The Heritage Without the Manure?

 

My nephew’s family just returned from a multi-week (amazing) trip to Europe. They (mom and four children 13-6 — dad joined them for the final week) hiked and toured in many countries. I was exhausted watching them via Instagram. As “payment” for parking their car in our side yard, instead of the airport, they brought us some Belgium chocolate, and an adorable little carved wooden Brown Swiss cow. It is about four inches long.

See, my nephew knew (correctly) that I would be absolutely delighted by this tiny gesture because he knows his aunts well. No matter what else we do in our lives, our identity will always be defined by our dairy farm upbringing.

We six daughters were the third generation of cow milkers in our extended family. Our parents and their parents had been dairy farmers, too. One of our grandfathers was instrumental in starting a Swiss cheese creamery co-op in our community in order to preserve and sell the milk produced, and not just be subsistence farmers. His parents had immigrated to America from Switzerland in the mid-1800s, so my grandfather was born here, along with his 12 siblings.

After WWII, our parents were married, and they, too, set up a dairy farm, selling the milk to the cheese factory. We girls (along with two brothers, born in the middle of six sisters) were the workers. We hauled hay all summer, and fed it back out to the cows all winter. We spent the two hours each morning, and each evening, milking the Guernseys, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss cows our dad had carefully accumulated. The world has a default concept of cows as the black and white Holsteins that are usually depicted, but our father was aiming for the high butterfat content that brought him a premium price from the creamery.

Yes, yes, you are wondering where I’m going with this memoir. I’ve been pondering my place in the universe as the last of the cow-milkers in our family tree. None of my sisters (nor I) married a farmer. By design. Our older/little brother was married by the time our father died — too early — at 61 from leukemia. (The younger/little brother chose college and is an attorney.) The first brother took over the farm, making payments to my mother for the property over the years, and she continued to own, and live in, her home until her death 10 years ago. Despite his valiant efforts, and expansion from three dozen to 150 cows, it became obvious that to be a successful dairy, one needed to either have 1,000 cows, or a special niche in the dairy industry. He had neither the money nor opportunity, so he sold the cows after 15 years, rented the hay fields to another farmer, and went to work selling machinery to the guys who had “gone big.” This was the end of nearly 100 years of milking in our family history.

I really appreciate having grown up in a world where hard work was the norm, and it was expected and assumed that you would do your part. My town friends would be planning swimming parties for the last day of school. My farm friends and I knew we’d be picking rock from the plowed fields so our dads could plant the grain. I didn’t need to “work out” because all summer I bench-pressed thousands of 75-pound hay bales as we collected them from the fields and stacked them near the barns. Then, all winter, we fed those bales to our cows. I lifted filled 10-gallon milk cans from the milk-house floor into the cooling trough each night, and carried heavy milkers from cow to cow in the barn twice a day. We’d wrap our curler-filled hair in a dish towel to keep the dirt off. I was an expert at gulping down breakfast, then applying mascara and eye-shadow at top-speed so I’d be ready to catch the bus for high school in the 30 minutes between turning out the last cows, and heading to town for my education. None of us would have purposefully shirked our work, because it had to be done, and our parents only had so many hours in their day, too. Also, animals cannot be mistreated or neglected when they are the source of the family income.

Once or twice after I married, I stayed for a few months at my parents’ home with my first two children, to help with the work. I did not have a paycheck-job at the time, and my dad’s illness had diminished his energy for a several years before my brother reached adulthood. So I was available to help out. I milked the cows, fed the animals, cleaned out the barns, etc. But I never intended to return to our mountain valley permanently as a farmer or rancher.

Despite my having left behind the hard work of the farm as soon as I could, it has always been my identity throughout my adult life. My sisters and I are proud of our heritage, and proud of the way we were tough and strong. But, none of our children have lived this way. And none of them probably will, either. We sisters are now the “elders of the tribe” and some of us have grandchildren about to graduate from high school. Those children know all about the Farm Girls. That’s why my nephew knew I’d appreciate the wooden cow.

But, now, as I approach the last portion of my mortality, I wonder what defines my children, and my nieces and nephews, the way our cow milker/hay hauler upbringing so influenced my sisters and me? Do they associate with the heritage of four generations of their ancestors? Do they see a field of bales, or a red barn, and have flashbacks to Grandma’s house? My children lived in four different cities, in three states, in completely different climate zones. How do they define themselves?

I wonder sometimes if by discontinuing this Dairy Heritage I deprived them of something that has powerfully sustained me as I spent my adult life as a willing nomad. I’ve never shied from a challenging task, because I learned early that I could do very hard, sometimes boring, jobs by just persisting. I see my children succeeding at their lives: being good, helpful, self-supporting people, and raising their children to be that way, too. So, perhaps it is possible to pass on the skills and standards I learned from my extended family, without having to shovel the cow manure or haul the bales.

This is where I spent my childhood/teenage years. I wasn’t born in a barn, but I grew up there!

There are 20 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Kevin Schulte Member
    Kevin Schulte
    @KevinSchulte

    Sounds like you successfully passed character on to your kids Cow girl, without the farm. Well done.  Beautiful landscape.

     

     

    • #1
  2. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    And of course the brown cow gives chocolate milk. Great post. You are out standing in your field, Cow Girl.

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    I thank the PTB daily for my grandfather refusing to let me milk the cows after he caught me squirting milk into the barn cat’s mouth. I got to go help grandma make breakfast at five a.m instead.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    When I was growing up I envied the kids in my classes who lived on farms because they had important work to do.   Some of it was helping with the milking.  When the family is an economic unit, everybody has important work to do to keep the family going. I was a preacher’s kid and though we lived on 40 acres with various animals and two big gardens to help with, I did not have such an important role.  I wasn’t able to talk from experience about the important things that they talked about.

    In Nebraska in the late 50s the importance of farm children to the family economy was reinforced by laws that permitted farm boys of a certain age (I don’t remember which) to be taken out of school to help with the harvest and certain other farm work. It didn’t happen often in our elementary school, but occasionally somebody would be out for a day to help with the farm work.  Farm boys were also able to get drivers licenses at a fairly young age – maybe it was 14 – because they needed to be able to drive on the roads to help with the farm work.

    It’s good to live in a society where people have grown up with such responsibilities.  It’s also good to live in a society where a significant percentage of people run their own businesses, whether it be a farm or a retail store or whatever. Those people know the responsibilities of managing things.  Nowadays most of the farmers have sold out. Some have gone to work as truck drivers and laborers for the big super farms that are left. Most of the small hardware stores are closed, and many of the owners went to work for the big box stores.  Twenty years ago it was good to be a customer at Lowes, because the guy who helped you find things in the aisles really knew his stuff, having once owned his own hardware business. Those types are gone now.

    The libertarians among us will explain how this creative destruction is all for the better. With increased use of technology and economies of scale, we’re all better off in every way, some of them will tell us.

    Not in every way, though.  Nowadays very few of the people who go to the polls have had the responsibility of managing an economic enterprise and making it pay off, or of seeing their parents managing an economic enterprise, or of being in any way responsible for their family’s economic success. Most are just cogs in the machine. Sometimes they are well-paid cogs and manage a part of the machine, and sometimes not.  So it’s no wonder that after all of the consolidation and centralization of businesses, and the elimination of family businesses, many of the people who go to the polls are thinking, “Well, why shouldn’t the government pay for my pre-existing conditions as well as contraceptives?” They have never learned the habit of thinking of how to manage things for success – how to make tradeoffs and allocate resources.

    So when we get single decider health care, look around you and blame your libertarian friends for thinking this new economic centralization and consolidation is better in every way.

    • #4
  5. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    I thank the PTB daily for my grandfather refusing to let me milk the cows after he caught me squirting milk into the barn cat’s mouth. I got to go help grandma make breakfast at five a.m instead.

    Wow! Our barn cats were a vital part of the operation. They earned their squirts in the mouth. But they preferred us to pour the warm, foamy milk into their pan, which was situated prominently at the front of the barn. They helped to keep the cow grain bin from being eaten entirely by the mice. Our cats were so fussy, that when the milk in their pan cooled off, they turned up their noses, and left it for the dog to finish off.

    • #5
  6. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Here are a couple of the hard working felines, hanging out during the day, digesting their mice.

    • #6
  7. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Nowadays most of the farmers have sold out. Some have gone to work as truck drivers and laborers for the big super farms that are left.

    If their circumstances were like my brother’s, they didn’t just “sell out” from lack of work ethic. My brother had to choose: get out of the dairy business, or lose the whole farm. He couldn’t compete with the 1000 cow places. His market was very limited, and the choices were getting fewer and fewer. He tried a number of fixes. Ultimately, he didn’t want to lose everything, so the cows had to go.

    But I agree that when you are in business for yourself, you have a different outlook. It is quite empowering to be the one at the head of the enterprise. I hope our economy hasn’t lost this ideal completely.

    I remember being extremely proud of my father and our farm. Once during my first year of college, my roommate and I went to lunch with her father, a powerful attorney from a very large city. He asked what my father did, and I confidently replied that we had a dairy farm. His demeanor and response let me know that I was instantly dismissed as the child of a nobody. I was offended by his lack of appreciation for my parents’ lifework. I’m still quite proud of being a farmer’s daughter.

    • #7
  8. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Nowadays most of the farmers have sold out. Some have gone to work as truck drivers and laborers for the big super farms that are left.

    If their circumstances were like my brother’s, they didn’t just “sell out” from lack of work ethic. My brother had to choose: get out of the dairy business, or lose the whole farm. He couldn’t compete with the 1000 cow places. His market was very limited, and the choices were getting fewer and fewer. He tried a number of fixes. Ultimately, he didn’t want to lose everything, so the cows had to go.

    But I agree that when you are in business for yourself, you have a different outlook. It is quite empowering to be the one at the head of the enterprise. I hope our economy hasn’t lost this ideal completely.

    I remember being extremely proud of my father and our farm. Once during my first year of college, my roommate and I went to lunch with her father, a powerful attorney from a very large city. He asked what my father did, and I confidently replied that we had a dairy farm. His demeanor and response let me know that I was instantly dismissed as the child of a nobody. I was offended by his lack of appreciation for my parents’ lifework. I’m still quite proud of being a farmer’s daughter.

    Dairy farming has been difficult for a long time. Even the Amish have for the most part quit. What Swiss cheese factory did your dad sell to? I bought and sold about 5 million pounds a year maybe I know them. I was an honorary Swiss. I was always invited to their private dinner at the Cheese Convention every year.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Nowadays most of the farmers have sold out. Some have gone to work as truck drivers and laborers for the big super farms that are left.

    If their circumstances were like my brother’s, they didn’t just “sell out” from lack of work ethic. My brother had to choose: get out of the dairy business, or lose the whole farm. He couldn’t compete with the 1000 cow places. His market was very limited, and the choices were getting fewer and fewer. He tried a number of fixes. Ultimately, he didn’t want to lose everything, so the cows had to go.

    But I agree that when you are in business for yourself, you have a different outlook. It is quite empowering to be the one at the head of the enterprise. I hope our economy hasn’t lost this ideal completely.

    I remember being extremely proud of my father and our farm. Once during my first year of college, my roommate and I went to lunch with her father, a powerful attorney from a very large city. He asked what my father did, and I confidently replied that we had a dairy farm. His demeanor and response let me know that I was instantly dismissed as the child of a nobody. I was offended by his lack of appreciation for my parents’ lifework. I’m still quite proud of being a farmer’s daughter.

    Oh, no, I don’t know anyone who sold out for a lack of work ethic. Your example describes very well how it works. In today’s world you need to get bigger or get out. Which means only a very few of the best capitalized take over.  But the loss of these small businesses has the social effect that I described. While these people are still around they will understand a lot of things about how businesses need to be managed and how an economy works And their children may, too.  But eventually, maybe a couple of generations later, you’ll have a greater proportion of people with no connection to that kind of life, and fewer people with an instinctive understanding of how an economy needs to work.

    • #9
  10. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    @phcheese

    It was a long time ago and the business is also long gone, but it was the Star Valley Swiss Cheese Factory in Thayne, Wyoming.

    • #10
  11. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    @cowgirl: My problem was being young and inexperienced. I arrived at age 11, and grandpa taught me to milk, but my hands would get tired so rested them my giving a squirt or two or more at the cats. My aim wasn’t very good so not much of it actually reached the cat’s mouth. Grandpa figured I was a total loss as a milker. My brother was better at it. And grandpa always did fill the kitty dish with fresh milk before taking it to the house. He wouldn’t let me play or make pets of the cats. He thought it would keep the cats from earning their keep.

    Gramps went out of the milk business when a doctor came to town and decided all the milk needed to be pasteurized, so they made a law that all milk could only be sold to the pasteurization plant. My grandfather had special “Muley-Guernsey” cows that gave rich creamy milk, his customers were specialized. He had 3 cows with 2 always in production at a time, 5 gal per cow twice a day. The cream from that milk would mound on a spoon it was so thick. I got to churn the butter, first in a wooden barrel, then in a jar with a paddle.

    I was given a heifer calf to raise for FFA, and sold her in 1949-50 for $300, my brother had a bull calf and sold him for $400. I named my calf, Brownie, and she followed me all over the property like a puppy. Grandpa finally had to confine her to a calf lot as she learned to jump fences and followed me to school. One of my favorite things to do was use her as a pillow, in a deep grass pasture, and read.

    I was good at collecting eggs, including the setting hen’s, which gram had to candle so she could put them back in the nest. Darn bird tried to bite me! Loved the strawberry patch, and was allowed to eat all I wanted as long as I brought enough back to the house for dessert. I did not like shucking corn in the winter for planting in the spring. My hands would get raw, as well as picking and shelling purple hulled peas. My grandparents had 6 acres under cultivation.

    • #11
  12. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    @phcheese

    It was a long time ago and the business is also long gone, but it was the Star Valley Swiss Cheese Factory in Thayne, Wyoming.

    Wyoming was too far away for me to buy from Star Valley but I had heard of them.  I have never been out in that area. I would like to some day. It is difficult for an out of the way Cheese producer to sell and ship their products to market.

    • #12
  13. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    @phcheese

    It was a long time ago and the business is also long gone, but it was the Star Valley Swiss Cheese Factory in Thayne, Wyoming.

    Wyoming was too far away for me to buy from Star Valley but I had heard of them. I have never been out in that area. I would like to some day. It is difficult for an out of the way Cheese producer to sell and ship their products to market.

    My husband’s dad drove a big rig filled with the cheese to LA every week when we were kids. I’m not really sure what happened to their markets in later years.  I grew up as a total cheese snob. I don’t believe I ever consumed anything labeled “cheese product.”

    I hope someday you can visit western Wyoming.  It is all very scenic, with friendly people. Oh, and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

    • #13
  14. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    (Born in 1983)

    Your nieces and nephews are millennials.  They can define themselves any way they want because cows, barns, tractors, and especially those mountains, are for selfies on instagram!

     

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Loved this, Cowgirl. I grew up in a suburb with no farm experience, and admire your appreciation of the demanding and physical work that you did to maintain the family farm. Your OP is complimented beautifully by Victor Davis Hansen’s most recent podcast, The Classicist, “The Forgotten Virtues of Physical Labor” , and echoes your sentiments. He lives on a farm and talks about our not only missing a connection with the earth, but like the big-city attorney you mentioned, points to those who would denigrate this important, physical work. Thanks for your post!

    • #15
  16. ltpwfdcm Coolidge
    ltpwfdcm
    @ltpwfdcm

    I married a dairy farmer’s daughter from Utah. My father-in-law finally sold his herd about 4 years ago (after 50+ years of the family being in the dairy business) due to the low milk prices and high input costs. They had faced the decision to enlarge their herd when he was done with college. My wife’s grandfather and father decided that to support another family that they’d need X number of cows. Multiply that by 3 brothers coming back to farm and they ended up with close to 1000 milking cows and another 3-400 steers and non-milking heifers. 80,000 lbs of milk daily was produced in addition to farming 1000 acres for forage. Now they’ve switched over to raising hay for a local 2500 cow dairy as well as some for export overseas. My father-in-law reported that in our little valley there used to be 13-15 dairies and now there are maybe 3-4, but those nearly match the total herd size of the previous operations.

    • #16
  17. OldDan Rhody Inactive
    OldDan Rhody
    @OldDanRhody

    Cow Girl: perhaps it is possible to pass on the skills and standards I learned from my extended family, without having to shovel the cow manure

    Didn’t your parents teach you that, after the expenses of cows and equipment and supplies, and after all the labor, that was the farmer’s profit?

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    He had 3 cows with 2 always in production at a time, 5 gal per cow twice a day. The cream from that milk would mound on a spoon it was so thick.

    A friend who was a missionary in Bolivia told the people in his town how much milk cows in Minnesota would give.  Later he overheard one man telling another, “You can’t believe what that missionary says.  He’s such a big liar.”

    • #17
  18. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    OldDan Rhody (View Comment):
    A friend who was a missionary in Bolivia told the people in his town how much milk cows in Minnesota would give. Later he overheard one man telling another, “You can’t believe what that missionary says. He’s such a big liar.”

    Well, those were 5 gal buckets, full to the top, I carried to gram to strain and put into bottles. I would get scolded when some of the milk would slosh out. Someone should get a couple of those muley-guernsey cows to Bolivia. Of course our cows were contented cows, with good feed, good pasture and good treatment.

    • #18
  19. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Thanks for the post. After my father’s death in 15, we gave the hand who had worked for him since the 70s a few months to decide if he wanted to continue running the dairy (est. 1950 on land some of which the family had held since 1845) and he decided not to after doing the math. We sold the cows, the equipment and the land, as none of my siblings who would be in the position had either interest in dairy farming or needed land for other sorts of farming. Growing up on a family farm was an inestimable advantage in terms of character building, as you well describe here. Seeing that mode of life pass away in the U.S. has been painful.

    • #19
  20. Grosseteste Thatcher
    Grosseteste
    @Grosseteste

    Around where I am there’s a lot of farming, but I’ve always been on the outside, so I appreciate the reminiscences and the conversation.

    Thanks for the post!


    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Family”, planned for the whole month of July. If you follow this link, you can see the links to other July posts. If you’d like to try your hand at Group Writing, August’s theme (Beauty) still has many open spots for writers. Please sign up!

    • #20
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.