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The Milk House: Finding the story

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 22 February 2019

Recently, I went back home and walked through the barn. The freestalls have held beef cattle in them since my parents quit dairy farming several years ago.

Other areas, however, like the feed room, the silo and the stanchion barn, haven’t been used since my parents doubled their herd in 1994 and opted for the freestalls instead of the stanchion. Some of the loose parts of the farm are gathered in 5-gallon buckets in corners of the building – spare nuts and bolts, old plow parts, couplings and joints that no one would remember what they went to.

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Dust collects on them, and cobwebs stretch over the walls. Most of it remains in shadow during the day. These parts of the barn are quiet except for an old goat that roams free in the building. She is left over from one of my sister’s 4-H projects long ago. No one knows how old she is. Every time I go home, and she steps through the doorway of the feed room, I am surprised she is still alive.

Also among the old wall fans and PTO shafts in the barn were the notebooks I kept through my teens and 20s. There were nearly 30 of them, filled with writing notes, memories, ideas and thoughts about what it means to be a farmer. While trying to find a publisher for a novel based on Irish agriculture I have just completed, it has felt like the right time to start thinking about a nonfiction book exploring American farming.

Going through those notebooks was like listening in on a conversation, although the person I was eavesdropping on was myself. Going back again, I had forgotten how many of those notebooks are filled with notes about American agricultural policy.

The clumsy passion of youth can be noble, if not awkward, and it is indeed all the more uncomfortable when it is your own naiveté you’re perusing. Inside those pages was a college-aged student who wanted to know the reason why dairy farming was not very profitable and why a group of people who worked hard still had to struggle. It was only in finding those notebooks did I remember again the countless calls to politicians, professors and economists. There weren’t many people whose phone number I could find on the internet I didn’t bother.

A good storyteller can tell a big narrative through small details. Going back, I remembered again finding cracked corn at the bottom of the coffee I drank in the parlor and what that meant, of spending summer days in a dusty tractor cab and playing euchre on our show chests with other 4-H kids at the country fair. The pulsation of the milkers in the morning and the evening put a certain rhythm to the day in between. I remember believing one’s hands hold a certain memory in them, whether it’s the feel of a dog or how to turn a wrench, and that was important to defining who that person was.

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The reasons why the American dairy industry has failed to support its family farms is a part of many of our individual stories, as well as that of our nation. This generation of abandoned barns and displaced farmers’ sons and daughters continues to grow. Trying to write about family farming has become a personal eulogy project, and following an interest in agricultural policy has been an exercise in trying to find out why it happened.

It is hard to resist stating now what I think I have found: Lessons to be learned from other agricultural nations have not been learned. That much of American agricultural policy does not originate from the nature of farming itself but rather the political ideology of those who have never farmed. That the gawky awkward 20-year-old was right from the beginning in thinking the loss of the American family farm was not something inevitable, as the result of modernity or improved technology or changing times, but the consequences of choices made in government that did not put the farmer and rural communities first.

Around the barn, there are a few decaying round bales that were never fed. One has bones on it, one animal having dragged another animal on top of it and eaten it. Net wrap half sticks out of the ground by the door where it has been forgotten. Dried goldenrod stalks lean around the base of the silo.

These details feel like they belong to the last chapters. I now know it is fitting those notebooks were kept in the old stanchion barn because that is where one has to go back to in order to find the story of the American farm. Remembering, in itself, is an act of resistance to what brought us here, even if it is the only one left to us. At least that’s what I tell the goat that walks the barn with me.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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