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Garnet Schellen and his herd of Ayrshires

The Story of Your Food
by Nina Linton

Garnet Schnellen (photo: Nina Linton)

It’s 5:15 am. Garnet Schellen’s hand fumbles into the murky darkness, silencing the alarm clock’s shrills with a slap. He slides out of bed and into his work clothes—a well-worn set of navy coveralls—before easing out the back door and down a path carved by decades of hurried footsteps.

All’s quiet except for a faint wind whispering in the bare tree branches. Overhead stars spill across the cobalt sky, the morning sun’s delicate rays cloaked by the dim horizon.

Slipping into the barn, Schellen flips on the milk house lights and marches straight into the stable, ready to rouse his 65 dozing bovine from their plush bedded stalls. He peers around the open space. Looks like he’ll skip the wake up call today; most of his red and white herd is already up, munching on home-grown hay, waiting for him.

Schellen zig zags through the dawdling cattle, his eyes focused on a faded metal gate at the far end of the brightly lit barn. As he passes, some of his loyal ladies follow. Their placid mood changes once he pops open the gate and a surge of bossy Bessies rush forward, eager to give milk.

Back in the milk house—where the milking equipment is kept—the life long farmer grabs the six milkers he’ll need to draw out the frothy white liquid, and wrestles the lengthy stainless steel and plastic tube units into position in the milking parlour.

Everything is ready to go—the day’s work begins on one of the Island’s 192 dairy farms.

As Schellen peels open the aged parlour door, ten cows stampede into place. He kneels down and gently cleans each animal’s udder while they get a tasty grain treat. Four pulsating cups are attached to the cow’s teats and their warm milk is whisked into a sterilized pipeline before pooling in a massive on-farm cooling tank until pickup.

The narrow room hums with the rhythmic sound of pumps and cows’ breath; this is Schellen’s sanctuary. “When I am milking in the morning there are not a lot of other places I’d rather be.”

Raised on his family’s small Vernon River dairy, he started working in the barn at nine-years-old. After high school, the teenager returned to the farm fulltime, taking over ownership in 1985. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.

After nearly two hours, Schellen bends down and removes the last milk machine. He’s finished the first of two daily milkings.

As the final cow sways out of the parlour, Schellen moves on to his next task.

His lengthy to do list starts with sanitizing the milking equipment, followed by bottle-feeding a handful of young calves. After breakfast, the farmer continues chores like cleaning out the barn, bedding the cows, feeding the older calves, performing heat and pregnancy checks.

Less urgent tasks including processing farm paperwork, returning calls or emails and trimming cow’s hooves or hair, often follow lunch. (During the summer months, Schellen works in the fields growing fodder for winter.)

By mid afternoon, Schellen starts the evening chores and milking. “I spend more time with some of these cows than I do my own family.”

And he cares for them both equally.

“The Ayrshire cow has been my heart,” says the dedicated dairyman. “She has made me who I am today.”

As the moon peeks over the farm, Schellen makes a last trip out to check on his herd. At 11 pm, he flicks off the light and sinks into bed, ready to get up and do it all again tomorrow.

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