Farming Backstory

April must be back story month or something.  I’m a collector of stories, so this has been a good and rich time to be reading blogs around our little blogtown.


I’ve already littered the place with bits of my back story, but there surely must be some stories that I haven’t told yet, right?  Oh yeah.  Reading Xi Summit (hoping I spelled that right) brought back a memory or two of the farm.  Oh yes, the farm.  Summit‘s accounts make it sound pretty fun, and like him I do like gardening quite a lot.  It is a source of therapy for me to get out and do something productive on my own patch of red Georgia clay.  People like to romanticize the rural life, and to be sure many of the ills we suffer as a society are a result of its urbanization.


While I do have some very fond memories of the farm, there’s a very good reason why people moved off in droves for the city life.  In the city, you actually can almost satisfy whatever wants you have almost instantly.  On the farm, you could almost never get what you wanted instantly. 


Growing up in a rural community, poverty was a relative thing.  The guy with the new pickup and big machinery looked rich.  But within a few years, one might see all of it up on the auction block and him and his family taking a job in town.  In fact, it is still pretty rare to see any farm families that do not have at least one income stream coming from town.


300 acres was not a big operation when I was growing up, and even in Iowa it was difficult to support a family simply by growing crops.  So Dad started milking cows when I was about 7 in a chicken coop he renovated and then we moved to a place that had a real milking parlor when I was about 10.


Milking parlor.  It sounds so lovely and quaint.  But in reality it was a cinder block dungeon.  At 10, I remember asking my Dad if I could help him milk cows.  He was like, “Wellll, I don’t know…”  I begged.  I pleaded.


“Oh, alright.”


After about a week of helping every night, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.  I might as well have told them I was leaving to join the circus.  It became my Job.  Every single night.  There are no 5-day-a-week cows.  They never take a holiday.  And neither did we.  For the next decade, we never traveled as a family more than a few hours away from home, because we always had to be back in time to do chores.  Every.  Single.  Night.


Christmas day, we would visit my grandparents for a giant family get-together.  We would exchange gifts, and eat entirely too much. 

And stay too long.  Then we would make the two hour ride home, and I would fall asleep in the car.  While my sister and brother were put to bed, I was putting on boots, coats and a hat and would be doing chores for the next 2-3 hours.


Milking cows late at night or early in the morning in Iowa during the winter in a “milking parlor” was hell on earth.  In a typical stantion barn, almost the entire herd is in the barn and you simply move machines from one cow to the next until all are milked.  You may have to let some out to make room, but there is a minimum of contact with the elements.  The price one paid for this was having to bend and squat down endlessly to get to the parts of the cows that required tending to in order to milk them.


In a parlor, the milkers stand in a pit, and the cows go in and out 3-5 at a time.  We had a double 3 arrangement, meaning we only had 6 cows in at a time, 3 on each side.  In Germany, I milked in a double 4, with a total of 8 cattle.  In Germany, the barn was nicer, as the cattle came into the parlor from inside and left into another part of the barn.  And Germany was not as cold as Iowa.


In our parlor, the cattle went from the inside of the barn, got milked, and then went straight outside.  And sometimes it was so cold they didn’t want to go.  We had to convince them to get the hell out so we could shut the door!  So imagine trying to get cattle out, the door wide open and the bitter cold slicing into our exposed skin.  Our wet exposed skin.  We were always wet, as we thoroughly washed the cattle off before milking them.  If you sell Grade A milk, cleanliness IS next to godliness!  So we were exposed to that cold over and over and despite having a heater, we would get cold every time the door opened which was after every 3 cows were finished being milked.


I know this is boring, unglamorous stuff.  Milking cows is boring and unglamorous.  You got pissed on all the time.  A shitty tail would hit you square in the mouth, what do you do?  You get over it.  One does not grow up in such a place without learning perseverance and without acquiring some amount of toughness. To this day I get bruises and scratches and have no idea how I got them, as pain does not register as readily for me as it does the city folk.   I learned to work through pain.  That doesn’t mean I liked it, though.


The reason for milking cows is the steady income stream.  We got a check every two weeks as the cows never took a break so neither did the income.  With government subsidies, the price of milk remained fairly constant.  Our neighbors who only raised and sold grain would have to have a good year every year because if you had a bad harvest you had no opportunity to compensate until the next year and there might be NO income.  This is why family farms diversified into grain and livestock.  Even if the grain prices slid or if the harvest was meager, livestock could live off grass.  And you could eat chickens, their eggs, pork and beef.  You wouldn’t starve.  But farming is a tremendously risky business subject to a myriad of forces beyond a person’s control.  That freezing weather may have wiped out some peach orchards in the south and is certainly pushing back the planting schedule up north.  You’ll pay for it in the grocery store, but not much because the farmer’s cut is relatively small in any food you buy.


Milking cows and farming was a very slow life.  And for a kid in high school, exceedingly boring.  And lonely.  In fact, loneliness leads to more rural depression than the elements and the risks.  This is why church is such a central part of rural America, because it was a central gathering place.  Rural folk are inherently more religious because we are so much more intimately subject to the elements and the forces of nature.  It’s only good business to pay respects to the Almighty, in Whose hands our entire livelihood depends.  Among the people who grow food, there are no atheists.  We know that we must contend with a Being who can sometimes be generous and sometime capricious.  But when one is in the center of creation, you learn to respect the Creator.


In the arctic blasts of winter, the cattle still had to be fed and watered.  Equipment would freeze and break down and the only way to repair it was to take off your gloves and make and make an adjustment.  It was a fight to keep roads open, the power on and the water flowing during such times.  Several feet of snow might fall followed by a bitter blast from winter, sending temperatures dipping well below zero.  This last February, I visited and it was 20 degrees below zero!


Global warming my ass. 

Al Gore never milked cows in 30 below weather.  Al Gore needs to spend a few mornings and nights doing chores in such weather and maybe he’ll shut his gob about the global warming.  Which is why he scheduled no Global Warming concerts in February in Iowa. 


Chores typically took 2-3 hours in the morning and 2-3 hours at night.  In between, there was real work to be done.  We raised our own grain and hay.  We also burned wood for heat, which meant cutting and splitting wood.  There were also fences to build and fix.  There was always something to do and something that needed to be done. 


The farm made children a much more tangible asset than exists in cities and suburbs today.  We were all part of the workforce, and we all were expected to contribute.  It was a good day when my brother got old enough to milk cows!  Now, I didn’t have to milk every night, as we switched to alternate weeks between us. 


All of us kids learned about life and sacrifice living the harsh lifestyle that we did.  But there was a price my parents paid for their use of us.  As soon as we were able, we each left and moved about as far as we could from that life.  My brother, sister and I all live in milder climates.  None of us farm.  I was actually the last hope as I at least pursued an agrriculture degree 20 years ago.  But once I moved south, 1000 miles away that put an end to that.  Dad had hoped he might be able to pass the farm on to at least one of his sons but that was not to be.


I have often contemplated returning to that life.  It is a much more manageable pace than the hectic pace most of us endure in the ‘burbs.  My kids will not fully know and appreciate how seasons and the passage of time, life and death truly work together like I did.  They will not know sacrifice, but only grow up with entitlement.  Arwyn has made it abundantly clear that she is totally unwilling to consider a life on a farm.  She has not the strength for that sort of life that involves a lot of hardship in the short run in order to enjoy a harvest later.  The concept of sowing a reaping is so totally foreign to the cosmopolitan populations of today.


So, like Xi Summit, I have my garden and use it as a teaching tool for my kids, hoping they’ll be able to learn just a few of the lessons that can be drawn from tilling the soil.  Fortunately I don’t have to rely on my backyard to meet our nutritional or material needs which makes it an enjoyable hobby.  And those agronomy classes have occasionally come in handy as I know my sweet corn will easily bounce back from the freezing setback of last week since the growing point is still underground.  The beans, OTOH, that got pinched below the cotyledons are done for and will have to be replanted.





5 Responses to Farming Backstory

  1. xi summit says:

    As you say I did find the farm to be rather fun, probably moreso than I should have. I guess that’s the difference between dabbling the life as I did and living the life as you did. Even though the worst chores were saved for the migrant help (Big Brother and I) the farm still was a place where we could exscape our complicated and superficial suburban lives for a time and just subsist. For my cousins I know there was no fun about it, it was constant work they could not escape from. Interestingly enough, though, none of them strayed very far from the farm though my uncle and 2 of them still drive bus to make ends meet.

    It does sound like your farm was tougher than my uncle’s. Oh he farmed about 300 acres and he had about 120 cows but he always had a barn large enough for all the cows so we didn’t have the pre and post milking wrestling matches. He was also very creative when it came to managing. For about a decade he made out very well by starting a side-business in the winters where he managed other farms for pay so his neighbors could actually have vacations, something the rest of us take for granted.

    Much like Arwyn, Queenie would not adapt to farm life well at all. If I do somehow get my desire to have a small one there will be 2 requirements: Queenie gets a horse and I do everything on the farm, which is why it will only be in retirement that I will be able to do it.

    Thanks for telling the ‘other’ side of the story.

  2. aphron says:

    Although I did not grow up on a farm, I spent much of my childhood on my grandfather’s. I learned early that, although riding a tractor or combine was, I did not want to work that hard. Too many summers in some hot, humid sweet corn row, picking tomatoes, hoeing the “truck patch.” I don’t even garden. The only thing I miss is the freezer full of fresh beef or pork. Growing up with little made Mom have to can all of sorts of vegetables. There’s nothing like working in a hot kitchen stove, canning vegetables, on a hot summer’s day to make me want to me somewhere else.

    The idea that working on a farm is romantic is B.S. Literally. People do it because they love it. There is no other reason. Also, like you said, one spouse has to be a wage earner. The last person to work our family’s farm was also a school teacher.

    Good post. Although I didn’t have to milk cows, I did have to bale hay, put it up, and do other chores. That is why I went to college.

  3. Mu Ling says:

    Excellent post. I grew up in the suburbs, but today I live in a community where most people farm. I know enough to know that I don’t know anything about their lives. I respect them, and admire them, and am glad that I am not one of them. I couldn’t do it.

    You know, you’re wrong to dismiss global warming merely because of low temps in a particular area. I’m just saying.

  4. Val says:

    Great post, Digger… I especially appreciate the “Global warming, my ass!” comment. While I do believe that global warming i.e. cyclical climactic change is occurring, I believe the media is exaggerating our human influence. Why are Mars’ icecaps melting?!?

  5. diggerjones says:

    Those bastard Martians and their carbon-spewing SUVs!

    In about 8 weeks I’ll be taking my own boys up to the farm, and I can’t wait! Hopefully the snow will be melted by then but the boys will be equally happy in either case.

    My challenge now is to see if my garden will produce anything worth taking up there before I leave.

    Buy stock in Miracle Gro.


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