting a wide array of saplings, establishing some deer fences to assure that they have time to root and prosper. Biodiversity basically means the diversity of life in an ecosystem, and the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is to invasive species or changes in climate, which is why Gita is determined to make their forest as strong as possible.
Being a farm, Gita Nagari already has one greenhouse they utilize for growing produce seedlings before planting them into the ground, but as their organization expands and demand for their services increase, they’ve needed to build another. Lucky for them, they have a large group of overly-passionate college students willing to help them with whatever they need. They had already built the skeleton of the greenhouse, and after some finishing touches and tweaking, we were ready to hoist the cover: a very long and heavy plastic sheet. Short pieces of piping were wrapped on the edge of the plastic and tied with a string whose end was fitted with another piece of piping. Someone was then tasked with chucking it across the top of the greenhouse skeleton to the other side so that a person could reach and pull. This was done around 14 times until it was finally time to hoist. Almost every visiting student grabbed onto a piece of string, and at the direction of our director Aghari, we pulled in unison and managed to fit the cover onto the greenhouse with only one minor tear.
On our final day at Gita Nagari, it was almost impossible to imagine leaving a place which had so quickly become home, and we knew it would be difficult to say goodbye to all of the wonderful people and animals we’d met, but our activities weren’t over yet. Kesi introduced us to two of his oxen by directing them only with only four commands and light tapping from a long whip. After brushing the oxen and giving Gopi a few of her deserved pets, he allowed us to lead them ourselves. Although these large creatures might be intimidating at first, they proved to be very receptive to our words and body language and handling them became a natural and enjoyable experience.
In addition to being the ox handler, Kesi was also the caretaker of Gita’s many beehives, and he was more than happy to give us a small tour of his operation. Derek opted to stand several yards away from the group as we confidently handled the panels teeming with calm honeybees, but I suppose we can’t blame him. Kesi explained the process of how colonies make honey, reproduce, and travel while pointing out to us all of the compartments and engineering the honeybees had created. He also pointed out the queen and allowed us to chew on some excess wax that he had removed from the panel. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like wax, though slightly sweet. Because the other colleges had participated in a longer retreat, they had stayed there for more time than us, and had been able to paint the new hive boxes Kesi had been preparing for his colonies. We insisted that we wanted to paint at least one before we left to make our mark, so we did, and I sincerely hope we were able to make an impact during our time there.
Our group certainly had a wonderful time, and I’d like to share some statements from them.
Maddi says, “Gita showed me a different way of life. From experiencing delicious vegan dishes, to learning about sustainable agriculture, I came away from my time on the farm a more enriched individual.”
Ashlynn told me, “My time at the Gita Nagari Farm was one of the most memorable and amazing experiences I've had! It was a break from everyday life and I learned so much about the farm and had the opportunity to cuddle with cows, milk cows, help build a greenhouse, and clear a barn full of hay. Not to mention the vegetarian food was amazing and the people were so kind! I wasn't sure about going at first but I'm so glad I went and I made so many friends. I would love to go back again someday and possibly volunteer there over the summer.”
In our everyday lives, it’s very easy to get swept away by the rapids of society's concept of modernity, by the pressure to maximize efficiency and to stifle our compassion for the sake of profit. At Gita Nagari, profit was just a byproduct of their operation, and you could definitely tell. From the kindness of the resident volunteers to the health of the animals and the land, any person with eyes could understand that Gita Nagari was and still is a very special place, one that will hopefully be able to grow and spread its model across the country. I can say with confidence that my stay at Gita Nagari is among the best experiences of my life, and one that I will cherish for the rest of my journey on this Earth.
If you want to see more pictures of our time at Gita Nagari, please visit the Photography tab for the full album!