But along with all the blessings there are the heartaches and pain that sometimes drown out all the good things. As much as we are surrounded by growth and birth we see loss and death. Whether by Mother Nature’s cruel twists of fate or at the hands of illness, disease or accident these losses are never easy to bear. Yet farmers earn a hard shell that helps insulate them from the pain that the everyday hardships of agricultural life bring with it…you know, how they take “the tractor another round, An’ pull the plow across the ground…never complain…never ask “Why?””
We may seem gruff and at times unfeeling but we all have our soft side, whether it be a weak calf, a favourite cow, a spoiled barn kitten…there’s always something. And sometimes there is just too much sadness on a farm: a sick animal; a dying animal; a destroyed crop; prices that bottom out…and on top of it all there is Life Off The Farm. Life that goes on with seemingly no heed to the trials and hurdles that may be happening on farm. It can all be almost too much when all of this life stuff goes on at once, but it is usually bearable.
It’s when death makes itself a part of life that things get really bad.
We get so caught up in the daily battles to make a farm go and raise the next generation; so consumed with telling our story and inspiring confidence in our care of animals and stewardship of the land; so focused on making sure the stranger on the street knows how much we care and how hard we work; so committed to our rituals and routines that we forget just how fast life can stop.
In the past few weeks and months a neighbour has taken a helluva beating from a cow, a young farmer 3,000 miles away has had a heart attack, barns have burned, tires exploded, hail has wantonly ravaged fields and farmers have made the decision that they can no longer be farmers. And this is more than enough life to fit into the hours between milking…but, there is more to life than the farm. So much more…
In the span of less than 3 months-since 2nd and 3rd crop started and before corn chopping started (as that is how every date and occurrence is chronicled) life outside the farm has gone on at a ferocious and unforgivable pace and brought with it death. And not just death, but near death, unexpected death, and as if that were not enough each one a young, vibrant woman, a girl really, leaving behind so many questions and so much pain.
I used to hold the memory of telling my young daughter why her favourite calf had died and the horrible task of explaining why we had made the decision to end the suffering and pain of her cow, whom she called “My Friend”, as the apex of motherhood hardship. It was, I had always thought, part and parcel of being a farmer and I foolishly thought that these early exposures to mortality had prepared us all for the subject of death. I had never thought once that I would, before she was yet 16 and in the course of just a few months, have to explain to her that friends, acquaintances, teammates and peers would stop breathing; have to be pried from the twisted wreckage of steel; be rushed to hospital for emergency surgery; or feel so lost and lonely that they felt the only solution was to spread their wings and attempt to fly to what they thought was a better place. And so the life outside the farm stacked up like cordwood for the coming Winter-needing to be tended to, but so hard to deal with and think about with the pressing business of Summer and Fall.
What I would give to be worried only about a chopper breakdown, bad weather, a price forecast of tanking prices, and whether or not Starbucks should offer milk from family farms or whatever it is folks who “personally don’t drink much cow’s milk” want Starbucks to offer instead of pulmonary embolisms, appendicitis, car crashes, accidents and suicide affecting and attacking the young girls that are my daughter’s village. The farmer who doesn’t understand the dangers of everyday life on the farm is a fool. I fret every morning The Boy is out in the pre-dawn hours in the silo and feeding up and have worried about him since he was first operating machinery alone in a field, a couple counties away at the age of 8. These fears are expected and a part of our lives as are crazy cows, heart attacks, barn fires, exploding tires and bad weather. As are consumers with too much information and too few facts, self promoting bloggers and “activists” that find more traction with hashtags and emotionally charged words than with science and realities, and an increasingly removed consumer from their food source. But sending my children out the door in the morning to Life Off The Farm was supposed to be the easy part of being a farmer. Death is nothing new to us on farm and within the family… and yet, this string of tragedies and pain is so very unexpected and trying. All because you are never just a farmer. You are also a mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, son or daughter and The Farm and Life will always overlap. That is why we are indeed a rugged, ragged band of individuals, we farmers.
We take solace in the life and renewal that surrounds us in our barns and in our fields. We take comfort from, and are eternally grateful for the words of compassion of our fellow farmers when they tell us to be “happy and have a sense of peace and purpose; a life that they love too.” . We are amazed at the strength of parents who encourage us to “just smile” when we cannot even fathom doing so when faced with the loss of our own child. We make yellow ribbons to help our children stand in solidarity with others against loss and for awareness. And we do let our children out the door to Life Off The Farm and return to the daily passion and daily grind that is being a Farmer. Then we take a deep breath and decide that maybe it is okay to step back away from the first world problems plaguing coffee drinkers, or the false accusations propaganda from those who rely on blogs not science, or the people so willing to devalue your work and your way of life simply because their whole world revolves solely around themselves.
But because we are farmers we don’t step back long because it’s okay to get riled up. It’s more than okay to fight for what’s right. It is never wrong to protect your own, we just have to do it between milkings and after the crops are in… and we have to remember to #justsmile.