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The Milk House: The rhythm of farming

Ryan Dennis Published on 23 June 2011

I was 12 when I first started milking. I stood on the rusted steps and looked into the parlor. Yellow rubber hoses throbbed in unison and squirmed against the lip of the pit when milk flashed through them. Each inflation grabbed the teat it held and softened its grip only for a moment before squeezing it again.

A pipeline ran across both walls of the pit. Although I could not see it, I knew that in each pulsation the milk inside it travelled a great distance before it paused and then was driven again towards the vat below me.

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These unyieldingly steady sounds came from nowhere in particular and everywhere at once. Everything in the parlor shook in perfect time, as if I was at the source of its heartbeat.

With the exception of the months when the fieldwork was the most pressing, my father would sit at the kitchen table after the morning milking, drink a cup of coffee and read an agricultural magazine.

Steam from the cup twisted around his face while he slouched over the journal, a corner of a page pressed between his fingers. All of a sudden he would stand up, say to himself, “Well, I have to be moving,” and quickly shove his work shoes on.

He seldom left at the same time. When he was gone I looked into his coffee cup and usually found it half-full. I know he didn’t always finish the article, because sometimes it would be folded to the same page several days in a row.

We did the evening chores everyday at four o’clock. It signified the end of the usable part of the day, because then we milked cows and then went to bed.

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I went a thousand miles away for college and then received a Master’s degree at an overseas university. I met friends in pubs, chased local women and occasionally read books at night.

Sometimes, when the sun was starting to go down, I would feel a little bit of unreasonable disappointment. When I was conscious of it, I could recognize why; it was chore time and the day was nearly over.

How do farmers work so hard? I’ve heard them asked this by people who don’t farm. I don’t like the answers they give.

Farmers are not used to self-confession, and perhaps they are too humble. Maybe I am too insistent in demanding meaning from every act of farming.

Still, this is what I choose to believe: Farmers can work harder than most people not because it’s consistently required, but because they can’t not work hard.

Twelve was the age when I was quickly given more responsibilities. I drove the loading tractor down the road to feed the heifers. The hood reverberated with all the things I didn’t understand beneath it.

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It shook the seat under me in a relentless drumming that vibrated my body along with it and sometimes gave me gas. At times, the radio was outmatched and lost its own beats and melody.

When I reached the heifer lot, the fence sparked next to the gate. In a perfect, unyielding rhythm it sent bright flashes of electricity into the daylight, where they immediately dissolved to make room for the next one.

In the days since I was 12 I have seen the PTO shaft turn over on itself without the slightest hesitation, the wash cycle originate in the milk house twice a day and send chlorinated water through the milkers in continual throbs, TMR come out of the mixer wagon in measured bursts, the grain move up the auger in a predictable motion, and I have ploughed to one end of the field . . . just to turn around and plough to the next one.

I suspect the pulses on a farm infect those who encounter them. One description of time in agriculture is seasonal: the circular progression from planting to harvesting to planting. Perhaps this only tells part of the story.

It doesn’t respect how dynamic one day can be, or all that has to be done in that day. It doesn’t account for the need to get up and milk, so you can feed the cows, so you can chop silage – and how unbreakable and irreversible this pattern is.

Instead, maybe the rhythm of farming exists in the steady beats around the farmer that show neither hesitancy nor a desire to crescendo. Maybe it is in the pulsation that sounds continually until it is internalized by those who hear it, making them think they should be feeding the heifers even if they are miles away from a farm. PD

PHOTO: I suspect the pulses on a farm infect those who encounter them. One description of time in agriculture is seasonal: the circular progression from planting to harvesting to planting. Photo by Progressive staff

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