The author and his wife, Diane, have dairy farmed for over 30 years in West Berkshire, Vt. They have four children, of which the youngest is taking over the farm. Ed earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agricultural resource economics and a master’s in agricultural resource economics from the University of Vermont.
It was a beautiful fall day. Earlier that morning we had started covering the bunker silo first, and then a stack of corn silage, with plastic and tires. This was the last of our feed to store after a summer of unloading dry hay and chopping haylage.
The end was in sight. My wife had left to start evening chores, while my son and I finished covering the feed.
I watched as my son drove the tractor to get another load of tires. I thought of how much he reminded me of myself when I started farming.
His enthusiasm for the farm was heartening. His attention to detail, making sure everything was done just so, and his love for cattle and the land were evident.
Everything was in place to transition the farm to him. It was something I was usually happy about, but every once in a while, a twinge of doubt crept in.
Have we done enough?
Were the odds against him? So many farms had sold out; could he beat the odds? He’s intelligent, educated, ambitious, and self-motivated. If anyone can be successful, I’m sure he can.
It had been a long road. My wife and I had started with 40 cows and now were up to 100. But had we grown enough? My son will have to milk more cows to make things work financially.
Would we be better off selling the farm and cashing in? After a short pause to contemplate this thought, I had to chuckle. I thought to myself, “If money was our driving force, we would have chosen a different profession.”
There’s the constant challenge of trying to come close to the ideal given the constraints of time, labor, and money. At some point, that challenge can often turn into discouragement.
My family’s idea of a vacation is a weekend away from the farm. Will he and his family expect more time off?
We’ve always paid our bills but often had no money for improvements or to spend on ourselves. This can be discouraging, especially when things aren’t going well, and I’ve often wondered why we work so hard.
Foolishly, I thought that in the 30 years that we’ve farmed, someone would have figured out a way to pay farmers a fair price for their milk. It hasn’t happened yet, and can we expect that it ever will?
Back to reality
My son was back with another load of tires. As he dumped them, a stream of scummy water splashed up, covering the front of my pants. I shook my head and smiled, my son grinned back. The joke was on me.
As he drove away, I thought about how many of my friends and family think I’m crazy to farm. They just don’t understand the attraction.
While walking to the barn every morning, I always look up at the stars. Living away from the city lights, I see more stars on that short walk than most people see in a month. The stillness of the early morning is so calming, and I see the sunrise almost every day.
Then there is the miracle of a heifer calf being born and thriving into maturity. There is also the miracle of putting seed in the ground and watching it grow into a lush green field. These miracles, while exciting, are humbling as well. So many things beyond your control must fall into place to be successful, and the fact that they usually do makes you appreciate Mother Nature and her guiding hand.
As you raise healthy cattle, you realize how every stage of their lives must be well-managed for them to reach their full potential. Every cow has its own personality and quirks. These docile giants live life and move at a much slower pace than humans. This can be comforting at times and frustrating at others, but it teaches the farmer patience.
We constantly monitor the weather for cropping, to adjust the cow’s environment, and to dress appropriately. The weather is generally a farmer’s friend, but at times it can also dictate when and how work gets done.
This closeness with Mother Nature is so satisfying. Like me, my son will be able to look back at the end of the day and see what he has accomplished. Honestly, there’s no other job I could have stuck with for 30 years and found so gratifying.
Another load of tires arrived. A light drizzle had started to fall; there was no doubt we would be soaked by the time we finished. As my son drove away again, I thought of the challenges he would face.
Good farm labor is getting hard to find. Twenty years ago, almost everyone in this area had worked on a farm. Now that is not the case.
We’ve always been highly regulated on how to produce milk to ensure a safe food supply. More and more we must comply with regulations concerning land use and water quality. It’s a good thing when it makes sense, but sometimes it doesn’t. With so many agencies to answer to, my son is going to have to be on top of things.
What about the animal care initiatives? They are perplexing! We now have to document the good husbandry we’ve been practicing for years. This gives the consumer the impression that something was awry in the past.
People should ask themselves, who is the real animal lover? The farmer who has devoted his or her life to the care of animals, or the guy punching a clock and devising more hoops for dairy farmers to jump through?
It bothers me and my son to think today’s hard working, trustworthy dairy farmer is often being painted as a villain. Any farmer knows that well-cared for land and animals are more productive. As he does with most things, my son will take these regulations in stride.
A fortunate man
As my son arrived, I held up one finger. One more load would do it!
I am really lucky to have a son interested in continuing the dairy farm. It’s a great way to raise a family. Kids learn at an early age an appreciation of nature. They learn the joy of work as soon as they can walk. Farm kids know they can’t always be the center of mom and dad’s attention, and they are given huge responsibility at a young age. Work doesn’t seem like work when you have your family by your side.
Our kids who have left the farm love coming home and helping out. They have an appreciation for dairy farming and take pride in their farm background. Farm kids seldom disappoint.
Thinking back, I was able to eat breakfast with my kids almost every morning before they had to catch the school bus. My wife and I never missed a school event held during the day. One of us always made it to their local sporting events. We could arrange our schedules to be involved in their youth activities. Dairy farming gives you that flexibility.
Finally, the last load. My son shined the tractor lights where we were working and jumped up on the corn silage stack to help me place the last tires.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Tired, wet, and cold,” I answered.
As we finished, he said, “I’ll put the tractor away and meet you in the barn to help Mom with chores.”
As I walked toward the barn with the wind knifing through my wet clothes, I was exhausted. I turned and looked at all we had accomplished that day. A feeling of satisfaction came over me. I thought, “Dairy farming has always had its challenges. My son will do just fine.”