When dairy farmers are away, they typically leave the farm in the hands of current employees or they call on neighbors or family to cover the workload. It is a whole new level when the farm is left in our children’s hands. The lessons learned, the responsibilities built, and the feeling of accomplishment, confidence, mental ownership, and life lessons that can’t be taught anywhere else.

Marilyn Hershey

I distinctly remember the feeling of trust when my parents left the responsibility to me. My parents did not go away too often, so these opportunities did not happen frequently, but it came to my mind the other month when I was talking to some friends who left the farm in their children’s hands for the first time. There was some obvious nervousness on their part.

That was soon put to rest when a neighbor stopped by just to make sure they were making out okay without their parents. That’s a great neighbor to have and it added a strong level of assurance.

When I was a teenager, I remember the time that Dad went hunting for a few days and I was the person in charge of the weekend work. I was so excited to take on this challenging task. The responsibility was huge, but it was a good feeling to know that I was trusted to get the work done. I had a few people on call to help me, but ultimately, I was the person who was responsible to double and triple check that the milk tank was turned on and cooling the milk. I was the person who made sure the heifers were fed morning and evening. And I was the one to turn the lights out at night after tucking the cows in one more time.

Unlike today’s communication ease, I had lists of instructions, notes, and important phone numbers to guide me through the work. It would have been handy to text him my questions if that had been an option then, but we got through the weekend without the extra contact.

I never remember anything too wild happening. The two pieces of finicky equipment were the silage unloader and the barn cleaner. If those two pieces of equipment ran properly, it was a good day. Cleaning the barn, feeding the cows, and milking were the biggest tasks.

My uncle also entrusted me to do his milking during a weekend when I was just out of college. That was another level of accountability, but I was thrilled for the opportunity. Even more thrilling was the fact that a good-looking farm boy was also designated to be there and he was called in for a few cows that would not cooperate. I really do not remember if the cows were that ornery or if I just wanted to see Duane, but either way, we got through the weekend with flying colors.

Duane has some good stories from what happened when his parents left he and his brother in charge of the cows. There may have been a few extra laps around the block in the farm truck before he was legally allowed on the road. And there may have been a neighbor’s fence that was taken out as a result of slippery, snow-covered roads. The good news is that the fence was repaired, and damages paid for before his parents got home. I am sure there were additional lessons learned on that excursion.

After Duane and I had our own farm, I understood the depth of risk when we leave the cows in someone else’s hands. Early on we covered our time away with friends, neighbors, or part-time employees. At that point, our children could help, but they were not quite old enough to do everything themselves. But that doesn’t mean they were off the hook. They had their share of chores to accomplish and build character while we were away.

Our position is very different now. Our children are not around to do their share, and we rely totally on employees to cover for us.

It is still a slew of work when we are both gone from the farm, especially when Duane steps away. When he’s gone, he leaves an abundance of lists, and everyone divides up his chores so his schedule is covered. It sure is easier with cellphones. It only takes a quick call to make sure that their questions are answered.

I found out that it really does not matter if we are leaving the farm to our children or our employees. Spending time away from the farm requires a stack of preparation and a pile of trust that everything will go as planned. There is a livelihood at stake when we leave the cows in someone else’s hands.

I did not fully realize the depth of my responsibility when I helped my dad with the work so he could have some time away from the cows. I do know that my emotions were high during those days. I had feelings of courage, pride, and purpose from the work that was done. I had feelings of apprehension, obligation, and dependability to make sure that everything was in the proper place before calling it a day. And I had a deep feeling of joy, relief, and elation when Dad pulled in the driveway.