Farm Kids

by Laura Parker Roerdenheadshot

Growing up, I knew exactly one other dairy farmer in town who had a daughter my age. The other family I knew with a daughter a year younger had moved away to upstate New York before we were teens. Her father had been able to trade his 100 acre farm in Massachusetts for more than 300 acres there.  Thinking back, it was strange that the one remaining farmer’s daughter and I, who were classmates in high school, never compared notes about growing up on a dairy farm.

It would take another fifteen years for me to talk about my unusual childhood with anyone other than my siblings or close friends who had grown up playing on our farm. Ironically, that conversation took place on a drive back from New York City with my workmates from my job as a publications director at a nonprofit in Cambridge, MA. Unbelievably, among the five people in the car on that inter-city drive, three of us had grown up on farms. That we all ended up living and working in Boston was not entirely a mystery.

The two in the car who hadn’t grown up on farms were treated to quite the conversation. The rest of us spent the entire four hours trading stories about our childhoods. It had never occurred to me that the childhoods of farm kids—one growing up in NY, another in NH and the third in MA—would be virtually identical.

Throughout the drive we talked on and on about the elaborate forts we had built among the hay bales and our death defying leaps from the hay lofts into soft piles of loose hay. We had all similarly scaled the walls of our silos to dizzying heights, using the thin metals ties that held the boards in a circular shape as our only hand and foot holds. We all remembered being buried in piles of green grass or corn as choppers flung sileage into sileage boxes in which we were laying for simple sport.

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We clung to scoops as tractors rounded corners and bounced along fields. And watched countless animals being born, heroic feats of assistance such as chains on tractors being attached to emerging hooves by calloused hands to pull out dying calves from their mothers. These high drama moments from our childhood were coming not from fictional characters in Herriott novels, but from our farming parents.

We all had raised dozens of barn cats, whose seasonal litters took our steadfast attention, as we brought injured or dying kittens into our farmhouses for feeding condensed milk enriched with Karo syrup with eye droppers. We helped out during haying or planting, the sweat that mixed with the dirt or hay chaf bringing sweet relief when the odd breeze finally would blow.

We had commandeered calf barns, straining to hold oversized bottles of warm, sweet smelling milk replacer with two hands while 100 pound calves pulled on the nipples, nearly toppling us with their strength.

Caleb with Agape. Photo courtesy of Town Line Dairy in Upton.
Caleb with Agape at Town Line Dairy in Upton.

We played in pastures and picnicked on massive rocks and rode rough shod on wild, wild horses through the fields and woods. We followed meandering brooks until we were lost and then found our way back again, our sneakers thwukking with muck and water. We’d return with leaches that we’d casually remove and fling in the wind.

We’d graze as we’d go, eating wild blackberries or raspberries or a random cucumber or tomato from the garden. We played among the grease in toolsheds where farm equipment would go to be fixed or explored barns full of a centuries’ worth of old windows, clipped buttons, and saved National Geographic magazines.

We built forts and swings and made up plays singing to untuned pianos long forgotten in old outbuildings. We buried pets and found arrow heads and the stray old bottles in abandoned dumps and napped in meadows with bluettes and butterflies, after soaking our pants cuffs in sulfury muck that smelled of skunk cabbage.

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We helped by washing dishes in milkrooms or to clean udders and secure automatic milkers. We swung hammers when fences needed fixing. We collected, washed and candled eggs. We fed chickens and carried water or mucked stalls. We roamed through corn fields, the odd paper cut from the fibrous leaves drawing blood as we emerged hours later.

We watched our parents worry about losing our farms—our family’s way of life—as they fought recessions, energy shortages, rising taxes and plummeting prices for milk, and still somehow managed to make it work.

We knew that the childhood we were experiencing was different, but like all kids, we longed to fit in, realizing only later that our childhoods had been like rare diamonds that would pay dividends as we grew and aged.

Monique
Monique showing her Hereford with the Sutton 4-H.

In conversations since that car trip from New York City to Cambridge, I’ve noticed that many of the farm kids I know share similar scars and strengths, though it’s dangerous to generalize. Indulge me while I try to imagine what we have in common, if only for a second.

Research says that we have healthier immune systems than our counterparts. I’d guess that farm kids are generally a resilient and stubborn lot, with a healthy reluctance to give up on anything important enough to throw our attention to. We probably work harder than we should. And forget to ask for help. I know I am sentimental to a fault.

We might be considered reliable, resourceful, and smart and I’ve noticed many of us work in creative or community service-oriented fields. Many of us forget to take care of ourselves, so ingrained is our caretaking of others.

We’re deeply compassionate, having loved too many animals to list, and even an odd tree or brook and rock. But I believe we also are all too able to distance ourselves from the river of loss we have witnessed, as if constantly: still-born calves and favorite barn cats, pigs, and ducks, chickens, the farewell nuzzling of a horse.

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James Maranda with “Boss,” the Brahman Bull.

Many of us have a razor sharp ability to read the weather and refer to the cardinal directions like a sailor. We mark time by chores and think of food as a living relationship—a reciprocal sacrifice—where we take care of our food and then it takes care of us. We understand who we are, by largely understanding where we are.

We’re acclimated to smells, and have witnessed outrageously unsavory things up close. Perhaps that makes us stoic or simply able to withstand all manner of discomfort.

I would venture to guess that we are a diverse group, as well, with a wide range of political persuasions, professions and interests. Some of us have become city folks; others are still working on farms or in the country. Have I gotten any of this right, farm kids?

I recently have reached out to other “farm kids” by starting a Facebook group by the same name so that we can keep the conversation going and delve deeper. If you are a farm kid or know of others, please check out our group. We’d love to hear your stories of farm life and how it shaped who you are today.

What are your farm kid memories? What about your farm background most resonates with who you are today?

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Among Large Animals

For My Big Brother David

by Laura Parker Roerden

(May 9, 2014) This morning I got a call from our most patient of neighbors. It was a familiar refrain: “Your cows are out,” she simply said. Before I could get off the phone this particular neighbor’s husband was already half way up the street to gather some grain from our milk-room to coax the animal back onto our side of the fence: the side of the fence where the grass was decidedly not greener.

Minutes later, I was on my way to Feeds and Needs to get more hay to keep the cows satiated until my nephew returned from a weekend away and could fix the breach in the fence. The only thing greener than a neighbor’s lawn, it turns out is. . .hay.

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Life among big animals has its challenges. When I was a kid and the cows would get out, it would often take the entire neighborhood to get them in. Of course, we had more than a hundred head then. We’d all be out there in our pajamas with flashlights, following the trail of cow manure left on the paved road until we found them. My dad then would orchestrate us like we were trained special ops agents. One would be stationed at an opened gate to the pasture; two others at a positions both up and down the street. Others were enlisted to do a full-court press on the herd, while our very smart collie Puppy would round up any strays.  If you had good survival instincts, you’d grab the biggest stick you could find. But I had to learn that on my own. We were on a need-to-know basis.

My dad once stationed me below the opened gate to the pasture. The only instructions I received were: “Hold ’em back, Laura.” I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time until I saw all seventy or so cattle running down the street toward me, while I stood there in my nightgown. “Hold ’em back!” he yelled.

“Ha! Well. Okay!” I thought, even as I planned my escape. Of course, my father knew that they would break for the pasture opening instead of for me; but no one mentioned that to me at the time.

I remember I told that story at my first interview to teach high school in a rough-around-the-edges school outside of the city—a position for which they had received over three hundred applications. The interview team laughed too hard at this story as my answer to their question about why I felt qualified to teach adolescents. I got the job. But something about the stray tear running down the face of the tired looking administrator’s face as he laughed tipped me off that I probably didn’t want the job after all. It wasn’t the last time I would back down.

Many years ago, we had just moved back to the farm from the city and my brother Dave was called to Canada to help restore electricity during terrible ice storms. He was there for weeks fighting his own battles without adequate sleep or warmth. I was here helping by feeding the cows and the chickens. I thought I had the better deal.

The first couple weeks while Dave was in Canada were uneventful. We had a massive bull then, Hal, who I always strategically fed first, then would back away from keeping my eye on him while I fed the others. But the truth was, I was afraid of him and he knew it. I was losing ground with him each and every time I entered the barn. I was like a rope bearing a heavy weight against a post beginning to fray.

The free-stall barn where I fed the cows was separated from the dairy barn by a ramp and a gate. As my fear grew, it became my new habit to leave the cows grain bins by the gate, so that I could easily slip to the other side if Hal became agitated. This turned out to be a huge mistake. What it did was invite Hal to lean into the gate to get a better vantage from which to take the other animals’ feed.

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Then one morning I discovered Hal waiting for me, pressing against the gate as I came with a pail full of grain. I backed off, pouring the grain from the safe side of the gate, spilling it without much luck in reaching the bowls. Hal became furious and grunted and head butted in a way that I knew meant business. I dropped the pail and ran, closing the door behind me and trying to catch my breath.

I had no idea how I was going to ever get that pail back, but as a reflex, I called my brother’s cell phone. Dave had a previous time been away doing electrical restoration on another storm and over the phone had talked me through how to fix the electric fence while rain fell in sheets around me. Even though he was in Canada, I knew he could help me.

My brother’s phone went to voicemail. I hung up. Now he would know something was wrong, so I had to call him back–this time with the intent to leave a detailed voicemail. So I opened the barn door to peek at the situation as to describe it more accurately. Hal had broken the gate. Now only a flimsy door separated him from the source of his grain and me. I shut the door, pulled a few heavy items from the barn in front of the door like I’ve seen in countless horror flicks and bolted for the farmhouse.

Minutes later, my brother’s white truck pulled into the barnyard. He was back from over a month of being away. The timing was so uncanny, I started to cry with relief. But the full import of what had happened was beginning to sink in. I had not only not stood my ground, I had created an unsafe situation for my brother to now deal with. I was never asked again to feed the cows.

The next spring,  I would learn, however, what life without Dave would mean, when he died suddenly from a heart attack at 52.  His towering frame was no longer walking the farm; there would be no more riding in in his white truck to save me from an angry bull.

But loss has a way of teaching us about ourselves even as it rearranges every molecule of your heart like one of those etch-a-sketch tablets moves shards of metal around with a magnet. Those who knew Dave well often described him as a “bull” of a man, even as they also told of him tenderly carrying a bunch of balloons down their driveway on his way to a small child’s birthday.  He was a warrior who could mend fences and fix broken things. And so I came to rely on my big brother as true north in my life and lived in the utter assurance that he would never abandon me.

What I hadn’t realized until he died, however, was how Dave really had been teaching us all along how not to abandon ourselves either. This past week, at farm camp, seven kids ages 7-14 and I were working in the pasture pulling weeds. We turned the corner by a fence and in the process spooked the cows. The herd bolted—legs kicking, they were running at full speed towards us. I grabbed the closest stick on the ground and told the kids to go to the trees. The herd was now running at me.

What I hadn’t realized until he died, however, was how Dave really had been teaching us all along how not to abandon ourselves either.

My brother would not have backed down, I thought.  So I lifted the stick high and firmly said, “STOP.” And they did. The herd stopped their charge as if on a dime.

Today when I fed the cows, I confidently filled each bowl, being sure to not put myself between the animals and their food. And I sang to them while I dolled out the hay, one flake at a time.

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Carrying the Water

(April 14, 2014)

by Laura Parker Roerden
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I spent a fair amount of time in farmhouse kitchens growing up. My dad and uncle would often lend a hand to other farmers and they in turn would reciprocate here.

There were the trips to help out old Miss Green and her daughter Miss Green, farmers in Rhode Island. They had one of the prettiest dairy farms I have ever seen. Their salt shaker farmhouse was from the 1700s and had romantic antique roses planted everywhere. My mom would visit with old Miss Green in the kitchen, while I ate Concord grapes sitting under their arbor, spitting seeds and watching my dad help Miss Green pull a tractor out of the mud or fix a corn chopper.

Or we’d head up to the Bosma dairy farm on Williams Hill, where my dad and Dick Bosma would chat for hours about farm business or exchange a bull on a handshake to improve breeding stock. Mrs. Bosma would invite us inside to visit with her and her youngest children.

Someone would be pressed into playing the organ for us. And then we’d all leave to play on the grain bag and bailing twine swings and hammocks that all of us farm families had hanging from the rafters of our barns.

Goffkids

Looking back, there were the usual homemade cookies or brownies offered and a chance to just sit and talk. In some ways, other than church, that’s what our social life looked like while I was growing up—helping other farmers. This exchange was as natural as my grandmother’s lap work of darning socks or cross-stitching: easy, predictable, a gradual building up of resiliency in our community.

I must have forgotten this about farming, because when I first moved back to the farm, I was surprised by all the help that appeared when we needed it, as if on cue from some hidden stage manager.

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There was our neighbor and former farm hand Mike Wojnowski, who 35 years since he last worked here still comes on a text notice to feed the cows and chickens when we’re away or to plow us out when the snow is mounded around the barns in the winter.

There was our other neighbor Marty Goff, who came and spent a day of his vacation visiting family here in Massachusetts, sweating in the sun and helping to replace the corner of the barn, using hand-hewn techniques true to the 18th century provenance of the building.

There was my nephew Ed’s friends showing up with chain saws when trees exploded around us in storms both real and imagined the summer my brother Dave died.

ed'sfriends

And there has been the parade of amazing young people led by 15-year old Evan Maietta, helping to clean up and restore pastures, feed animals, clean pens, put down bedding, and any number of sundry tasks, which has morphed into a weekly work event we simply call “farm camp.”

Farm campers helping out at Jo-Erl Farm.

Of course, my nephew Ed Parker must be mentioned, who has been the heart  and soul of the farm since he was five, when he’d call my father and tell him it was time to fix fences, and my dad and he would go off and swing hammers. And then there’s all the friends of Ed’s and his brother Todd, who have come to help with haying—a subset of the Uxbridge High football team—bringing both brawn and heart. And farm intern Anja Semanco, who gave up part of her summer to this and had to go home to Pennsylvania when she contracted Lyme disease. And Jane Clarke and family, including her brother Ted, who have helped clean out the barn and plant gardens annually. There was Erin Hawkes and her father Peter, local dairy farmers who have shown up with hay and medicine when we needed more than just advice. And there have been more.

anjahaying

Farms belong to not just a farmer, but to communities and we feed not ourselves, but one another.

My grandmother, father, uncles, aunts, and great grandfather gathered at the farm.
My grandmother, father, uncles, aunts, and great grandfather gathered at the farm.

It’s a humbling experience to watch people take up a bucket in the brigade and pass it along in service to this idea that farms belong to not just a farmer, but to communities and that we feed not ourselves, but one another.

Perhaps it’s an idea that applies to so many of our challenges today. Our oceans are dying; island nations will be inundated because of global warming; children are starving in Appalachia; the bees are dying; polar bears are losing ground; cancer must be stopped; unwanted pets bound for the gas chamber must be adopted; and still there is more. The list is endless. Devastating stories and problems are stacked up like corpses. There’s no wonder we hide in our houses. It’s easy to feel not quite up to the task.

I do not know how to solve those problems. But I feel certain that what I learned in the farmhouse kitchens so long ago applies. Problems will always be like fires on the horizon threatening our homes. We simply need to be willing to show up together and pass the bucket along.

So for everyone who has shown up for us over these years: thank you. It’s been an honor to stand next to you in the line. And you should know: you’ve carried the water beautifully.

 

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