My family has always had animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils, fish, mice, I even had a ferret and a Burmese python. And farming has always been in the family. My mom and dad both grew up on farms.
When I was a kid my dad worked in a lumber plant, but he had beef cows that he took care of after work. When I was an adolescent Dad got laid off from his job and he decided to give dairy farming a try. We had all the equipment from when my grandfather had a dairy farm.
We were by no means a state of the art operation. We used my grandfather’s old Surge bucket milking machines. They hung under the cow from a leather strap that went over the cows backs. We then had to carry the bucket milkers to a rolling dump station that pumped the milk to the bulk tank in the milk house. So we were basically on step above hand milking. No pipelines, no milking parlors.
But I loved it! We milked about 30 cows. And they all had names. Mostly they were Holsteins, 4 Jerseys, 1 Guernsey, and, believe it or not, we milked 1 Red Hereford. None of them were registered or anything, mostly animals my dad could afford from the auctions. Over the years we also ended up with a few Black Jerseys because dad would always have the heifers bred to Jerseys so their first birth would be to a smaller calf.
Over the years we had a horse, a pony, chickens, barn cats, barn dogs. I always loved the animals. That was the best part of it for me. I was always much more interested in caring for the animals than in any other aspect of farm work.
When I was in my late teens the co-op we belonged to went bankrupt. We didn’t get our milk checks and we were in trouble. Dad sat us down for a family meeting. What were we going to do? We could try to get a bank loan so we could expand and look for another buyer for our milk. We could sell the animals and hope things came out even and dad could get a job with the town. A lot of it came down to me. I did afternoon chores with dad after school. My brother (3 years younger than me) liked to help with field work, but was not interested in the milking, feeding, and cleaning up after the animals. My sister (9 years younger) was too young at that time to help. I was a junior in high school. Did I want to tie myself to the farm or did I want to go to college?
I was very disheartened and disgusted with NedCo’s failure. I was also frightened by it. How could a farmer ever hope to survive, being dependent on powers beyond his/her control? Even when the co-op was fine it was always a struggle to make ends meet. If we expanded we would make more money (theoretically) but it would also cost more money to care for more animals. How big would we have to get? Beyond the point where we knew each animal personally? Would we have to become a “factory farm”? I did not want that life. I wanted to go to college. So, we sold the animals and dad went to work on the town road crew. It broke my heart the day the cows went. I could not deal with watching them go. Could not help to load them on the truck.
So, I went to a liberal arts college for 4 years, graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Philosophy. Within a year of graduating I got a job … milking cows. Then another milking job. Found out I do not enjoy working for other farmers. With dad I learned to do things a certain way. The right way. The farmers I worked for did not do things the way I felt was right. Of course, they were much bigger operations, but still…
Then I got a job in retail and 20 years later I’m still here.
While I was in college my sister spent a lot of time at the neighbor’s farm. She fell in love with their sheep. And she acquired a sheep. Then another sheep. Then more and more. I didn’t like sheep. I liked cows. I felt that sheep were stupid and they all looked alike to me. I didn’t want anything to do with them.
Six years ago my sister had a baby, my nephew Levi. Levi’s father made tracks. He pays his court ordered child support and that is it. He lives in another state. So there was my sister, a single mom, working full time, taking care of a baby, and taking care of her flock of sheep. I started helping out with the sheep, just so she could have more time with the baby.
That’s how it started out. Now I do chores every day. I know every sheep by name. I’ve taken care of them when they were sick or hurt, helped them deliver their lambs, named the lambs, watched them grow up and have lambs of their own. They are still, technically her sheep, but they are my babies. I have also recently acquired 6 hens. Plus we have cats in the house and in the barn.
Every day with the animals is an adventure. They can be a real pain in my ass. They can be sweet and loving. They can be hilarious. Sometimes all three at once. I love them. I still work retail. I still say sheep are stupid. But I would be very upset if something happened to them. THIS is where my heart is. Regardless of where my paycheck comes from!