Certain life lessons are learned formally, through classes, books, and lectures, and others are acquired as we make our way through life. Life on a farm is an excellent way to gain information and skills by the latter method. I would argue that it’s really the only way to learn most of the skills needed to run a farm, given that farming and homesteading are such hands-on endeavors. Some of this information comes quickly, in such an obvious fashion that you realize (sometimes painfully!) what you are learning. At other times, the education is such a gradual process that you aren’t even aware you’ve gained important knowledge until one day you wake up and notice how much more you know than you did five years ago. As I’ve been taking stock of the past year and looking ahead to the new one, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most important lessons I’ve gleaned from the past 17 years of farming and homesteading.
Hard Work is Part of Life
Raising animals, growing crops, improving a piece of land … all of these require an incredible amount of hard work, every single day. For the farmer, there are no holidays when we can sleep in and ignore the animals that are waiting to be fed outside, the snow that needs to be shoveled, the barn that must be cleaned, the plants that are thirsty for water…I could go on and on. The point is that living on a farm entails work, so much so that it’s not even worth thinking about how much you would rather stay in bed on a sub-zero morning, or not do the night check on that pregnant mare because it’s pouring rain outside, or not weed the onions because it’s blazing hot. The work has to be done and the creatures and plants you have been blessed with are relying on you for their well-being every single day.
I believe that a childhood in the country is one of the greatest gifts I can give my daughter, not only because it’s a beautiful and peaceful place to live, but also because she is learning how to steward the resources she’s been given, and she’s developing a strong work ethic along the way. Does she look forward to going out to help me with chores every day? Alas, no. Some days she would definitely rather stay inside, snuggled on the couch with a fluffy dog and a good book. But understanding that our animals and crops need our care each and every day is important, and learning to get the work done even when we don’t feel like it is a lesson that will serve her well for the rest of her life. (Many of us adults could stand to develop a better work ethic as well!) And I always delight in the way that we find fun in our work, whether we’re clearing brush, shoveling manure, feeding chickens, or checking the hay fields. Children have a special way of lighting up the most mundane tasks with happiness and joy, and I really appreciate that – especially on the days that I am just trying to get through the chores so that I, too, can go in and relax.
There is Always a Solution
My husband and I both grew up in the city, knowing nothing about farming until our first experience with a garden and two horses at the age of 26. We are pretty much self-taught farmers, learning through books and conferences, talking to others who have much more experience than we do, and of course, making lots of mistakes. But some of our mistakes have been fodder for the funniest stories and best memories! Through our years of learning and improving how we do things, we have occasionally run into problems that seemed insurmountable at first. There were more of these in our early years, when we knew less and despaired more quickly. But if there is anything indispensable to being a successful farmer, it’s persistence. When you meet a seemingly impossible problem, resist the urge to throw your hands up, and instead think about how you can tackle the problem and solve it. Tap into your outside resources, including other farmers you know, and see if they’ve encoutered a similar issue. And don’t forget trial and error: sometimes that’s the only way to figure out what the most effective solution is to your particular problem.
Our Deep Connection to the Soil
All of us are intimately connected to the earth, whether we grow our own food or buy every bit of it from a store or restaurant. Without the ground our food grows in, we obviously wouldn’t exist. It is easier to observe our dependence on the soil, however, on a farm that integrates plants, crops, and animals in a meaningful way. Let’s start with the horses and chickens. They produce manure every day, multiple times a day in fact, which we scoop up and add to our ever-growing compost pile (see above, “Hard Work is Part of Life”). After months of heating up and decomposing in the pile, that manure and the leftover horse hay have been transformed into rich compost. We then load all of it up and spread it wherever we need to enrich the soil – on the garden, around the apple trees, in the horse paddocks, and on the hay fields. The garden and apple trees, in turn, provide us with food to eat and scraps to feed the chickens, and the paddocks and hay fields provide the horses with food. And then more manure is produced for us to scoop into the compost pile, and the cycle continues. I love the watching the efficiency of nature through the whole process.
Changing of the Seasons
There is nowhere better to observe the fleeting colors, smells, and temperatures of the seasons than in the country. This is one reason why country houses, rural vacations, and agritourism in general are so popular – people long to get away and enjoy the respite of fresh air, a quieter atmosphere, and a chance to relax. Even when we are busy with our daily farm work, it’s a blessing to look up and notice the birds singing in the woods, the changing leaves, or the quiet after a snowfall. Especially here in Ohio, the seasons seem to always be in flux. Just when we think we’re smack in the middle of fall, the air turns decidedly crisp and signals that snow will fall soon. And when we feel like we’re in the midst of a never-ending heat wave, a summer storm refreshes the fields and brings cooler air that lasts until the leaves start to fall. The seasons are one of God’s greatest artistic creations, filling the world with a breathtaking beauty that is constantly changing. Seneca was right when he said, “All art is an imitation of nature.”
“Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” (Kenny Rogers)
Simplify. This sounds like a cliche coming from a farmer, I know. The popular image of country life is one of simplicity, free from the harried pace and stress of the city. And yes, in ways our life is simpler I suppose, but in other ways it’s very busy. Take our work hours, for one. An office job affords the chance to work roughly an eight-hour day, with time off in the evening to pursue your own interests. On our farm, however, we are up at 6:00-6:30 to let the chickens out and feed the horses, dogs, and barn cats, and then we do chores from morning until lunchtime. After dinner we’re out to close up the chickens and do our last night check about 9:00. That’s in addition to any large projects, such as haying, planting the garden, harvesting, doctoring animals, clearing brush, processing meat or other foods, or any of the myriad other things we might be involved in during the daylight hours. We prioritize our work based on when it’s light and dark: barn work and work in the shop (repairing equipment, small building projects, etc.) can be done after dark, whereas anything outside we need to get done during the day. So our days can be quite long at times, while other days may be shorter. This is similar to the way people worked before the Industrial Revolution, when the rising and setting of the sun and the timing of the seasons dictated work schedules, before factories came into existence, and largely before bosses told their employees what needed to be done each day and when they needed to do it. We don’t have anyone telling us what to do; we just know with each season, month, and day what must be accomplished. If we don’t accomplish our goals, we get immediate feedback in the form of less produce, sick animals, broken equipment, a poor hay harvest resulting in less income, etc. So we work hard in order to avoid all of those things, of course, but also for the satisfaction that comes from seeing our garden producing, our hay fields at maximum growth, our chickens healthy and at a good weight, our equipment running well.
With all of this fulfillment can come the thinking that more would be better. If we’re raising chickens and cows well, why not add hogs? If we can maintain a 600-square-foot garden, why not expand it? Well, we have experience with that, and I can assure you that a person can only do so much before they burn out. This is true in every walk of life, of course. It’s difficult to know our limits until we run into them headfirst, sometimes injuring ourselves in the process.
For ten years, we raised Angus beef cattle. We loved working with the animals, watching the bulls go to good homes, and selling beef to satisfied customers. But raising cattle is very labor-intensive, and my husband has a full-time job off the farm. With our daughter still quite young and his job requiring frequent travel, it was difficult for me to manage the cattle alone. I still have nightmares about the morning that one of our cows calved but was not producing any milk. The calf was frantically trying to nurse but grew weaker by the minute, my husband was in China on business, and I was frantically calling both our vet and a friend who raises cows to figure out what to do. Our friend informed me which medication to give the cow and how much. So, with my 3-year-old daughter looking on, I ran the cow into our chute and gave her the injection. Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect of stimluating milk production in the cow, so I loaded my daughter into the truck and we raced to the feed store to buy some milk replacer. We had raised bottle calves years before, thankfully, so I already had the bottles and knew what the calf would need. I raced back home, mixed up the milk replacer, and began the rewarding but exhausting process of bottle-feeding a calf twice a day. That experience was the last in a series of issues that are par for the course in the cattle business, but very time-consuming and demanding nontheless. I was finally convinced that I could not continue to manage a cow herd in our current situation.
After a few months of discussion and contemplation, we finally decided to transition from cattle to hay production. I was suprised at how hard it was to watch our cattle go to the sale barn. I actually didn’t go with my husband to take the last few to the sale; it was just too difficult. Not only did I miss the cows, several of which had been the very first mother cows we bought to start our herd decades before, but it also seemed like the end of an era. Hay is actually more profitable than cattle because the inputs are lower, and you don’t have to feed hay every day or vaccinate it or doctor it, but it’s, well … grass. Not an animal with a personality. Hay doesn’t get into my soul the way animals do. Ah, well. It was a smart decision, and on the freezing mornings that I don’t have to slog through mud and muck to make sure the cows have hay and the calves are safe in the barn, I’m (somewhat) thankful. Farming does require those practical, hard decisions to be made from time to time. Even for part-time farmers like us who utilize our income from agriculture to help pay the mortgage but not to live on, farming has to be an economic enterprise. Otherwise it’s just a very expensive hobby.
I’m sure anyone who has farming, ranching, or homesteading experience has their own list of experiences and lessons they’ve learned. The process of managing a piece of land and the animals and plants it sustains is one that is ever-changing, and it is that constant change that requires us to be constantly learning and adapting. This is one of the greatest blessings of farm life, and why it draws so many people. In today’s world, many of us work in an office for a business that we do not own, and we may never see the actual results of the hours we put in because they aren’t palpable; bigger profits or improved customer service, while economically important, are not something we can put our hands on and experience. We get a paycheck, but we don’t have the privilege of holding the end product in our hands. A farm is different. When you pull a head of lettuce out of the ground, build a fence, pet a newborn calf, or feed the hay that grew in your fields to your horses, there is a deep, fundamental satisfaction that comes from seeing and experiencing what your hard work produced. And that, the tangible reward of a job well done, is the one of the best gifts life can give.