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The Milk House: Voices to be heard

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 20 July 2022

I spent most of my life talking to farmers. If it wasn’t my parents, then it was our neighbors or other families we ran into at shows, auctions or feed stores.

These people folded their arms and asked how the cows were milking and made the same jokes about all the money none of us were making. It was an old communion, and one we all took up.

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As I got older, I started writing about farmers. It took me traveling to different countries to see different farms. Most visits started with a tour of the owner’s operation and the farm’s history: what changes were made, when that happened and how they farmed now. It was a narrative that was probably rehearsed – if not out loud to other visitors, then in the farmers’ heads as they went about their work.

Sometimes I stayed at a farm for three or four days. It allowed me to get to know the farmers better. Often, they opened up more about who they thought they were and how they saw themselves in the larger world. It was in these moments I learned a truth likely to be universal: Everyone has a story to tell that matters to them.

These past few months, I was given a rare opportunity. As part of a nine-month writer-in-residency at Maynooth University in Ireland, I was handed a small budget to carry out a community engagement project. In my interview for the residency, I told the selection committee I wanted to allow farmers to have the chance to speak for themselves and share their experiences. To do that, I would create a booklet of stories, essays and poems from those connected to Irish agriculture, calling it Voices from the Land. It was the type of proposal that sounded good in an interview, but I secretly doubted it would ever work.

I put a call out for submissions, but all the big news outlets in Ireland ignored my emails. The major agricultural magazine, the Irish Farmers Journal, had recently published my columns. They too, however, wouldn’t get back to me. An agricultural radio program I was on before was interested in mentioning the booklet, but ultimately found themselves too busy. In the end, the call was only published on one free online farming news site that always looked for content, and Twitter. Having to rely on Twitter to reach farmers didn’t make me feel good about my chances.

However, something surprising happened. After a few months, the submissions started rolling in.

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Despite not getting much press, word about Voices from the Land spread around the island. Those who saw it on Twitter told farmers they knew about it, or authors who came from farms. The information got to writing groups, secondary schools and probably the occasional mass. Farmers called me up or sent emails, saying they heard something from their neighbor and what was this Voices from the Land about anyway?

Thirty-seven farmers submitted creative writing. A few of them had writing experience or dabbled here and there, but many were putting pen to paper for the first time. Some of it was rosy and celebrated Irish farming, but some writing also challenged the industry and pointed to its problems. One individual wrote about being emotionally abused by his older brother and father his entire adolescence and early teens because they wanted to chase him away so he wouldn’t challenge his brother’s claim to inheriting the farm. That person said that he thought he could never share his story, and yet he was doing it for the first time. Altogether, because of the honesty and moxie of those who contributed to the 62-page collection, the work in Voices from the Land put forth a complex, reflective and thorough consideration of what it means to be an Irish farmer.

It is important for farmers to get to see their lived experiences reflected back to them in the things they read or watch – because if they can’t, it makes a solitary and sometimes misunderstood lifestyle feel even lonelier. It’s a sentiment I often bring up at readings or put on grant applications, partly because it’s a crowd-friendly thing to say. However, the launch night of Voices from the Land suggested there’s also some truth in it. Most of the contributors attended the evening event, which for many of them required driving two to three hours from another part of the country and then making the same trip back that night. In total, there were 70 to 80 people in attendance, which is about three times more than a book of a well-known author would get. The environment was – for a lack of better term – electric, and I think few people have seen so many farmers smiling at once.

The response to the booklet emphasized how important it is for farmers to get an opportunity to get to share what they’re going through and what farming means to them. Not only does it help bridge the divide between farming and non-farming populations and help the latter understand where their food comes from, but it benefits the farmers themselves. There’s something in the act of telling one’s story that allows one to feel more integrated into the world around them. It matters to feel heard. It means something to know that someone is listening.

There’s plenty of attention on the changing nature of agriculture, but perhaps not enough on those who must deal with the consequences. We don’t always get to see the people behind the industry – and if that doesn’t happen, we’ll never get a complete picture of it. I’m happy to report Voices from the Land is still serving its purpose. The county arts council that co-sponsored my residency attended the launch and was shocked by the turnout. They have agreed to fund another, larger print run. The booklet will be showcased at the Ploughing Championships, the major Irish farm show. There, it will reach more farmers who will hopefully be able to recognize themselves in it. Hopefully it will make them, too, smile. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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