The Next Generation
What happens when farm kids grow up?
illustration by jane sanders
Last fall, we experienced a farm family milestone: Our younger son learned to drive a tractor and started helping his Daddy and older brother in the hay field.
I commemorated this watershed event in the not-so-age-old way: bragging on Facebook by posting a picture or two (dozen). Forgive me, but there is not a mama on the face of this earth who could resist getting downright snap-happy over a blond-headed, freckle-faced, 11-year-old boy on a green tractor pulling a bright yellow hay rake under a blue fall sky.
In my favorite shot, our little man is seated on the tractor, and his father and big brother are standing beside it. The meaning of the photo is unmistakable: a proud farmer posing with the next generation. It is a portrait that cries out to be framed, and yet deep down I suspect it is only that: a pretty picture.
The sad truth is, I really can’t envision our boys following in their father’s footsteps. Farming, or at least family farming, just has too many strikes against it for me to wish it on our sons.
At the risk of being a whiner, farming is too hard, too stressful and too risky for the return on investment. There are much easier ways to make a modest living.
I don’t see much future in it, either. Just 20 years ago, our parish was one of the top milk-producing counties in the southeastern United States. Goodbye to all of that. Thanks to a collapse in milk prices brought on by dairy industry politics, a changing world market and other forces, dairy farming has all but disappeared from this part of Louisiana. In a parish that once depended on dairy farms to drive its local economy, I personally know fewer than five families who still milk cows. The local cheese plant and farmer’s cooperative shut down years ago. The two tractor dealerships survive by selling lawn tractors and ATVs to weekenders and others trying to keep up small acreage. It’s far more unusual to see a working dairy farm than one grown up in weeds. Earlier this year, LSU announced it was closing the local dairy research station which has been here for decades. That really felt like the nail in the coffin.
My husband is one of the few former dairymen who continues to farm in any form or fashion. Harvey built on his lifelong experience growing hay for cows and figured out how to grow something similar yet different: high-quality horse hay. We are only in business today because a) the man has no quit in him, b) we are one of the few places around producing square bales of high-quality Bermuda horse hay because most of the others quickly figured out how difficult it is, and c) we’ve had some unrelated windfalls along the way.
And then there are the other costs of a life in agriculture. Any way you look at it, farming is a tough go, right down to the physical price it exacts. Nobody knows this better than my 56-year-old husband. While in some ways he is far more active and fit than many desk-sitters his age, a lifetime spent working hard outdoors is starting to take its toll. His back has bothered him off and on ever since he injured it lifting a 100-pound motor in his 20s. The tennis elbows that give him fits would more accurately be called “heavy equipment mechanic’s elbows.” The joint of his big toe still hurts 40 years after he jumped on a nail sticking straight up out of an overturned board in a barn. As a fair-skinned, blond-haired farmer who still suffers consequences from being badly burned as a teenager, he is a dermatologist’s best friend. Because he has had two skin cancers (and a grandfather who died of melanoma), he goes for a checkup every three months. And most of all, he is a fairly recent prostate cancer survivor – and farming is considered a risk factor for that disease.
I haven’t even mentioned the ongoing headaches of finding good farm help, unpredictable weather, tenacious weeds, diabolical grass-eating insects, rogue crop diseases, constant equipment repair, skyrocketing fertilizer prices and, from time to time, that one pain-in-the-neck hay customer. (Fortunately, the majority of our customers are a joy.) Farming is also. We may make our own hours and do as we please at certain times of the year, but at others we are completely powerless over our own schedule. Hay must be harvested when the conditions and weather are just right, and Mother Nature could care less how long you had been planning that vacation. Between our kids’ school and the farm, there is almost no good time when we can leave town for more than a few days. Between early May and late October – when our kids are out of school – we bale hay so frequently that it’s almost impossible to plan a vacation more than a few days in advance.
These are issues that give me pause when I entertain the idea of our sons becoming farmers. I want what all parents want for their kids: security, success, ease, freedom to travel and experience the world. Farming guarantees none of those ideals. If anything, it puts them farther out of reach.
But then there other days in the life of a farmer: beautiful days when your 11-year-old’s golden hair glistens under the October sun as he proudly helps his dad harvest hay for the first time. Days when your teenager works long summer days not only learning to operate the baler, but how to fix it when it breaks down. Days when they’re building skills, knowledge and confidence they can’t get elsewhere. Days when life is an embarrassment of riches and boys are becoming men right before your eyes. On those days, I don’t worry about what the future holds. I just breathe in the here and now and take lots of pictures.