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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?