The sound of the leaves in the trees is by far my favourite sound of summer. It reminds me of home and the quiet, somewhat isolating summer days on the farm where I grew up. There’s just something about listening to all the chatter going on amongst the leaves that mesmerizes me. And even now, no matter where I am, if I close my eyes when I hear that sound, it takes me back there.
Idyllic might be the word you’d choose to describe life on a farm. But there were definitely times that “boring” came through the most, especially in my teenage years. They say what you grow up with is what you think is normal but I’m realizing more now as I get older that it was truly a rare experience to have grown up the way I did. It was a small family farm but it depended on each of the five of us, my parents and two sisters (sometimes at different times) to make it all work. We all contributed, even as kids, and shouldered some of the responsibilities to keep things going. Growing up in a rural area, of course I wasn’t the only kid who shared the experience of growing up on a farm, but it seems like in today’s world, those types of experiences are few and far between.
When you’re a farmer and you settle down and start a family, having three daughters and no sons probably sounds like the worst luck you could have … to some people. Not sure if my dad ever cursed the gods for not providing him with any sons but it’s highly unlikely. (I think) I can say this with confidence because my sisters and I were raised with the thinking that girls can do anything boys can do, better. He was a little bit of a feminist without even knowing it. There were no gender roles on our farm. Each of us helped him with pretty much everything and yet he steered us towards what interested us most or what he felt we were better at.
My older sister found out young that she had asthma and so, because most of the farm work involved dust that made it very difficult for her to breathe, she shouldered a lot of the “inside” work like cooking, cleaning, baking or laundry. That’s not to say she never got behind the wheel of a tractor because she certainly did and, as I recall, harrowing was part of her repertoire. And sometimes when the cows got out and we had to chase them back into the pasture before the school bus showed up, we all had to pitch in, asthma or not.
My younger sister was, and is, the true farmer of the three of us. Not the grain part of farming so much as the cattle part of farming. For as far back as I can remember, she loved nothing more, and I mean nothing more, than being outside with the animals “doing chores” with our dad. She got very involved with raising cattle at a young age, learned the ins and outs from our dad and has never looked back. She also fell in love with horses from an early age and was the “cowgirl” of the family.
The cattle of course provided a source of food for us and, when we were small, milk from our milk cow Beth-Ann. But mostly, the other animals that inhabited our farm over the years were for pure entertainment. We had a Shetland pony named Dixie whom we would ride bareback and with no bridle, as very young girls around and around the yard in a well worn circular path. We also had a large buckskin mare named Beaver who was a gentle giant of a horse and would give sleigh rides on an old stone boat with my dad at the reins. If you’ve ever wanted an old-fashioned, relaxing yet exhilarating experience outdoors, nothing beats gliding over the snow on a sleigh that’s being powered by a horse. So much fun!
On a couple of occasions my younger sister and I raised “dollar calves” which were (I think), orphaned calves that had no mother to raise them. So they relied on us to mix their powdered milk called “big mama” with water and pail feed them twice a day. Unlike my younger sister, I was not built for 7 a.m. feedings on those cold dark mornings and she had to drag me out of bed most days. After school we would go out and feed them once again and that would continue until they were old enough to be weaned off the milk and could eat hay and drink water. At some point, once they were grown, they were sold, but I don’t recall that part.
One year my sister Gena had a dollar calf named Fudge, a sweet little tan-coloured Jersey calf that was very spoiled and as tame as the family dog. In fact, I’m pretty sure Fudge thought he was a dog. In any case he was the family pet that summer. He grazed the grass on the lawn all afternoon, not requiring to be fenced in or even tied up, he never tried to run away. On a couple of occasions when our parents weren’t home, Gena and I brought Fudge right into the house. He was tame just like a dog so why not? We thought it was the funniest thing in the world to have a cow inside the living room and, lucky for us, no cow patties hit the floor while he was inside with us. Mom and Dad didn’t find out until years later.
Probably my favourite chores were the ones that involved driving. Didn’t matter what it was as long as I could get in it or on it and drive. I drove the tractor and grain tank to haul grain before graduating up to the grain truck. I drove the very old one-ton grain truck (that backfired every time I shut it off) to pick up fertilizer. I drove the half-ton to deliver supper in the field. And I drove the tractor and trailer loaded with round bales. I loved driving that John Deere tractor. On all but one occasions. This one time when it needed repairs done on it, it needed to be driven to the mechanic’s place, about an hour’s drive away. I was nominated to drive it there but there was just one problem: it was wintertime and the tractor had no cab. My dad’s solution was to replace having no windshield by wearing a snowmobile helmet and skidoo suit. To say I was embarrassed driving that John Deere tractor down the highway as a teenager wearing a helmet would be an understatement. My only saving grace was knowing that the helmet I was so humiliated to wear also protected my identity so really it could have been any of Garry’s daughters on the tractor.
If my dad was the head coach of the family then my mom was the head cheerleader. She had a busy enough schedule of her own, working 12-hour shifts as a nurse and keeping track of everything that needed to be done around the house. She made sure things at home and for school ran smoothly and that everyone was fed. And while some moms might have put a stop to some of the unladylike and even slightly dangerous chores that Dad put us up to, Mom never so much as batted an eye about it. At least not in front of us. And when you have both parents showing confidence in you like that, it makes you feel like you’re capable of pretty much anything.
Worst chore growing up? By far, hands down, that was shovelling grain. For those of you that don’t know what that means it can be described like this: you are in a stifling hot and very dusty grain bin (filled with grain). There’s an auger in the grain and it spins very quickly to carry the grain up and out into the waiting truck. Once the pile of grain gets small you need to shovel the grain towards the auger. It’s back-breaking work and you don’t stop until the truck is full. Worst job ever.
Weirdest chore growing up? That’s definitely the live version of the arcade game “Whack-a-Mole.” Except not moles, rats. It didn’t happen often, just twice that I remember. Old mouldy straw needed to be burnt and rats lived in the straw. You don’t want rats on a farm, they are bad. So when the rats started to feel the heat from the straw burning, they would make a run for it. My sisters, my dad and I would surround the burning pile of straw, each armed with a large shovel (my sisters and I standing on five gallon pails) and as the rats made a run for it, we would “whack” as many as we could. To us at the time it didn’t seem that weird but to other people today it probably sounds very strange.
Most memorable moment on the farm? Falling off the roof of a grain bin when I was about 14. Climbing ladders to the tops of things when you live on a farm is nothing new. It’s no biggie. There’s ladders on the sides of trucks and combines, ladders up to get into big tractors, ladders when you need to get on a roof and remove snow off of a shed. There’s just ladders everywhere. Being not at all afraid of heights, ladders didn’t bother me. So on that evening when my dad asked me to climb up a metal ladder to get on the roof of a granary to close the lid at the top, it was nothing I hadn’t done before. Once I had completed the task of closing the lid at the top, I then had to make my way down the sloped roof and climb onto the ladder to climb down to the ground. Dad said the best way was to come down backwards and hang on as best I could to the two-inch piece of wood strapping that ran the vertical length of the roof. The painted wood made the roof very slippery and my shoes had no grip. I could feel myself slipping and didn’t have the grip strength to slow myself down as I was slipping. I called out to Dad and told him I was slipping down and couldn’t stop. He said that’s OK, just slide towards where the ladder was leaned up against the bin and he would get to it and hold it tight so that when my feet hit it, it would stop me there. He didn’t get there on time, I slid down the roof right to the edge and when my feet hit the ladder I kicked it over. Next thing I knew I was falling and then landed right on top of the ladder. I was unharmed and, thanks to my young body, just got up like nothing happened. And we still laugh about it today.
The list of chores we did growing up goes on and on. There was always something to be done. From picking stones in the field to helping vaccinate cattle. We had to open gates, close gates, watch the gate while feeding the cattle. There were oodles of grass to be mowed, there were late night walks out to the barnyard to check for new baby calves, grain bins to be swept out (with a broom, by hand). We helped sort the cattle, load and haul the cattle. And of course my parents made sure there was always lots of fun to balance things out.
As a kid I was not forced to, but actually enjoyed, plucking/gutting chickens with my grandparents and aunt and uncle. Unfortunately I made the mistake of sharing this on a Monday morning in class while discussing how our weekends were. I was given the nickname “chicken plucker” for a while, thank goodness the name didn’t stick forever. But I look back now and am not surprised I had no boyfriends ever.
Growing up on a farm didn’t seem interesting at the time. In fact, I was envious of my town friends who didn’t spend their evenings and weekends and summer holidays doing all these crazy chores. But now, having lived the second half of my life in an urban setting, where you can throw a banana and hit the neighbour’s house, and more than three cars drive past your house in a 24-hour period … I see how unique the experience was. My kids love no vacation more than a weekend back to “the farm” where they can enjoy a taste of farm life. It was hard work sometimes, oftentimes I found it too quiet, too boring. But it definitely made me realize that I can do hard things and it prepared me for most of life’s challenges.
If I could do it all over again, I probably would, from falling off the granary roof to being called chicken plucker – OK, maybe not that.