I live in a rural place, a rural place that is known for its cows. There are cheeses that are named specifically for Vermont (though in rather clueless and ambivalent American fashion, there is often a European geographic appellation attached to “Vermont”, as in “Vermont cheddar”). There are dairies up and down all the hills and valleys of this state. There’s Ben & Jerry’s. Moreover, New England generally has an ongoing passionate affair with the summer ice cream stand. It is not unusual to wait in thirty minute lines, wading through crying toddlers and marauding hoards of mosquitoes, for a scoop that must be ingested in less than three minutes if you want any part of the ice. Even in what passes for normal summer heat.
In my writing calendar I had thought of talking on the ice cream social. Recently, while volunteering for my town library, I discovered that this is a thing again here and there. With live music and games and straw bale hay rides and everything. I was, of course, charmed by the very notion, fluffy bunny that I am. Absolutely had to gush on this simple but decidedly luscious pleasure. But something came along and superseded that idea. (Maybe I’ll get back to that later in the summer.)
I tend to talk with customers at the greenhouse about what I’m up to on my blog, especially if it relates to anything that we might sell. And we have an ice cream counter. A very popular ice cream counter in this heat, not merely because it’s delicious but also because there is air conditioning while you wait for your scoop. Vermont is decidedly lacking in cool spaces right now, along with nearly all the North. I’ve been taking two showers a day, something I don’t like in principle (being a desert rat) and will regret even more, I’m sure, when the summer water bill comes due. But I just can’t eat or sleep otherwise.
So imagine my surprise while talking to a person of about my age who was eating her ice cream while she paid for garden perennials in discovering that she had never heard of a churn. Did not even know that ice cream was not simply frozen milk with stuff in it.
We both stared at each other in complete confusion for several long and uncomfortable seconds — until the beeping credit card reader intervened and saved us.
I have since talked with other people — older and younger, urban and deeply rural — and discovered that very few of them have any experience with ice cream, yogurt, cheese, or butter other than eating it. None make their own. In a state with dairy cows actually within a mile or so of every living person.
Nobody seems to be as distressed by this as I am.
Maybe my customers aren’t representative, but it still speaks to a rather scary deficit in the knowledge and skills tool box, maybe in the home infrastructure tool box as well. Because who has a butter churn these days? (Besides weirdos like me, that is.) So what happens when dairy goes local, as it surely will? Will the dairy farmers be expected to produce butter? Will they even have the tools? Or the knowledge? And where is the ice cream going to come from!
It would take a large investment in both tools and specialized space to turn a dairy farm into an ice cream production facility. Substantial enough that if they aren’t retooling the dairy shed now, it’s probably not going to happen (because debt, supplies, transport, etc). Then they would need the labor, preferably from people who already have the cooking skills. And apparently, at least in this part of the dairy world, there is a critical lack of those skills. Or even knowledge of those skills. Churning out ice cream is an unknown unknown. In Vermont. How do you feel about this? I’m not at all happy.
Of course, this prompted me to worry about other skills.
Another customer came in the other day and asked where she could find a bird house. Not a uselessly decorative thing with a microscopic hole and no perch, painted with daisies and butterflies (which we do have for sale), but a structure she could hoist up somewhere to house swallows and martins in the pursuit of organic pest control. (Have you met the Vermont black flies?) We both cooed over the decorative thing while acknowledging that there’s no good reason for it to exist (especially not with a “Made in China” sticker on the bottom… but I digress). But then she said something that’s been tumbling about in my head ever since.
“There used to be old men everywhere who made stuff like this. You could stop and get good quality bird houses, bat houses, picnic tables, barrels, whatever you wanted at just about any roadside stand. Where are all the old guy crafts now?”
I thought for about half a second before blurting out “Nobody gets to retire anymore. So no more old guys with time on their hands for old guy crafts.”
This was just an instinctual response, but I could see that it hit home. For both of us. I never realized just how profoundly different my old age is going to be until that came tumbling out of my mouth.
On one level, who is going to support the tourism industry? Or collect art? Or go to orchestra concerts? A generation that must work literally until we die (and still likely leave unpaid debts when we finally knock off) is not going to fill the role of “voracious market” to drive all the work hours that we need just to pay our bills. Never mind acquiring the money for discretionary spending. But it’s even worse than that. Who is going to have time to volunteer at libraries or hospitals or schools or food banks or really much of anything? Who will write letters to the editor? Who will vote in local elections? Who will even run for those offices? Who saves seeds and knows how to get them to grow into food and flowers? Who breeds locally adapted varieties? Who will bake chocolate chip cookies and spend hours telling stories and doing puzzles with the grandkids? Who will remember birthdays?
Who will preserve and teach the skills needed to do things like make bird houses and ice cream?
Repair cafés are a hip thing these days. Rightfully so. But have you been to one? Have you noticed the average hair color? What happens when this last skilled generation is gone? Who is going to know how to fix the toaster or the dehumidifier? Who knows how to replace a broken window screen? Who will show you how to darn that ragged hole in your favorite sweater? (Trust me, internet videos are just not sufficient.) Who will have the time and resources to cultivate these skills? In a world where dairy-crazed Vermonters don’t even know how ice cream is made, how can we trust that any necessary skills still even exist out there?
I am more than a bit concerned. Concerned enough that I’m starting to wonder if we should be organizing skills schools all across the country. For all of us. For all sorts of skills. And most importantly for free — and at times that working people can attend.
I for one am going to start aggressively campaigning for re-skilling. I hope I have inspired you to do the same.
And if you know of anybody who still makes bird houses…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021