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Gimme the Dirt On… A Farm Apprentice at Hilltop Wagyu Beef + Cheese Farm

Gimme the Dirt… On A Farm Apprentice

By Rebecca Collins Brooks | September 8, 2023

The view from the kitchen window was beautiful. The last day of July was proving to be one of the best of the summer, but I was nervous. The Catskills off in the distance were sublime, and closer to the house, my chickens were pecking noisily around the yard surrounding their coop. Even my favorite view didn’t help my nerves. I was awaiting the arrival of our farm apprentice, coming to live and work with us for the month of August. It would mean a stranger in this house with two introverts, a pasture filled with cows, and 100 chickens that we knew would be harvested in 3 days. I was as tense as a clock whose spring was wound too tight.

Our apprentice was arranged through the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund (ASLF), an organization we’d followed since its inception the previous year. Anne Saxelby was a shining light, and one I had once secretly hoped would discover and illuminate my cheese – and this farm – someday. Her shop in NYC’s Chelsea Market, Saxelby Cheesemongers, purveys the best of American artisan cheese – the cheeses that were her passion. The nonprofit was founded by Anne’s family to honor her after her untimely death at the age of 40 in 2021. Her passing didn’t just ripple through the food world: it started a tsunami of sadness that swelled and tumbled until it reached this small farm 90 miles north of her magical shop. Her heavily dogeared book The New Rules of Cheese (my scribbled notes populating the margins) was sitting on my side table as I waited for our apprentice to arrive, and I’d saved podcasts featuring Anne Saxelby to listen to on repeat. She was certainly a presence in the food world, but she was also a presence here in our house. Hosting an apprentice for the ASLF didn’t seem like a chore or a favor – it felt like our responsibility and an honor.

We were screened with a written interview and phone call, then vetted by the intrepid Executive Director of the foundation, Susie Cover, who’d known Anne and who sat at our kitchen table while an early spring ice storm approached, drinking tea and chatting about the plight of small farms across the US. Susie told us there was an avalanche of applications sent by young people across the country with a wide variety of backgrounds and education levels. In just the second year of existence, the program was growing fast. We were excited to be a part of what now felt like a movement by a new generation who wanted to be intimately involved in feeding our country from small farms like ours. Soon, we found ourselves reading an application that sounded perfect, and then there we were in front of our computer screen – well, one of us was, while the other sat off-camera, too shy to be seen – interviewing our potential apprentice. It was clear we were a match on both ends of the internet connection, and we each sent off emails to Susie telling her we were ready to go for the month of August!

And so now here I was at my kitchen window, waiting anxiously for our new roommate to arrive. Our dogs, Molly and Winston, let me know when the car turned off the main road and started down our farm lane, barking as loud and fast as my heart was pounding in my ears (somewhere out there, my doctor is cringing). A white car drove past the chicken coop, pulled into the space behind my car, and out bounded a tall, pretty and beaming Kristen, who quickly hugged me and told me how excited she was to be here. We carried her things to the house, dropped a brand-spanking new pair of muck boots on the porch, and I showed her to the guest room where I’d placed a little bouquet of wildflowers I picked from along the farm lane, which my husband grumpily calls “weeds”. For the record, goldenrod and asters look lovely on a nightstand. Soon, we were eating a supper of our own Wagyu hamburgers, chatting about Kristen’s family and the upcoming month. And then, in the blink of an eye, we were all out in the barn together the next morning, doing our morning chores. Based on what we’d all discussed in her application process, we knew dairy work was what Kristen wanted to dig into deep. Bart believes women have a more natural way with dairy cows than men, and he was excited to show Kristen what to do. With no experience with cows, let alone underneath one, that first morning, Kristen learned how to milk our little group of four Holstein cows. I listened as she crouched next to Bart in her new boots while Bart imparted her first lesson on milking. We milk our cows with a small portable can milker with a noisy mechanical pump, but every cow’s milk needs to be checked by hand prior to attaching the milking claw. After only one try, there was Kristen, drawing milk by hand out of our sweet Brie.

Gimme the Dirt On… A Farm Apprentice at Hilltop Wagyu Beef + Cheese Farm

Those first few days felt as if we were all being guided by a force we couldn’t define. I don’t want to get all weird about it, but truthfully, the sense was that Kristen’s presence here was a unique gift that was planned just for us. Small things happened, synchronicities that only added to that feeling. On day one, I drove Kristen up through West Shokan to show her the Ashokan Reservoir. We saw the sign for Fruition Chocolate, and I decided to swing into the parking lot when Kristen exclaimed, “I’ve had that chocolate before!” We watched as the chocolatiers made chocolate bars behind the display window, and we made our way through the generous free samples, settling on several flavors to take home for our dessert. On the second day of Kristen’s apprenticeship, I took her for a little drive to show her what surrounds the farm. We drove around our hamlet, and I showed her the rural post office where Bart has worked since he was a teenager. I decided to show her one of the oldest continuously-run family farms in the United States, run by the Schoonmaker family since their Dutch ancestors settled here in the 1600s. Their patriarch, Jack, still lives there – the 10th generation to be born in the farmhouse -and while I didn’t want to intrude, I definitely wanted Kristen to understand legacy farming and the importance of agriculture in our corner of the world. As we neared the home farm, I noticed a golf cart out by the barn with a distinctive head of white hair on the man in the driver’s seat. It was Jack, and as I pulled alongside him and unrolled my window, he said, “Well, hello there, young lady!” He always greets me that way, and it never ceases to make me smile, given my own graying hair and rapidly approaching senior citizen status. I explained what I was doing there. After some small talk, he beckoned to Kristen to hop in the cart – and sped away with her, giving her a tour of the farm. Then we were inside the family home, listening to stories of farming history and of Saunderskill Farm, with Jack’s cat Meow purring from the center of the kitchen table. We talked about the challenges of farm succession planning and his granddaughter, Jen, who’s now running the hugely popular Saunderskill Farm Market. On the way home, we drove past the old swimming hole where Bart and I both swam as kids…and teens….and adults. Showing Kristen her temporary home gave both Bart and me a new appreciation for the place we love, the people who’ve made it so special, and the farm we call home.

Something else was happening while we shared our farming life with Kristen: my normally shy and people-avoidant husband was talking—a LOT. In the barn, during morning chores, when I am mostly trying to remain upright, Bart and Kristen talked nonstop, moving around the milking barn together with ease and familiarity. We are a household that loves learning and never wants to stop. Kristen is the same. Her questions prompted a flow of information from Barton’s head and into Kristen’s, like the water pouring into the stock tank. Bart said to a friend, “I think about things that will be important for her to know, and I keep reminding myself to tell her before she leaves.” The pragmatic part of us knew the impossibility of Bart’s lifetime of knowledge and know-how magically dumping itself into Kristen’s brain in a mere four weeks, but he sure did try.

In a world of souls that is more detached from its food supply than ever before, it was amazing to watch my husband feel the importance of his knowledge and even more so to see Kristen put into action all the tidbits he shared with her. For my part, I watched Kristen approach every new task with curiosity and confidence. She didn’t shy away from the chicken harvest and instead threw herself into it, standing shoulder to shoulder with us while we worked the entire day. She wanted to make cheese, and by the end of her first week, the cheese curds she made were served on top of the poutine we ate for supper. Her cows’ milk feta-style cheese is good enough to sell. She’s made two 4-pound wheels of cheddar to carry home to Maryland with her to see how they age and maybe to remind her of the hills of this farm when she opens them six months from now. As Bart would say, “She’s got ‘it’.” What he means is that she has a knack for livestock farming that doesn’t come from books. It comes from inside, and it can’t be taught. Kristen is a farmer already; we are just sharing the practical skills she’ll need in order to have a herd of her own someday. How proud we will be when she does!

While I’m writing this, Kristen is outside with Bart starting chores, and I can hear them chattering and laughing while they open a bale of hay. Her muck boots have seen everything a farm has to offer, and they’re covered in it now, too. They’re no longer new, and that’s something Kristen can take pride in. The last few days of her stay with us are moving too fast. She has become a part of the fabric of this farm, woven into our daily lives as easily as she milks the cows. The cows know her, but so do our dogs, the barn kitties, and the chickens. We have every moment of these last days planned, including a much-anticipated day with another incredible young woman, Lily Orr, who will welcome Kristen and me to Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut to make cheese with her. It is particularly fitting that we will spend the day there because it’s the place where Anne Saxelby got her start in the cheese world, a place where she’s loved and where she’s mourned. Making cheese with Lily brings Kristen’s apprenticeship full circle and infuses her time with us with that sense of something powerful guiding all our steps. One thing we won’t miss is being creamed by Kristen in Rummikub (or the ongoing debate about how it’s pronounced), but there’s so much we want to hold on to. We will enjoy our last suppers on the porch, watching the newest calves galavanting. We will savor Kristen’s fist-bump goodnight to Bart before she bounds up the stairs to bed, calling, “Good night, roomies!” and her gentle reprimands of Molly’s outrageous naughtiness. I’ll run her to see Jack Schoonmaker again before she heads out of town, and I want to join her for a swim in the swimming hole where she’s gone without me a few times already. We might want to devour another batch of poutine (I need to buy more potatoes!) and make a few more batches of cheese together. We’ve talked about her coming back to visit, and while we know the realities of a young person’s life, we hold tight to that thought as we prepare to say goodbye. We will miss her sorely, but wow, does she give us hope for the future of farming and food. And you know something? I think Anne Saxelby really did shine her light on this farm after all.

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Rebecca Collins Brooks is a writer and farmstead cheesemaker on Hilltop Farm in Accord, NY. She is the creator and founder of The Meeting of the Milkmaids, a gathering of women working in the cheese and dairy industry. In addition to a small herd of dairy cows, she and her husband Barton raise Wagyu beef, selling meat to customers directly off the farm. Her best friends are two terriers, Winston and Molly; and Sylvie, a truly brilliant barn cat. You can visit the farm by appointment to see where truly good food is grown.

Connect with Rebecca via Instagram @catskillwagyu , or Facebook CatskillWagyu


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