This past month, I had the opportunity to visit the Arlington Cemetery. Having a son currently serving in the military elevated the depth of the trip and my admiration for such a place. I came away with a respectful and pondering heart.
Seeing hill after hill of gravesites was profound; over 400,000 graves lie on more than 600 acres. The more seasoned I become in life, the more I appreciate history; there was certainly enough to draw from history’s well that day. The sacrifice is vast.
I had no idea that the ground once belonged to Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Actually, I had never heard of her, but her husband, General Robert E. Lee, is a familiar name. Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, was a step-grandson to the first president, George Washington.
One of my favorite times of the tour was watching the well-known changing of the guard. The 3rd Infantry has been given the task of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and they do so every day of the year, through every force of nature, without missteps. They also conduct this task meticulously. For example, they hold each stance for 21 seconds before moving on to the next position. This symbolizes the highest military honor, the 21-gun salute. Their weapons, uniforms, and stature are perfected without flaw.
The changing of the guard made me reflect on our own farm’s “changing of the guard” moment. The monumental event happened a few decades ago, but the details are still strong in my memory.
Duane and I spent several years laying the groundwork for that day, and I would say that his parents did as well. In fact, they spent an even longer time preparing for that day, and I am glad that both Mom and Dad pay attention to detail.
A guard change at the farm is certainly not to be taken lightly, for either party. For his parents, it was a time of letting go and handing over responsibilities, decisions, and a lifetime of building a farm.
For Duane and myself, it was a time to receive those duties and to think about our personal goals.
The whole process is deeply emotional, especially for the party that is letting go. Their livelihood goes into building the dairy, and letting go can be extremely difficult. There was a different element in our situation as Duane’s father held a seat in the State House of Representatives, and his tenure as a legislator gave him focus and purpose outside of the farm.
I can easily see difficulties arise when the guard leaving doesn’t have a mission to pick up. Everyone needs purpose in life, and dairy farmers certainly have a lot of focus. We have animals to care for, land to steward, and a business to run. To go from a fast-paced, determined lifestyle to a slow pace might seem luxurious for a moment, but I can see that doesn’t work long term.
Farmers just aren’t wired to sit around and lounge for months on end. Dad was more than happy to continue on his duties in Harrisburg, Pa., without the farm hovering over his mind, and we were thrilled to start that new chapter in our lives.
One thing that helped it go smoothly was seeking outside guidance. Again, Mom and Dad saw that this transfer was larger than the four of us, and hiring an outside consultant was one of the best decisions for all persons involved.
The consultant, Mr. Heim, was meticulous, exact, and every scenario on the farm was considered. He went over the agreement much like Arlington Cemetery’s lead Honor Guard inspected the Honor Guard who was accepting orders at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Every inch of his uniform and gun was inspected before he was cleared to take over that duty.
Heim’s attention to our farm’s detail helped Duane and me see the seriousness and the importance of the decisions we were making. I have often thought of how that attitude set the stage for our future business.
The other similarity I saw between a guard and a dairyman is the fact that weather or holidays do not stop us. There are times that a thunderstorm rolls through, and we either feed calves a little faster or we delay the feeding; but one sure fact is that every calf is fed.
Duane and I are several years past this event on our timeline, and even though we are going strong in our farming career, we need to recognize that the changing of our guard will most likely happen sooner rather than later.
We do not have any immediate plans to hand over duties; however, we need to be best prepared when our timing is right. And when that timing is right, we will say this excerpt from John F. Kennedy that can be read at the Eternal Flame, Arlington Cemetery:
“Let the word go forth
from this time and place
to friend and foe alike
that the torch has been passed to
a new generation of Americans.”
The author and her husband, Duane, own and operate a 550-cow dairy in Cochranville, Pa.