Friday, June 29, 2012

A Day on a Real Farm

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field." - Dwight Eisenhower     

     I may not be a thousand miles from a corn field, but for today, my plow is the pencil.     
     Farming has been in my extended family for several generations. Though the most recent generations might best be called "recreational farmers," we still have family whose roots in the industry are dug deep in the fertile ground of heredity. I was able to visit my great uncle's 84 cow dairy farm with my grandfather for a few days this week. There's an element of 6 AM - 8 PM manual labor under a beating sun that is very satisfying. I enjoyed my time there immensely.

     The alarm goes off at five thirty and I've rolled out of the scratchy sheets and off the air-mattress onto the floor. The sun is just working its way through the lacy curtains of the house as we slide on the rubber boots, and slide them off again to dump out all that straw. It's cold outside but certainly not for long. Driving the mile to the farm, the sun continues to make it's way up and over the silos in the distance, flooding the fields with a light that makes the dew on the corn shimmer ever so slightly when it catches the sun. 
     Four silos surround the white barn. Two of them are old, built with concrete block and cable. The other two are deep blue "Harvestores," one of which climbs seventy feet above the ruminating cows in the dirt paddock below. These cows will acknowledge your presence with a swing of the head, accompanied by a fling of some saliva that they forgot about as they were chewing their cud or their hay silage. A farm hand whistles, getting behind the herd and into the sunlit dust, smacking the stragglers with a PVC pipe or a hat as the Holsteins slowly filter their way into the barn like so much black and white molasses. The cows pick a stall and trip their way across the manure gutters. I chain them in and stand back to let the professionals do the milking. "You don't see it done this way too often anymore," says my uncle as he hooks the handheld machine to the pipes running overhead. "Nowadays they have the cows go to the milk machine instead of the milk machine going to the cows." 
     In an hour, it's done. The tank is full and ready for the evening's milking. The milk man with his tanker truck will come after breakfast and we're warned that he's quite the talker. Filling plastic bottles with warm milk, the young calves are fed in the most rambunctious and milk-splattering way conceivably possible. No sooner is this task finished than another wet newborn is carried in from the field and laid out on the sun-baked concrete floor of the barn where it promptly discovers that it has legs. They're quite the wobbly things yet, and a few collapses convinces the new little heifer to take it easy. Content to explore the world with her eyes, she is left to her own devices in a pile of straw.
     And then there's breakfast. The farmhouse is old. My grandfather remembers his room and explains how he could climb out his window, on to the roof, and down to the ground. There's a noticeable tilt to all the tabletops and furniture, and the kitchen is hung with signs like "Martha Stewart doesn't live here," "The only self cleaning thing in this house is the cat,"  and "So it's not home sweet home. Get over it." I pull a fiddleback chair to the kitchen table over the peeling linoleum that was white in 1933. There's dishes of oatmeal and strawberries and potatoes. Conversation across the round, veneer table revolves around the most interesting subject of running over baby deer with combines. Do pass the ketchup, please.
     The dishes are dumped in the sink to be attended to later. After the milk truck comes and goes, it's off to the fields where we'll be baling a few acres of hay. I try my hand at both the tractor and rake, and the Haybine before deciding to "stick to my day job." I certainly can't drive straighter than a flagpole on the New Holland machine, and arguably no straighter than a flagpole that's been through a hurricane. The hay is planted in the low spots of a wheat field where it works against erosion and turns the rather useless ground into a cash crop. The wind over the tops of the wheat on either side of the hay makes the crop swell and surge like a golden ocean. We brave the heat and the waves, churning through the troughs and crests, leaving the bales floating in our wake. 
     Once the bales are collected and stacked, we make our way to the farmhouse where leftovers are heated up for lunch. Conversation at the round table resumes about slaughtering chickens. The record for one day is well over a hundred.
     The day is now at its hottest, and my uncle works in the shop on fixing a metal round bale feeder. I join the farm hands tossing straw and green hay down from the hay loft; the temperature in which must be a good ten degrees warmer than outside. When the dust kicks up, sunlight will stream through the small glass windows casting three dimensional beams of light onto the dry hay below. A great opportunity for some photographs.
     With the hay down, a hand is sent off to 7/11 to bring back some Slushies while we cool off in the shade of the barn. Before long, the cows are back in their stalls and milking begins again. By the time dinner rolls around, the farmers have put in fourteen hours of work and they're ready for a shower and some hay to hit instead of pitch. As the sun dips behind the western corn fields, bathing them in an orange glow, I toss the rubber boots by the door where they'll meet me bright and early again in the morning. The work on a farm waits for no man.

Some black and white shots from this week:

Curious Georgia.

A bit of self-portraiture.

A farm hand pets an hour-old calf.

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