Jan. 25 2021 10:07 AM

My love for agriculture began the very first time I fed calves with my grandfather.

The first time I did chores was like no other experience. The feeling of warmth in the barn. The feeling of safety. It is like something that you can’t explain unless you have done chores in the winter before. Staying up late with my Poppa, not wanting to leave the comfort of the warm house, walking down the old stairs and hoping the barn is as warm as the house. Poppa taking me downstairs and bundling me up until I don’t think I can move my joints.

When we finally get outside, we are greeted by Emma, the dog. Her coat was black and white and smelled like the barn, warmth, new calves, and fresh straw. As we walk down to the barnyard, I can feel the snow crunching under my feet and seeping into my boots, making my feet cold and wet, not knowing where to go because the only light we had was from the moon and the stars. When I look up and see the sky, I look around me and see all of the thousands of stars upon the dark black and blue sky like a painting. We keep walking and when a breeze blows, it always finds its way to me and gets into my bundled up little body — blowing so that it feels like sharp needles on my face making me shiver.

When we reach the barn, the warmth greets me like a warm hug, wrapping itself around me and calling me in. As we first walk into a small room where my Poppa said we need to mix the milk. The walls are whitewashed and there are shelves on every wall. The old sink is on the farthest wall from me and tall shelves are on both sides of the sink, including the many other counters, cupboards, and shelves in the room. Scattered around me are empty bottles of medicine, horn removal cream, fly spray, buckets, bottles, and more. But the things I remember the most are the big containers that hold dog food and milk replacer.

While looking around the room my Poppa proceeded to take green and red buckets and set them on the floor and then the bottles and nipples were then put on the floor beside the buckets. He was wearing a brown Carhartt jacket and tall brown rubber boots, and a stocking cap with an advertisement for a seed company. He reached up to get down a 5-gallon bucket and filled it with hot water that created steam. It filled the room and made the air thick, and humid. My Poppa is a man who is stronger than he looks, but he is the most gentle man I know. He wears kindness in his eyes and holds years of wisdom in his hands for everyone to see.

Poppa told me to open the milk replacer bin and put 4 scoops into the hot water. I reached in to get a scoop and when I inhaled, the dusty smell of the milk replacer greeted me. The strong, warm, sweet smell fills my nose. The smell of milk replacer will always and forever be one of my favorite smells from the barn. After the milk replacer was added to the water, my Poppa let me stir. When my small, skinny, not very strong 4-year-old arms got tired, he praised me for what I had done and took over and finished. After making sure the milk was mixed, he poured it into the buckets and bottles he had set on the floor. When he spilled a little or a drop of milk got on the floor, the cats would slowly creep up to it, making sure I would not grab at them. They would lap up the milk with their little, rough, pink tongues while keeping a close eye on me.

When all of the milk had been divided, we carried it out and put the buckets in the pens. But my favorite part was the bottles. We both took a bottle and stuck it through the fencing towards the calves. The calves came running to see who would get to it first. I held the bottle with one hand while a small brown and white Jersey noisily sucked down the warm milk, letting it drip down her neck. While the Jersey was drinking, I let a Brown Swiss calf suck on my other hand until it was her turn with the bottle. The fear and unknowing of a calf sucking your fingers or not letting go was scary to a 4-year-old. However, when I looked over and saw my grandpa doing the same, it gave me the all the reassurance I needed to continue doing it. When all was said and done, I had a warm, wet, slimy hand, and the other hand was holding an empty bottle.

When all of the calves had been fed, were bedded down with clean, fresh, warm smelling straw, and had laid down because they were becoming groggy from the milk, we headed back to the small room. My Poppa filled the sink with hot water and soap that made the room smell fresh and clean, and he washed all of the buckets and bottles. Not wanting to get my hands wet and not enjoying the washing, I headed back to the part of the barn where the calves lived with a small bowl of milk just for the cats.

When I had given the cats their milk, I walked over to the calf pens. I sat and just stared. I remember this like it was yesterday . . . I sat on a straw bale and stared at one small, brown Jersey calf with a white star on her forehead. She had huge brown eyes that sparkled and the longest eyelashes ever. She stared back at me until it got boring for her and she knew that I was safe. She looked away, but I did not get bored with her. The warmth of the barn, the smell of straw and even manure, and the cows just seemed so right to me. And I knew right then and there that I wanted to have a job that had to do with them, the little Jerseys to the big cows. To be able to help them when they were hurt and in pain, or to help with anything that came with being with an animal.

When Poppa was done with the washing, we headed back to the house. We stepped into the cold air and right away I wanted to go back into the warm, inviting barn to be with the animals, but Gramma was calling from the porch that dinner was ready. Her voice echoed through the barnyard and the dog ran up to the house to see if she was calling for her. As we walked to the house, I looked around me and saw the tall, dark, shadows of looming pine trees and the big oak, strong and sturdy, that will be used for climbing in the years to come. There is the small creek that runs to the pond where I will swim, skate, and canoe. The big hay barn is where I will find my favorite barn cat, and where I will spend my first night in the haymow. Then there are the other barns, where I will see my first calf being born, explore and play, look for fishing worms, and work with my first fair calf. In the surrounding fields, where later on in the afternoons I will go for rides on the 4-wheeler and tractor and work in the fields. There is the garden, where I will complain because of sunburn, and the yard where I will later build snowmen, sled, play with the dog, learn to drive lawnmower, and watch the sunset. When we reach the back door, I run inside and undress so that I can go eat dinner and then watch a movie with Gramma while Poppa falls asleep. Little did I know how many hours I will spend on the farm doing all of the things I know and love today. And how many nights I will get to go out to the barn to do the chores and experience this over and over again. How little did I know that night, that this farm will impact the rest of my childhood and life.

The author wrote this story for her middle school English class and gave it to her grandfather as a Christmas present. While she lives in town, her uncle and aunt have a 125-cow dairy herd near River Falls, Wis., and her grandpa raises calves on the original home farm. Johnson loves to spend time at the farm and has a growing interest in agriculture.