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1809 PD: It’s in your blood: The language of dairy farming

Ryan Dennis Published on 09 December 2009

I milked with my father every morning in the dark. We herded cows into the parlor eight at a time and dipped their teats. When we were at the end of the row we turned around, wiped it off, and started putting milkers on. We smelt like iodine and manure, and while we waited for the cows to milk out we passed the time talking.

He told me what fields he wanted me to plow that day and how to plow them. Because I couldn’t interpret his directions, he would take a brown paper towel out of his back pocket and draw the shape of the field. His fingers ran up and down the paper in the direction I should drag the plows, lengthwise first, and then perpendicular for the headlands. He always remembered where the dead furrow was left last year.

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When I was 12, he told me about the dairy industry. His description of the federal pricing system fit in between the airy pulsation of the milkers around us. He explained how the retailers and manufacturers make money and why the farmers don’t. He talked about the way it used to be.

He taught me what to give a cow with ketosis. We analyzed the starting rotation of the Chicago Cubs. He’d tell me about a good movie he watched and then, unable to help himself, explain the entire plot.

There would be times we were repeating conversations we already had and we both knew it, but we said it all again anyway. The cows were seldom surprised by the things they heard.

There were things we didn’t talk about. We didn’t talk about bills, fears and the future of the farm. We didn’t talk about the meaning of things. He never mentioned feelings. I never heard a farmer linger on anything abstract. We talked about my dreams and ambitions, but never his.

My father never told me why we farmed. It must have been implied, because I never asked. I must have already known, because it seems strange to get up at five o’clock everyday and work until night and not know why. It’s one of the reasons I suspect the language of farming is as much about its absences as the things farmers say.

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Last time I was in the parlor the high-pressure hose dripped. You could hear it if you listened carefully because it didn’t fit into the other rhythms of milking. The top of the hose was discolored where water ran over it continually. If left, it would weather away the concrete beneath it and leave a blemish that would be difficult to fix.

“Once it’s in your blood, you can’t get it out.” My uncle said that. He’s a hauler and once a farmer. He leaned heavily on his cane while my father unlatched the back gate to his truck and carried a bull calf to the front. My uncle is in his 70s, overweight, and limps. He still works because he has to, and because he doesn’t know not to.

The things said by haulers, milkmen, and seed vendors always seemed wise. Delivered in frankness, they rang through the barn like a beatitude. Because a farmer would see so few people in the course of the week, a quiet probing underlied the roundabout banter and common jokes.

In a decade where an impulsive thought can be sent to the farthest place in a second, news on a farm still arrives by haulers, milkmen and seed vendors. It is the only reliable report of who bought a new tractor, who had their corn in, and who was selling out. Sometimes they interpreted the weather or the milk price, or told how the beef prices were at the market. Yet, at any given moment, they would make a statement that only they could make and only the people they were talking to could understand.

My uncle knows well the vestigial rhythm in his body, the one left over from farming that he still obeys when he gets up at five in the morning without a reason. Perhaps because the exchanges were short and matter-of-fact while loading a cull cow or setting up the tank wash, anything given resonated longer into the day. It could have been the battered tank washer itself that validated it. It could have been that since we would see so few people in the course of a week that we placed more meaning in the brief conversations.

But that’s not what I choose to believe. I would rather say that because they went farm to farm every day certain universal truths become more evident to them than the rest of us. In their daily occupation they earned a clarity for the things my father and I were too close to and too familiar with to recognize.

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It must have also been a person like that who told me there are two types of people: those who can walk away from the farm and those who cannot. Those who can walk away should not just walk but run, as fast as they can, into a much easier lifestyle. It would be said in jest, but like all humor in agriculture there is intention not far beneath the smile and a truth passed silently among farmers.

I was the first type of person. My blood was lousy with the “it” that all farmers’ sons know about. Although I never called upon terms such as “fourth-generation farmer” and “century farm,” they were all part of things I belonged to. I was well aware of the figure of the son who left, applying his work ethic and new freedom on other occupations to become successful.

There was a core of farm kids I grew up with, showing cattle at the county fair and selling cheese for the 4-H club. Many of them became teachers and bankers, or started their own businesses. Some got PhDs, headed organizations, or reached some other level of achievement. It was a cliché I wanted no part of.

My uncle is not an unusual ex-farmer. Many, after the last cow disappears down the hill in a creaking trailer, immediately start talking about putting a small herd together – something to do on the side, they’ll tell you. They’ll become carpenters, bus drivers, and factory managers. Some still need to feel close to the industry and become haulers or milkmen, artificial inseminators, or sell supplies out of the back of their truck. They’ll have free time and disposable income, but they’ll never learn to sit down.

“We put a few beefers out back, for the sheer hell of it,” a friend said, six months after selling out. I can imagine what the hell of it was. My uncle is old now and has been a hauler for many years. He’s reached a maturity where he doesn’t talk about these things anymore. He loads up our bull calves and tells us what price to expect for them.

When I was little I watched my father very carefully towards the end of the morning milking. I was waiting for him to say we were eating breakfast at Grandma’s. We sat the same way every time. My grandparents at opposite ends, the length of the table cloth between them, and my parents facing each other. Those were the only four chairs. I sat on a stool next to Grandma, higher than the rest. It was a novelty as a child, but through the years I had to lean further towards the plate and slouch awkwardly when I was done.

Soon after sitting down someone would make an observation.

“If it doesn’t stop raining we’ll never get the corn in,” or “Fuel jumped again, damn it never stops.” The remarks changed little year to year. When the men started saying these things my mother kept her hands in her lap and cleared her throat often. She waited for them to stop talking about business and was ready to lunge in with strong opinions on other subjects. Grandma held a stern face with one elbow on the table and occasionally opened a palm to roll off a lament to what the men were saying and sometimes to what Mom said, if it was particularly grievous.

“How can they expect anyone to survive?” “The farmer is always going to take it down the throat.” “The price of feed is unbelievable.”

Sometimes, if nearing the end of a topic or if Grandma’s lament felt like a cadence, Grandpa would push both hands in front of him and conclude, “It’s all just a game,” or, “We can never win.”

To this my father nodded, at least three times, and if needed maybe four times, and then say something that may concede the last point or open a new one. That is, unless, during the time he nodded someone said something else, which he would have to consider and nod his head again.

When Mom did give her opinion it was with thrust, gravity, and hand movements. “It’ll be years before sexed semen takes off. No one can afford it.” Grandpa might step in with “Well, you see…” or “You know what it really is…” Dad might add something too, but it would never contradict Mom.

Grandma would watch everyone’s faces and move her spoon on the table and if she had an opinion on the matter gave it with urgency, or if appropriate, open her palm and roll out a lament. If that felt conclusive or final, Grandpa might add, “It’s just a game” and then lean back in his chair.

Then there would be silence, except for the chewing of sausage. Only now, on paper, does it seem like whining.

At the table it was something different: it was talking, and because all talking was informed by farming, it was talking about farming. My generation was given a pitchfork and shoved towards the calf hutches when it had already gone bad. The song of woe had its chorus and refrains before we came on the scene, and it is hard for me to picture it differently. I surmise that it was different, once, only by sorting through the details of the stories my father and grandfather tell.

There are two things I look for: how many cows they milked and how much fun they seemed to have. They go hand in hand. When my grandfather was young he milked 30 cows, went camping with other farmers, painted the town every weekend and did rowdy dances to Hank Williams.

My parents first ran a herd of 70 cows and won production awards occasionally. They liked going out with other couples, and sometimes they brought home a fish fry on a Friday night. Now we have 200 cows. It seems to be the minimum for survival, even if the definition is elusive.

When I was 12 we went to Disney World. It is our only family vacation.

I hope that things change. I hope one day a man can make it on 30 cows again. I hope that he can have friends and go places. That someday the milk price would trump the feed bill once and for all and the farmer could build a deck, put on a suit, and toast the world going by. I don’t think it will happen. And if it did you’d never know from talking to me. I would still sound resigned and defeated. I would sigh a lot. I would make jokes about all the hard work and all the money we weren’t making, even if it was plenty, because that’s the only way I know to talk about farming.

My stories are going to be different anyway. I’ve already spent years away from the farm. I’m going to tell about the old drunk I used to hang out with in Iowa City and how he’d ride his bicycle through bars. I’ll have accounts of playing drinking games with people I just met in Galway, Ireland long after the sun came up again. I’ll tell about being abducted by punks in Belfast and taken to a gathering. I’ll probably stretch a few things and add a few details. I’ll entertain.

But when it comes to farming it will be different. I’ll have little choice. I’ll clear my throat, open my palm, and say, “Let me tell you how it was…”

My father brushed by me while he changed pipes and closed valves to shut down the parlor for the morning. Over his shoulder he said that the high-pressure hose was leaking, which was his way of asking me to fix it. A spring water tumbled from the interface of the hose and the pump and fell to the concrete quietly. It happened often enough and I watched my father handle it with ease each time.

I loosened the failed clamp. I yanked the hose off and released a rush of sulphury water over me before I thought to close the flow valve. I took a thin wrench and fiddled with the old clamp that didn’t want to give up its station and dickered with the new one, who didn’t want to slip over the hose. They are only $0.39 at the hardware store but they made my knuckles bleed and got me to swear. Worse, they took too much time.

My father returned. He took the clamps from my hand, fitted the new piece, and silently walked away. It would have been better if my father shook his head. I would have preferred that he called me daft or stupid. If he would have made a joke then I wouldn’t have felt as guilty. He walked away without doing any of these, and it felt like an acceptance.

That morning was no way a turning point. There was no epiphany and I wasn’t changed. It was another example of a pragmatism that is supposed to be there in every farmer’s son. It’s the one thing needed to make a farm survive and let a person survive on a farm, and I didn’t have it.

One day I’m going back. I couldn’t tighten a hose clamp but I equally can’t consider that farming is not how I’m going to finish my life.

I’m not whining. Because farmers don’t whine. And I’m not claiming existential angst, because we don’t believe in it.

It’s the language that won’t let me go. It has marked me as belonging to someplace specific and made me unable to forget that. The city streets do not need my condemnation, but that’s how I will satiate myself in the meantime.

I’ll find someone in a bar and go on ad nauseam about barn cats. I’ll tell him about my dog. I’ll tell him where he can stick his notions about flannel. I’ll tell him he has no idea. I’ll tell him I can outwork him. Maybe we’ll fight. Then I’ll go back to my house. I’ll settle in a chair, switch on the radio, and turn the Progressive Dairyman another page. PD

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