By EMMALEE C. TORISK
When I asked Howard Moff, director of dairy and beef cattle at the Canfield Fair, if he had any cow-milking wisdom to impart, he chuckled, then rather succinctly explained what to do.
“Pull down and squeeze at the same time,” he said. “You can feel when it fills with milk; then you squeeze it out.”
I waited for further instruction, but that was it.
Not willing to admit that I had no idea how to milk a cow by hand, especially to a lifelong dairy farmer, I thanked Moff, then headed toward the fair’s cattle area, which comprises eight barns and two tents.
In one of those tents, just behind the milking parlor at the south end of the fairgrounds, Oreo — a black and white Holstein cow — was waiting.
For decades, fair-goers of all ages have been able to milk a cow the old-fashioned way, with help from some experienced 4-H members. About 2,500 children and adults attempt it annually, Moff said, adding that all receive a badge to proudly pin upon their shirt: “I milked a cow at the Canfield Fair.”
This year, I decided to go for it. As soon as I neared the tent, though, I began to reconsider, namely when several small children emerged from it looking shaken and, well, sort of grossed out.
Under the guise of journalistic research, I approached them. I admittedly felt a bit silly about using children as my proverbial guinea pigs, but figured that I could easily hide my apprehension behind a reporter’s notebook and a pair of oversized sunglasses.
When I walked up to Michael Van Curen, the 10-year-old from Cuyahoga Falls was in the midst of dreamily planning his future as a dairy farmer.
Michael’s parents, Chris and Judy Van Curen, had slightly prodded him to try milking the cow, but he ended up really liking “the experience of it,” he said.
“It was kind of gross in some ways,” he said. “When I was touching the udder, it felt lumpy and weird.”
I was not terribly encouraged by that response. But Michael continued.
“At first, it was kind of hard, but I got used to it,” he said.
Michael’s younger sisters, Madison and Mattea Van Curen, also chimed in, both emphasizing that milking a cow by hand was “gross, but awesome.”
Feeling somewhat reassured, I turned to 5-year-old Justin Palumbo, who lives in Atlanta. I caught him as he was furiously scrubbing his hands. His reaction? It was “messy,” Justin said, which wasn’t exactly the answer I had been hoping for.
But soon afterward, 13-year-old Madison Mitchell and 14-year-old Shayla Riley, both from Urichsville, unanimously agreed that milking a cow was an experience they’d repeat, though they were just minutes removed from their first try. The two had been dared to do it.
“I liked it,” Madison said. “It was a steady little stream of milk.”
Shayla elaborated, explaining that initially she didn’t know what to do, or how to do it.
“Squeeze and pull, and use your whole hand,” she told me. “It feels squishy and warm.”
Donna Miller, a 4-H adviser whose day it was on Saturday to supervise the tent’s volunteers, said it’s not unusual for 200 fairgoers to try their hand at milking in the span of two hours. Most are simply curious about “where milk comes from,” she added.
About every three hours, the dairy cow who staffs the tent must be switched out, replaced by another who has a fresh supply of milk at the ready, Miller said. Overall, the cows don’t mind the milking too much.
“But you have to have a patient cow — one that isn’t bothered by having little hands all over her,” she said.
Miller explained, too, that she regularly instructs both children and adults on how to milk, often hundreds of times on the days she monitors volunteers: “Pinch the top of the teat, and squeeze down.”
And then, suddenly, it was my turn.
I handed over my notebook and pen to Miller, and sat down on a bale of hay next to 17-year-old Christina Coler, a 12-year member of 4-H and a senior at South Range High School.
Christina, whose grandparents own a dairy farm, seemed at ease, particularly as she gently demonstrated the grabbing and squeezing technique on Oreo, who was happily — and maybe obliviously — munching on hay. She motioned for me to try.
I hesitated. Oreo and I had barely been introduced, and I still had no idea what I was doing.
Then, without really thinking, I went for it, and was shocked when out from Oreo spurted a “steady little stream of milk,” just as described. I was elated. Christina told me that lots of little kids find the entire thing pretty repulsive and don’t even try, preferring to pet the cow instead. But most adults think the old-fashioned milking experience is fascinating.
“I hope it continues,” she said. “It helps to bring more knowledge to the public about what we do.”
If you’re now convinced that milking a cow errs more on the side of awesome than gross, the milking tent is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Sunday and Monday.