Down on the Farm with Dr. Melissa Fries

The Farming Life of Melissa Fries, MD

 
It’s 5:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, and Melissa Fries, MD, sits in a metal shed on her rural western Montgomery County farm, hand-milking Leaf, an Oberhasli milk goat. Moon, a LaMancha, waits her turn nearby. Once the milk has been collected, filtered and stored in the refrigerator, Dr. Fries will kiss her husband, Ronnie, goodbye and make her way to I-270 for the drive to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where a busy day awaits her as chair of the Ob/Gyn Department.

There will be other farm chores to do when she gets back this evening—another round of milking, feeding a menagerie of agricultural animals, picking vegetables and taking care of whatever else can be done on the 25-acre spread, before bedtime at 9:30 p.m.

For now, however, Dr. Fries savors the early morning serenity, a quiet broken only by the rhythmic ring of new milk squirting in the pail, her reassurances to Leaf and the occasional cluck, baa, and moo from the farm’s other “residents.”

“This is a very peaceful time of day,” says Dr. Fries as she squeezes the last few drops from Leaf, who has nonchalantly been munching on grain. “The animal is giving you the blessing of her milk, while a new day is getting started around you. It couldn’t be better.”

Her colleagues at the Hospital Center would certainly agree, as they often get to share in the farm’s bounty—homemade goats’ milk, cheeses and yogurt; eggs, courtesy of the farm’s free-range chickens; honey from a start-up beehive; and fresh vegetables from a garden that Dr. Fries laments, “went to weeds for the summer,” but vows will be back next spring.

Dr. Fries joined the Hospital Center in 2006 after a 26-year career as an Air Force Ob/Gyn. She and her husband had little collective farm experience to draw on when they purchased the property in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve in 2013.

“I’d always loved growing things, and we did have a few chickens and sheep in Mississippi,” she says. “My husband grew up on Long Island near German communities, where growing and sharing crops was common. Working with animals was his dream, and it became mine too.”

Fortunately, the couple had some time to get up to speed on their adopted lifestyle. They spent the first six months clearing portions of the property, and setting up fencing to make space for various animal enclosures, as well as a barn and other storage areas. The house was expanded, to include a shop and an industrial kitchen for processing and preparing everything from cheese to soap.

Meanwhile, they sought advice from the County Agricultural Extension service, which provided guidance on everything from soil testing for locating gardens, to identifying sources of farm animals.

“Once you find a person who sells a certain type of animal, they become a mentor to you,” Dr. Fries says. “We’ve also received a lot of help from area vets, who help with health assessments and illnesses. And, we’ve read books—a lot of books.”

Since the first animals began moving in last spring, the Fries farm’s zoological census has expanded to two cows, 11 goats, 11 turkeys, three pigs, two dogs, an indeterminate number of bees and 35 chickens, though that number fluctuates.

“The chickens are free-range, which means we occasionally lose one to a fox,” Dr. Fries says with a sigh.

Otherwise, the animals have their separate areas, with shelters and troughs for food and water. They’re fed twice a day, with Ronnie typically handling the other daytime chores during the week. This summer, however, he’s juggled the farm duties with his studies to become an Emergency Medical Technician.

When the weekend rolls around, there’s plenty of work to go around. On a recent summer Saturday, for example, Dr. Fries weeded the garden, made batches of goat milk cheese and tomato sauce, and milked the goats, while Ronnie mowed the property’s open areas and worked on restoring an old truck and a horse trailer.

“Every day, we’re doing something different,” Dr. Fries says. “There’s not much downtime, and no vacation in the summer. We have to plan our trips for the winter months when the animals are pregnant, but not ready to deliver, and we can get some help with the feeding.”

Dr. Fries says she and Ronnie have learned a great deal as part-time farmers, particularly the importance of fresh, non-processed food. “There’s no comparison between what you grow yourself or buy from a neighbor, and what’s available in the grocery store,” she says. “We really are what we eat, and so much of our health is affected by it.”

Dr. Fries has also gained a gAreater respect for those whose livelihoods depend on growing food. “It takes 20 tomatoes to make a quart of sauce,” she says, “so you can imagine how much someone has to produce to make an operation economically viable. And that’s on top of the inherent challenge of growing the crop.”

There are many other lessons yet to be learned, which is why Dr. Fries and her husband are “testing the waters” when it comes to breeding their animals and expanding their farm population. “If the turkeys do well, Ronnie has plans for more of them next year,” Dr. Fries says, admitting that most will be fated to end up on holiday dinner tables. She is also contemplating getting a third milk goat, and erecting framing so that she can start growing hops next year.

Then, there’s coming up with new ways to use the approximately four quarts of goats’ milk Leaf and Moon produce each day.

“We go through the milk pretty quick, but we can’t sell it because it’s not pasteurized,” Dr. Fries says, “We may be able to sell cheese if I can get good at it.”

Asked if she doesn’t already feel her daily schedule is busy enough, Dr. Fries just smiles.

“Everything we do here brings us joy,” she says. “Why not do more of it?”