I Grew Up on a Family Farm, and Now I Have One of My Own
After years living around livestock as a kid, I've gotten back in the game and turned our new family farm into a business.
My dad was born on the same farm as his father and his grandfather. After I was born in 1954, the fourth (and best) of my parents’ five children, I grew up there, too. From an early age, I took great delight in rummaging through the attic, a treasure trove of family history. Among all the findings was a tintype picture of my great-grandfather as a child on the front porch of the old brick farmhouse, which at that time was fairly new. The farm is now owned and operated by my oldest brother. It’s been in our family for around 140 years.
Growing up on the farm, there were always chores to do. Ours was a dairy farm, and the cows had to be milked twice a day, at five o'clock in the morning and again at four o'clock in the afternoon. They also had to be fed twice a day, and so did the calves and the younger heifers and steers. My older brother and my two older sisters helped with the milking before I inherited the role. Most of that work was done by hand. Even after they installed a modern milk parlor with a piping system to take the milk to the tank, it still wasn’t easy work. Cows can be stubborn, ornery and not always cooperative. I think they found great delight in swishing their poopy tails across my face.
There was a lot of work to be done every day, but we never really knew we were working. My town friends loved to come to visit because our chores were a new experience for them. They loved being around all the animals, driving the tractors and riding on the wagons. But my neighborhood friends are the ones I remember most fondly. In the summer there was hay to bale, load onto the wagon, unload and stack in the barn. It was hard work on a hot summer's day, but the neighborhood kids were always there to help. At the end of the day, we’d pile into the back of the pickup truck and Ma and Dad would drive all of us to the lake for a swim. There were backyard baseball games, a basketball court in the barn, and a rope swing in the barn. We made forts in the straw and carved our initials in the beech trees back in the woods. It was a good life.
Hard Work Runs in Our Family
My dad never took his farming duties lightly. It was always work before play. But he also recognized that play was important too. He became interested in flying, and when he returned home after serving in the army during WWII, he married my mother and soloed for the first time on the same day. He bought a 1940s Aeronca Champion two-seater airplane and enjoyed flying until well into his 80s, spending Sunday mornings during the summer flying around Michigan to pancake breakfasts sponsored by a group called “The Flying Farmers.” He also took up golfing and was known to declare that daylight savings time was implemented so that farmers could play golf once the afternoon milking was done.
But my mother—a worrier and a planner—was the real worker of the family, and the disciplinarian. She took care of the yard, the house, the garden, cooked three meals a day and canned enough produce to get us through the winter and beyond. She kept us all under control, and that included my dad. She was in charge of assigning the chores to us kids, and she made sure we did them correctly and on time. There were no cutting corners under her watch.
Hunger was never an issue at our house. All of our friends made it a point to stop by for a visit around dinnertime. When we needed milk, my mother would bring a covered pail to the barn and fill it up. We had to stir it before pouring it into a glass so the cream wouldn’t come to the top, and we never drank the last little bit because there was usually a bit of hay or who-knows-what that settled in the bottom of the glass. I have to chuckle at today's young adults when they talk about this great! new! fantastic! thing called “farm-to-table,” when I've lived it my entire life. But I do appreciate the new awareness of the “know where your food comes from” movement.
Eventually, my oldest brother started helping with big decisions about the farm. He convinced my parents to buy more land to expand the farming operations. Eventually, they acquired enough to make a living crop farming, so we sold the cows to the neighbors. My dad and brother grew corn, wheat and soybeans, which demanded the purchase of more and bigger equipment. To look at today's farm machinery and compare it to what we started with is staggering. When my dad was a young man, it took all the energy a family had to maintain an 80-acre farm. With today's equipment, one person can easily manage 800.
How I Left Farming Behind—for a While
In 1989, I married and had the first of my two daughters the following year. When they were four and five years old, my husband and I bought his parents' home and 63 acres. We had absolutely no interest in farming, so we leased the tillable acreage to a neighboring farmer. I never lost my love of dirt and animals, though, so I maintained a small garden and always had an animal around—a dog or a cat, or a goat or a chicken.
When the girls were old enough they joined the 4-H. Their dad’s dad was instrumental in their membership. He convinced us that they should each buy a 700-pound steer in the fall, raise it through the winter and show it at the county fair in August, where it would be judged and sold at auction. Getting steers ready for the fair was a new experience for me. We had to train them to lead with a rope and halter, stand still for grooming and clipping, and pose for the judge. (And we had to hope beyond hope that those now 1,300-pound animals wouldn't drag our 80-pound girls through the midway).
This whole time, my husband had absolutely no interest in farming. And, when the girls left for college, the last of the animals were gone, too. It was a bit of a relief for me because I no longer had chores to do. I was free at last!
Or so I thought.
Once a Farm Girl, Always a Farm Girl
One Valentine's morning I was in the kitchen enjoying a cup of coffee and the peace and quiet of our country home, when my husband called for me to come outside to see my gift. To my utter surprise and amazement were two of the cutest calves you've ever seen. We raised those two, and then they had calves, and then the calves’ calves had calves. My husband took a real interest in the Angus breed, so he bought more cows to go with the cows we already had. When the neighbor’s farm came up for sale we were able to add that to our 63 acres—more pasture ground for the cows that kept coming and coming and coming. This meant more feed, which led to buying tractors and equipment, then building barns and fences. Then we had to get a bull, which meant more calves, which grow into cows, and it goes on and on and on.
What does one do at the end of their working career, with retirement well within sight? Apparently, they farm.
We now have 340 acres, and rent another 200 to grow all the corn and hay we need to feed 140 head of Angus cattle. But they are our pride and joy. Our farm is our playground. And that farm-to-table movement? We’re right in the thick of it. The demand for beef from sustainable farms has grown dramatically. Our cattle are raised in open fields, never crowded, are fed high-quality feed and grow at their own pace, never given growth hormones. Two years ago we opened a little store on the farm where we offer beef born and raised right here. We invite and encourage visitors, both young and old, to our farm to enjoy the fresh—well, not always fresh—country air, walk among the animals, pet a bunny or collect an egg. Watching them brings back fond memories of growing up on a working farm, when work didn't really seem like work.
Who needs retirement when you can wake up every morning to a rooster crowing, the morning sun shining across the open fields, a day filled with chores and the smell of 140 cows?