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On Being “A Farmer’s Wife”

I once gave a friend a few quotes for a parenting article she was doing for a women’s magazine. Because the magazine discouraged its writers from interviewing other writers as its “real parents,” she described me as “a farmer’s wife.” That felt a bit strange to someone who has always taken pride in having her own identity. But hey, it was the truth, so I gladly made this tiny concession for the sake of my friend.

Weeks later, I got a phone call from someone in the magazine’s fact-checking department in New York. She verified the spelling of my name and the ages of my children and confirmed my quotes. Then she hesitated. “Um, the article says you’re a farmer’s wife?”

 “That’s correct.”

“Well,” she hemmed and hawed, “is there something else we can call you? ‘Farmer’s wife’ just sounds so – so old-fashioned. Every time I read the story, I stumble over this part. It’s distracting to the reader.”

I was slightly offended. Certainly nobody was more aware than I that farmers’ wives are few and far between in the 21st century. But to find out I belong to a demographic so far removed from normal, everyday American life that it’s too weird to even mention was shocking. In the end, I reluctantly consented to being labeled “a farmer” (although I fail to grasp how a female farmer is any less distracting a concept than “farmer’s wife”).

It was just one of those occasions when life makes me stop, ponder the big questions and realize what a freak I really am.

Even here, in what was for many years a farming community, the list of actual farm wives I know is short. Since the dairy industry tanked, not many farmers or farmers’ wives remain, and most of those are considerably older than I am. My husband, a dairy farmer who transitioned into hay-farming, is one of the few still at it.

I don’t find much sisterhood on the Internet, either. Googling “farm woman” mainly produces the Web sites of small-time organic gardeners who call themselves farmers or grandly dub their pea-size acreage “Such and Such Farms” – plural. One blogger who sticks in my mind is a young New England woman who raises sheep and spins their wool into yarn. She really had me going until the day she took her spinning wheel to the pasture to create her artistry amongst the beasts. The real farm women I know do not spin. And they certainly do not spin in the presence of livestock.

At the other end of the spectrum is Pioneer Woman, the most successful farm wife in cyberspace or maybe the history of the world. She writes with wit. She cooks with flair. She skillfully photographs her hunky husband and their adorable home-schooled children while they work cattle on their spectacular ranch. In her spare time, she sells oodles of books and makes TV appearances. If the wee precious farm bloggers amuse me, Pioneer Woman makes me feel like a total loser.

Fortunately, I do not walk alone. I still know a few farm wives whose daily lives, like mine, fall somewhere between composting and The View. One of those is Karen Willoughby, a relative of a relative. She and her husband, Barton, farm a couple thousand acres in South Alabama. As charter members of the Farm Wives Club, Karen and I have bonded over the mutual craziness of our lives. She has also devised a checklist to help other women figure out if they are eligible for membership.

According to Karen, for example, you might be a farmer’s wife if:

• “You’ve ever been grateful for nail polish because it hides the dirt under your fingernails.”

The fact is, farm wives are faced with personal grooming challenges other women simply cannot fathom. One illustration that springs to mind is the time I got bright-red lithium grease, a thick tractor lubricant, in my hair.

Ordinary shampoo wouldn’t budge it. Only after several scrubbings with Dawn dish detergent did I cease to
look like an original cast member of Grease.

• “Grass stains are the least of your laundry problems.”

 Oh, how I scoff at those commercials bragging about how well a detergent removes girly stuff like red wine and chocolate. What I need is a laundry detergent that breaks down burnt motor oil and eliminates pesky cow urine odors. And it’s nothing to see hay floating in my washing machine. One time, Harvey built a barbecue smoker by cutting an old propane tank in half with a cutting torch. After multiple attempts at getting rid of the overwhelming stench of propane that permeated his clothes and the clothes of anyone who ventured within 75 feet,
I finally found something that worked: the trash can.

• “All the parts counter men in a three-state area recognize your voice.”

Farmers’ wives spend half their lives fetching parts and supplies. The only thing I might add is, “You know you are a farmer’s wife if you can identify which parts place or feed store you are in by the smell alone.” Also, if you’ve trained yourself not to faint when the salesperson hands you a bill for $25 for one lousy tractor bolt.

• “If you plan your life around harvest seasons. This includes weddings, vacations and may include the birth of babies.”

Only another farmer’s wife can appreciate how difficult it is to leave town or commit to any obligation that may conflict with the farm’s operation. I know a local farmer who went on exactly one family trip the entire time he was growing up on his parents’ dairy farm. And I’ll never forget the time we had to drive five hours from Birmingham, Ala., on Thanksgiving Day – the day after we arrived there – because of a problem back at the farm. Fortunately, there’s a lot less that can go wrong on a hay farm than a dairy farm. Still, even now, if we so much as spend the day shopping out of town, I start looking for the billowing smoke as soon as we’re within a mile of home.

• “If you have your own personal roll of duct tape and know how to use it.”

I not only have my own duct tape but also my own electrical tape, my own toolbox, my own cordless drill,  my own pressure washer,  my own can of WD-40, my own camo-green coveralls and my own black rubber boots. Come to think of it, maybe I am a farmer, after all.

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