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If you pay attention to the trends in agriculture in rural America, you are probably aware that the number of farms in the country, which consolidated sharply between 1950 and 1970 and declined markedly in the 1980s, has been steadily declining since 2000, hovering around 2 million but slowly declining after a significant uptick in 2007. Two million farms are feeding a nation of 300 million and indeed the world. We are the top exporter of all agricultural products worldwide, far ahead of #2 (the Netherlands) and #3 (Germany), and doing it with an astonishingly tiny farm workforce. You might think that this means those few people work like, well, workhorses.
And you’d be right. I had the pleasure, no, the advantage of growing up on a dairy farm that had survived that consolidation between the ’50s and ’70s that I mentioned above. We mostly kept that iconic breed of American dairy cow, the Holstein, with some Brown Swiss, some Jerseys, and some Guernseys to keep the gene pool healthy.
Milking them every day meant, in the months that were not winter, getting up at 4 (if not earlier) to drive them in from the field to the milking yard. This usually entailed finding them. Now, some of them were cooperative and would spend the night in the field not far from the feed yard where we parked the forage wagons they ate from, but some would seek out the farthest reaches of the rectangular 80-acre summer pasture, and some would even try to get through the fence into the woods.
Finding them all — and you had to, because they had to be milked — could take 90 minutes. Then came the milking, which took about four and a half to five hours, then clean up, which including removing always gigantic amounts of manure from the milking stalls (this was an ongoing process while we milked in truth), spreading manure, refilling feed chutes, prepping the tanks for the extraction by the milk tanker truck that came every day, feeding the calves, moving the calves occasionally — from stalls for the little ones to the larger yard for the “teenage cows” — and various tractor maintenance tasks, along with mixing the feed (corn had to be ground up and mixed with mineral supplement in our GEHL feed grinder — terrific piece of machinery), and that was just the bare minimum before noon on a day when absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened.
In the summer and fall, we would add baling hay to this set of activities. How that usually went is that dad would mow (he never let me mow hay) on one day, while our hand, Mark, and I would finish milking and, if drying weather was right, I would rake it the next morning while he and Mark milked. That afternoon, if drying weather was right, we (my dad, Mark, his nephews, my brother and anyone else who was available to help) would bale it.
These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building and it was also a prescription for terrific calluses on your hands. Leather gloves? After a while, they’re built-in. Getting all of these tasks accomplished with the manpower we had (sometimes there were only four of us) meant that in the warm — or let’s say not dark and freezing cold — months, our workday was sometimes 18 hours long. The end effect of it all was that it produced physical toughness and hammered home the importance of doing one’s work well and until it was done.
Now, ours was a small-ish farm and dairy operation – with only a few hundred acres and at most about 81 cows being milked at a time, usually only between 60 and 70, sometimes as few as 50. It was not at all atypical of dairy farms in the Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s. Growing up meant working there from the time I was old enough to carry a milk bucket, which meant about age 8, and being steeped in a domestic culture of constant, meaningful work.
You were constantly expected to pull your weight and more and constantly looking for ways to do that if you had any self-respect or wanted respect from others. The harshest insults that could get thrown at a farmer or farmhand when I lived this life were that you were “lazy” or “a whiner,” usually expressed in what you’d call earthier language.
Farm life inculcated an unkillable work ethic in people who sought to live it right and I have heard from many who come from my kind of background that employers who know their hawks from handsaws consider mention of “farming background” to be a decisive plus in potential hires.
Now, I am not going to argue that the decline in the percentage of farmers in our society means that we are going to raise a generation of indolent, soft characters with a poor work ethic … though I am sorely tempted to. There are other ways of life that develop a strong work ethic. Military life for one and any kind of family business that involves a skilled trade.
Farm life, though, carried with it something of a connection to nature and work that most of these ways of life don’t. There’s a reason a great share of our treasury of metaphors and images comes from the agrarian life. It’s not just a vague romanticism, but a deep realization, I think, that this lifestyle ties people to the elemental foundations of life quite directly, and demands much of those that maintain them.
Note: This was supposed to appear back on the 9th as my contribution for the March Group Writing Project. Alas, work, of all things, kept me occupied writing for Euros from sunrise to well after sunset until tonight.Published in