I had thought nothing of it when our conversation grew louder to compensate for the sound of my dad’s lawnmower starting. Occasionally Dad, when he wants to do something, will randomly get up and mow the area in which the activity is to take place. A few weeks ago, he had done the very same when he wanted to play bag toss (I refuse to call it corn hole), even though the area was not necessarily in need of mowing.
The sound of the mower grew closer and soon dad, sitting on his mower, came into view, I could tell the mower blades were not turning as no grass was being thrown from chute. Perplexed, I watched him slowly putt across my line of sight. As the rest of the mower came into view, a smile I could not control grew across my face.
Secured behind the lawnmower was a Radio Flyer Wagon, and in it sat my two boys. Dad was pulling them behind the lawnmower in the very same way he had done for me and my siblings all those years ago, when we, too, could fit more than one in a wagon. Though the lawnmower was much newer, and dad a little older, the scene couldn’t have been more reminiscent of my youth.
As I grinned from ear to ear, filled with a combination of pride, contentment and nostalgia, I began to wonder how many other “first on the farm,” experiences my boys would have, and when they would happen. Experiences like their first bucket calf, the first time they’ll feed/ water the chickens, their first lesson on driving the tractor, the first time they put those tractor driving lessons to use.
Those experiences would likely shape the person each of my children would become, much as they did for me.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to me that made me question the decisions my wife and I made about where we call home. You see, we live in town. Mom and Dad no longer own livestock. As a result, many of the experiences I remember so fondly will likely be a foreign concept to my sons.
Then I thought of all the lessons learned from those experiences. Will those be foreign to my children as well?
How do I teach my kids to be responsible and dependable without asking them to be responsible for feeding and watering livestock? How do I teach them to care for others above themselves without having to unthaw frozen waterers in the dead of winter, even though your feet are just as frozen? How do I teach them to do a job right the first time, without letting them experience the consequences of building a fence wrong?
As I began strategizing solutions to the above questions, I realized how much I had taken my experiences growing up on that acreage for granted. I recognized that for generations, the questions I was having to ask myself were the foreign concept that today, I worry the experience of growing up on the farm is becoming.
For generations, family farms dotted the nation; 4-H clubs, FFA chapters, and small town and rural schools teemed with America’s future. Those children grew up to be U.S. presidents, members of Congress, judges, doctors, farmers and above all else, mentors, mothers and fathers.
As I contemplate my own children’s futures, I can’t help but wonder, with the continued consolidation and corporatization of the ag industry, the lack of land access for young farmers and ranchers, and the price tags associated with getting started, how many future generations do we have left that will be populated by people who grew up learning the lessons taught on a farm?
Those that have grown up on the farm are already a minority, one that gets smaller every day.
Is it impossible to teach life’s lessons without access to a farm? Of course not. I’ll find a way to pass those lessons onto my boys. As their father, I have to. It’s my responsibility - a lesson I learned a lot about growing up on the farm. Maybe you did, too.
A Day on the Farm
I quickly realized the enormity of the task at hand: to capture a typical day on the family farm through photo-journalism. How could I possibly do that when I had just spent months learning about the incredible diversity within farming? I knew that there was no such thing as a "typical day." Things vary so greatly according to the type of farm, the season, the size, the day of the week, and countless other things. Knowing that even if I studied one hundred farms, I still would not be able to graph a "typical day," I resolved my dilemma by visiting one farm on one day. I hoped that this would serve as a mere example of what a day on a farm might entail.
I chose to visit Dennis and Becky Shinaberry's sheep and cattle farm in Fredericktown. Becky and I spoke and decided that a Saturday would be the best day. My day on the farm actually began the night before, as I knew that I would have great difficulty rising early enough to make it to the Shinaberrys in time to start their day with them. Late Friday night, I packed some "get dirty" clothes and awaited Becky's arrival. She whisked me off into the soft country hills where her family farm lies. We arrived home to find all but Dennis asleep-- I soon followed the majority, drifting off with thoughts of what my experience might be like the next day.
Becky roused me at 7:15 am. I eventually stumbled downstairs to the kitchen and found Becky trimming Dennis' hair. In the living room next door I found the t.v. on with Joshua and Jeremy, two of three sons, intently watching Saturday morning cartoons. Jim, the youngest, was the last to come down. After some hefty persuasion, Becky and Dennis were able to convince the boys to tear themselves away from the t.v. to meet me and eat some breakfast. This seemed to be the typical family scene on a Saturday morning. The boys appeared excited and confused upon learning that I would be taking photos of them doing daily tasks on the farm. My presence, however, was not enough to lure them away from the t.v. when breakfast was over and to come along with Dennis and me on our first chore of the day.
Dennis and I headed out to the shed that houses about half of the Shinaberry's sheep-- the mothers and their newly born lambs. Dennis filled their water basin. He pulled down bales of hay from the storage above for the grown sheep. He also fed them a ground meal substance consisting of mostly corn and other nutrients they need, as they were still nursing the young lambs. The lambs received their own specialized food placed in an isolated pen.
Once the sheep were happily munching, we hopped into Dennis' pick-up truck and traveled about a quarter of a mile down the road to get a tractor from the cattle farm of his father and mother, Doc and June. On the way over, I learned that Dennis spends a good deal of his time working his parents' farm as well as his own. The two farms seem to be almost inseparable. In return, Doc and June help out at Dennis and Becky's farm whenever they can.
I quickly checked out Doc and June's cattle and then climbed on the tractor for the slow, but exhilarating ride back to the Shinaberry farm. As we drove back I could see that Becky had gotten the boys out of the house for I could see them staging an ambush for Dennis and me in the ditch by the side of the road. They were now ready to help out with the chores for the day. The next task involved filling up a large wagon with straw bales to be used as bedding for the sheep and lambs.
Dennis backed the tractor up to the back storage end of the sheep and lamb shed where the wagon rested almost empty. After some struggle he, Josh and Michael (Josh's friend visiting for the day) managed to get the tractor hitched to the wagon. Dennis parked across the yard, just below the second floor window of the barn. Becky, Josh, Jeremy, Jim, Michael and I clambered up the ladders to the second story of the bale-filled barn. We spent a great deal of time tossing bales of straw out the window as Dennis stood in the wagon below and stacked them up. I quickly learned how exhausting this work is, for the bales most definitely did not tip the light end of the scale. The hard effort did have its rewards, for when we finished, the boys took turns swinging from a rope dangling from the rafters.
When Becky and I got out of the barn, we found Dennis repairing a wood panel on the second story barn window. He and Becky then proceeded to fix a flat tire on the wagon- Jim watching enthusiastically. The wagon was then replaced in the shed. Dennis drove the tractor back to his parents' house with Josh, Michael and Jeremy. While there, they cleaned out the clogged drainage tile of the crick that runs through his parents' property.
Becky, Jim and I returned to the house. Becky and I talked while she prepared lunch. I had questions about the ways in which her sons deal with the animals they raise-- knowing that they are raised for slaughter. Becky responded saying that that was a lot of what growing up on a farm was all about-- learning that what they do is their occupation: "I guess they've understood from day one, this is what Dennis does for a living. . . . We do it because we want to be able to put food on the table, and we want to be able to buy toys for the kids, and go places and do things. . . . The kids understand that they're [the sheep] there to play with, but in order for us to live, this is Daddy's business. So as far as the kids go, . . . it's the same way with us-- we were raised that way." -Becky Shinaberry
Dennis, Josh, Michael and Jeremy soon returned and we all sat down to lunch. Just as we were finishing, the Shinaberry's neighbor, Art Noble, arrived. Dennis informed me that he had come to help out with de-tailing and castrating of the lambs. Doc, too, was expected to assist with the main task of the day. Before his arrival, however, conversation concerning land and zoning laws ensued. Because much of our class discussions revolved around issues of farm land sold to developers, I wanted to know what farmers themselves think about it. While they certainly seemed to lament that much of farm land is now turned into subdivisions and strip malls, they could, at the same time, understand why a farmer might be forced to sell to developers for a good price. In fact, that is exactly what Mr. Noble had to do. He said that it was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make. "Back in the sixties and seventies, farmland was being bought by farmers. . . . Now, there is no farms being bought by farmers. . . . Why would he [a farmer] want to sell it [the farmland] to another farmer for a 1,000 dollars an acre when a developer is going to give him three?" -Dennis Shinaberry
One of the most detrimental consequences of these sprouting subdivisions seems to be the lack of communication between farmers and their new neighbors. Often times, the newcomers do not fully understand the runnings of a farm. It might be frustrating to have to slow down behind the tractors on the road or to have to deal with the foreign and sometimes unpleasant smells that a farm will inevitably produce. Farmers, too, have their grievances, such as finding curious people trespassing on their land in search of arrowheads, and having to clean up excessive litter. There is a definite cry for mutual understanding here.
Conversation had to come to a close and we headed out to the lamb shed. As if reading my mind, Dennis began to explain the processes of and reasons for de-tailing and castrating. I learned that lambs are de-tailed for health reasons. If lambs retain their tails, fecal matter has the tendency to build up on the wool around the rear end. This is highly conducive to infection as flies are tempted to lay their eggs there. The castration is necessary for selective breeding. Farmers generally choose the best of their animals for breeding. Besides, it would be a bit of a mad house if they did not castrate some of the flock.
The most difficult part of the process was first getting the lambs isolated from their mothers. Dennis, Mr. Noble and the boys constructed a pen from the loose fence pieces and eventually weeded out all of the sheep. The lambs and the sheep were not happy with the separation and continued to call out to each other the entire time.
|The whole process was quick and neat. Mr. Noble stood on one side of the fence in the lamb pen, and Dennis stood on the other. The boys were in charge of catching the lambs and handing them to Mr. Noble. Although between catching lambs the boys tended to get bored and sneak outside the shed to play. Doc and Becky guarded the fence against brave sheep seeking to rescue their lambs.|
|Every lamb underwent the following procedure. As Mr. Noble held a lamb, upright, with its rump on the fence, Dennis gave it a tetanus and penicillin injection. The tetanus is a required health caution and the penicillin ensures that there will be no infection.|
|If the lamb was male, Dennis then castrated it using a large set of clamps. This pinches the tubes just above the testes, preventing any seed to pass. Dennis told me that he finds this the easiest and most sanitary way to castrate the males.|
Next Dennis clamped the tail high up near the lamb's rear. With a swift movement, he cut the tail. I asked Dennis if this hurt the lambs. He said that because the tail is only cartilage, the pain is comparable to getting ones' ears pierced. The younger the lambs are, the less pain they will experience. All the lambs de-tailed that day were anywhere between three weeks and three months old.
The next step was spraying the fresh wound. Dennis told me that the spray quickened the clotting of the blood and also kept the area infection-free. Mr. Noble then set the lamb down on the opposite side of the fence, allowing it to seek out its mother.
Michael's father, a hog farmer, joined in for a while to help out and experience something new. He held the lambs on the fence, giving Mr. Noble a break. It was interesting to witness this comraderie and cooperation among farmers. For me, it solidified the idea of farmers working together, always willing to help one another out.
This process took up the majority of the afternoon, as there were nearly fifty lambs. Mr. Noble would know the exact number, for he counted the tails when we were done! (I made him lose count when he realized that I was photographing him and had to start over.)
Becky, the boys and I walked back to the house. After the work was done, Doc and Mr. Noble went on their respective ways; Doc on his tractor, of course. Dennis and Michael's father stayed out a while, chatting.
I relaxed with the boys and watched about half of The Mighty Ducks until Dennis came in and told me that there was one more chore to do. Although none of the boys wanted to go along, I faithfully grabbed my camera and headed outside with him. We went back into the shed to give the sheep and lambs one more meal. We then proceeded to the big barn to feed the second half of the Shinaberry's sheep. Because these sheep were grown, and those that were female were not pregnant, they received a simple meal of just hay. They, too, have a water basin that Dennis filled. One finicky sheep, who rarely drinks from the basin, took her drink from the water spout.
Next on the agenda was feeding the cattle, which are housed in the rear section of the barn. Dennis and I climbed up into the silo adjoining the barn that houses the cows' food: silage, which is ground corn, stalk and all. Standing in the silo with a floor of silage one story high was a strange experience. I felt rather claustrophobic as a wall of circular cement surrounded me and the silage smelled fermented and strangely sweet. However, when I looked up and saw the sky I felt calmed.
Dennis began hurling loads of silage with a pitchfork down to a trough below. The trough had a silage auger that cut up the silage a bit more and also moves it down along the length of the trough so that all the cows have access to the food.
Once enough silage was thrown down, Dennis and I ascended the ladder. I watched the cows watching me for a while- they seemed suspicious of my presence.
We were finally done! It was about six o'clock and I was incredibly tired. I could not imagine what other seasons on the farm were like since Dennis told me that our day was somewhat short as the winter is a bit slow for them. We retreated to the house and I told Becky that I thought I had finally completed my day on the farm. I gave many thanks to the family for their help, explanations, patience and photographs. I promised lots of pictures once I had developed the film. I gathered my belongings and went out to the car with Becky and Josh, whom Becky asked to come along for the ride.
On the way home, I reflected upon my day. I had witnessed some pretty spectacular things. The Shinaberry family truly operated together as a family. The individual roles were dynamic and that seemed to allow things to flow so smoothly. I was impressed with all the talents and knowledge necessary to operate a farm. I had seen Dennis be a father, farmer, veteranarian, carpenter and mechanic. I had seen Becky be a mother, farmer, cook and mechanic. Most importantly, I had seen the Shinaberrys be a family that worked with dedication and cooperation. That seemed to be the key.
I had learned so much that day. I felt that I could better appreciate what living on a farm is like. I now have a more acurate idea of how full a day on the farm is. The crucial part, however, is that I can share my knowledge.
To see more photographs of my day on the farm click here.
photo credits: Mitra Fabian