Area farms are struggling and it’s hard to see

It’s been rough in our area.

No rain and farms are suffering.

Seeing my neighbor’s and farm friends suffer breaks my heart.

The farmer where we got our dog shared this last week: “I see a rainbow in the distance. Apparently, some lucky people got rain. Nothing here. That being said. If anyone is interested in purchasing some beef cattle or milking cattle please pm me. We are so short of feed and the corn looks horrific. I see no possible way to make it through winter with the little feed we have. Beef cattle are off pasture, spring dried up. Dry cows and heifers we let into a crep area pond, their spring is dry and the wells at both farms and getting desperate.”

I don’t have any words of wisdom. I don’t have an agenda to push. I don’t know how to fix it all. I just ask you to remember our farmers in your prayers. Their job is important and small family farms are dying.

A few years ago, I took some photos at local farms as part of a personal photography project. I’d love to do it again. To remind people of what it used to be like and what is slowly fading away.

A little farm making special milk in Pennsylvania

There are a lot of little farms in our area trying to survive by diversifying what they offer and how they produce their product. The Warburton Farm, also called Sunset Ridge-Warburton Farm is one of those farms. What is now helping the farm survive is something that was started to help their youngest be able to consume dairy products after he was born with a condition that leaves him allergic to certain proteins, including those in milk. That’s an awkward and inconvenient development when the family owns a small dairy farm and everyone else can eat the yummy treats made from milk.

When Eileen, the little boy’s mom, heard about A2 milk through her oldest son, who was researching something else for a project for 4-H and read about it, she wondered if her youngest would be able to digest it. A2 milk refers to a type of beta-casein protein found in dairy cows. In A2 milk, the protein is broken down finely, which makes it easier for people with digestive issues to process dairy products. It is not the same as lactose-free milk, which those with a lactose intolerance can drink.

She looked for the milk in the United States, but instead only found it in Australia and New Zealand at the time. (It is produced on a large scale in the United States now.) Then she wondered if any of the Jersey cows from their small farm was carrying the A2 gene and since testing for the gene only takes sending a sample of the cow’s hair to a lab, she decided to check.

Cardinal was the first of the family farm’s cows to test positive for the gene and it turned out Eileen’s youngest could drink the milk, which made Eileen wonder how many other people might benefit from A2 milk from a local source. That launched the family onto a journey to obtain grant money for a bottling plant and pasteurization machine.

I took photographs for Eileen of Cardinal sometime last year (I think anyhow, since 2020 feels like 5 years in one) and that photo now adorns the labels for the milk they sell in local stores. Each of the last two years I have also taken a few photos of the family, her and her husband, the two boys and her in-laws, and of course, Cardinal.

It has become an annual highlight for me — seeing a family doing what they love, caring for their animals but also enjoying providing a locally produced product for their neighbors and others.

I lifted this photo from their Facebook page.

This year I dragged my dad along because he wanted to show me some of the family farms that have recently gone out of business (and there are quite a few, sadly). He enjoyed talking to Eileen’s in-law’s who he knows fairly well, we had a tour of the bottling plant, saw the new baby goats, and then set off at sunset to see one of the larger farms up the road.

It had rained while we were there and a misty fog was rising up from the valleys around us and the sunset was golden and magnificent. There is a local woman who posts beautiful sunset photos and I was determined to properly compete against her with a beautiful sunset photo.

I liked the sunset photo I got but was completely bowled over maybe a half an hour later when we ended up with a flat tire, along a tiny dirt road, and I looked across the field at an amazing sunset.

While Dad and The Boy changed the tire I climbed up a small incline, looked out over the field and watched the sunset change from bright golden to pink and purple and blue.

It appears a little darker in my photos than it actually was, but it was still spectacular. And to the left of it was the farm that only a few weeks ago had to sell it’s dairy cows, glowing a soft purple from the sunset.

I told my daughter, once the tire was fixed and we were on our way, that it is always an adventure when we head out somewhere with Grandpa. We never know what will happen or where we will end up. Luckily we ended up driving around a beautiful area and seeing a hard working farm family, some amazing scenery, a large herd of deer, rabbits, and an amazing sunset.

A new beginning for a small Northeastern Pennsylvania farm

” Don’t worry,” the 14-year-old told me as he climbed in the driver seat of the doorless Ranger all-terrain vehicle. “I’m a better driver than my mom.”

He grinned.

I knew he was talking about the bumpy, high-speed trip his mom had taken my husband on about a week before when the family’s cows escaped the pasture while my husband was there to do a story for the local weekly newspaper. His mom, Eileen Warburton, assured my husband that the escape wasn’t his fault, but rather the fault of an exuberant family dog who had startled the cows .

She didn’t normally drive so fast, she told me, but it was important to get ahead of the cows to try to herd them back into the fenced-in pasture. I couldn’t help wishing I had been there to see my semi-city slicker husband holding on to the grab handle of the Ranger for dear life, a look of sheer terror in his eyes as they careened over the dirt roads and muddy cow pasture.

I know, I have a warped, slightly sadistic sense of humor.

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More than once since visiting farms in our area I have been amazed by the knowledge, politeness, and efficiency shown by children who grow up on a farm. They are well spoken, mature and handle themselves better than many adults. They engage visitors to their farm with wisdom and a sense of professionalism that most businesses don’t even possess. Children who grow up on a farm are eager to tell you how the farm works, what the livestock eat, how they herd the cows, milk to the cows, feed the cows or pigs or any other variety of aspects of a working farm.

They are also almost always confident and not in the least bit intimidated to talk to adults. I’d have to say that most of the credit for the demeanor of a child or children who grow up on a farm goes to their parents and grandparents or whomever else they work with, and live with, on the farm. They are taught, first of all, hard work and with that hard work often comes a love for God, family, country, the land, and their livestock. For families who farm, especially on a small family farm, farming isn’t only a source of income, it’s an entire lifestyle.

“Is that mud on her side?” Eileen asked when the 14-year old, Blaine, walked their prize Jersey cow Cardinal out of the barn that day. “I guess we’ll have to wash her again.”

I don’t live a very exciting life so the idea of watching a cow being washed was exciting. I trailed along behind the boy and the cow somewhat like a giddy child who has been promised a trip to the playground. I’ve visited a few farms in the last couple of years while taking photos for a personal photo project focusing on the joys and trials of family farming. I’ve apparently grown accustomed to the smells of barns because I barely noticed when Cardinal decided to deposit a large amount of fresh manure while patiently waiting for Blaine to finish brushing and spraying her down. I am either accustomed to the smell or my clogged sinuses, courtesy of spring allergies blocked it from me.

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DSC_7812DSC_7816DSC_7820DSC_7823Off to one side of where the cleaning was happening, and behind the main barn, was a pile of stone and the future site of the family’s bottling facility for a future-planned business in processing A2 milk. According to the A2 Milk Company, all milk contains two different kinds of proteins – A1 and A2. A2 milk comes from cows who only produce the A2 protein.

Some dairy farmers say A2 milk is more easily digested by people who otherwise have difficulty digesting milk with both proteins. Those with lactose intolerance may be able to digest the A2 milk easier, but because their intolerance is to the sugar (lactose) in the milk, they would still need to consume the A2 milk with caution and maybe special enzymes, Eileen told me. Most people with lactose intolerance are able to drink lactose-free milk, such as the brand name Lactaid milk.

A quick search online will show you there is a quite a bit of controversy about the benefits of A2 milk for those who otherwise have difficulty digesting milk. Consumers seemed thrilled with the prospect of having access to milk that is potentially easier  to digest, but there are those in the dairy industry who are skeptical that there is any superior benefit of A2 milk. Some a market to promote it as a threat to the overall dairy industry.

“It’s just a theory at this point in time,” Greg Miller, National Dairy Council Chief Science Officer recently told CBS news. “There is no science that really says that there is any value in a2 protein milk relative to conventional milk. The two studies that were done were with a small number of subjects with different variables that don’t give us the answers we need to tell whether this is really true or not.”

For the Warburton family, scientific research wasn’t necessary. Anecdotal evidence was enough for them. Eileen’s 4-year-old son Marshal has been unable to digest milk or soy since birth, which presented a unique challenge for a child living on a dairy farm. When Eileen read about A2 milk being used in New Zealand she decided to explore the benefits of it further. She tried to order some of the milk for Marshal but the fees to ship it overseas was astronomical. That’s when she began to wonder if any of their own Jersey cows could be producers of A2 milk.

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She pulled hair from the tails of the cows, sent it to be tested and was told that out 10 of the 14 cows tested were A2 milk only producers. The proof would be in the chocolate milk, so to speak, something Marshal had always wanted to be able to consume like his older brother. When Marshal didn’t react to the special treat made with the A2 milk from Cardinal Eileen knew they were on to something. Her family began exploring options of bringing the milk to the area to benefit those with similar digestion issues as Marshal.

I was standing in the Warburton’s cow pasture on a warm May day to photograph the boys with their first A2 cow, Cardinal. Photographing Cardinal alone was also on the agenda. Like I’ve said before, it doesn’t take much to excite me so when we headed to the upper pasture with the boys and a wooden bench I was giddy once again but this time to see all the cows gathering around us like five-ton, manure covered and smelly, curious children.

Big brown eyes looked at us and broad noses sniffed and nuzzled to see if we’d brought any hay or grain. Once Blaine sat on the bench the ladies gathered around him in a semi-circle to see what their boy was doing.

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Standing on the hill, overlooking the rest of Forks and Overton Township and the Warburton’s farm, I thought about how blessed my family is to live in an area where children are taught from a very early age about hard work and respect for the land, animals, and nature. We are blessed to have people living around us who have personal knowledge of, and a part in, where our food comes from.

I’ve learned in the last couple of years that working and living on a small family farm is not easy, but it is worth it in ways that have nothing to do with money.

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To learn more about A2 milk, visit A2 Milk Company’s site HERE or check out the story below that CBS Morning featured in 2017. The Rocket-Courier also published a story about the farm on their site today and that story can be found via their website HERE. 

 

 

To read more of the posts I’ve featured about farming or farms in our area, click on the following links:

Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, dairy farmer

The Heartache is Real as Family Farms Start to Fade Away

The Farm

The State of Dairy Farming in Pennsylvania

Tell Me More About . .  . Engelbert Farms, Nichols, N.Y.

 

 

The state of dairy farming in Northeast Pennsylvania: tangible struggles, palpable heartache and immeasurable joy

DSC_1669Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

This post is part of a continuing project about the changes in farming in America. The project is both a photo series and a blog series. For more about this series please visit my page about the project, or see the other posts, Tell Me More About: Mark Bradly, Dairy Farmer and The Farm.


Even though he was using a smile to greet his visitors when he came out from the back of the barn his face showed the stress of the morning.

“Is it broken again?” his sister Melissa asked and he nodded, and shrugged.

It wasn’t anything new. Equipment had been breaking down at the Walrath family’s dairy farm for months. Scott, owner and main operator of the farm can’t seem to keep up. He is the farms mechanic, vet, accountant, milks the cows, cleans the barn and plows and plants the fields.

Scott’s shoulders dipped slightly, revealing much more than physical exhaustion.

Days off don’t exist when you’re running a family farm and most people would have given up years ago based on the pay alone.

Melissa and Scott Walrath are no strangers to the challenges farming brings. They grew up on the farm, with their father David, now retired, and their mother Gail, who passed away a few years ago.

The main farm, called Snowcrest Farm, started as one barn and several silos and has now been extended to include David’s property, Melissa and her husband Wayne’s  property, and Scott and his wife Lydia’s property, located in succession about a mile apart from each other on Ballentine Road in East Smithfield.  All together, the three farms, all under the umbrella name of Scowcrest, includes 542 acres and 265 head of cattle on the three properties. Out of the 265 cows, 120 are milking cows and are milked twice a day.

DSC_9036DSC_9040Scott and Melissa have been fighting to keep the family tradition alive their entire lives and they aren’t ready to give up, even though many others would have. The farm was started in 1951 with Scott and Melissa’s grandfather Albert Walrath, who was a full-time school teacher and part time farmer. David took the farm over after graduating from SRU and the farm became Snowcrest Farm in 1973 when he married Gail.

The piece of equipment that broke this day is used to feed the cows their silage of corn and hay. The feeder has been breaking down a lot lately, Melissa says. In fact, a lot of equipment has.

The siblings looked at each other thoughtfully for a few moments, both too worn to even suggest a remedy. Finally Melissa asked if Scott has called someone who has helped in the past. He said he did and the man  would stop by the farm at some point that day. In most cases it’s Scott who fixes the farm equipment, but sometimes extra help is needed.

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Farmer Scott Walrath works on farm equipment at Snowcrest Family Farms, which his family has owned and operated since 1951.

“We are stupid – Stupidly in love with farming,” Scott says with a tired grin when asked why he continues to work the farm even as the challenges grow each day. “Pride, passion, stubbornness and stupidity all play a part of why I am still farming. I have pride in my craft and ability to still make this life work even with everything working against me. I have passion for my animals and my crops.”

“Getting a heifer calf, a litter of pigs, watching my corn come up, or even at 11 at night after being up for 20 hours and stacking the last round bale in the shed before rain comes,” he continues. “The smile on my face should say it all. I have stubbornness to make this life style work for my family as well as my community. I want my family to be able to grow up on this farm and I want my community to be able to drive by and see my farm prosper. Nothing makes me sadder than to see fields that used to be in production and growing wonderful crops turn into weeds because there is no one left to tend to them.”

Scott knows other farmers are giving up, selling, and in worst cases, ending their lives from all the pressure.

“I don’t know what else I’d want to do. There is nothing else I’d want to do,” he says.
“I want to be able to provide for my family doing this but right now I’ve got Kelsey (a young girl from the local Future Farmers of America) I’ve got two other high school boys who will be here later. I don’t have any full time help. It’s me and Melissa is working herself to the bone helping out right now.”

Ten years ago the Walraths had two full time helpers, both parents and Scott.

“That was a lot of help and it still seemed like a lot of work,” Scott says.

Now Scott does the job of four people and recently when a back injury flared up the tasks on the farm fell to the rest of the family. Melissa and Wayne also work full time as elementary teachers in the Troy Area School District.

In addition to the cows, Scott houses pigs, a horse, goats, chickens and a turkey in his recently rebuilt barn at the top of the hill. The barn located at the house, where he lives with his three children and Lydia burned two years ago and took 100 animals with it. All six of the breeding pigs, all of which had just had piglets, and the family dog also died.

Although we got insurance money it was not enough for the rebuilding, so we had to take out a loan“, Melissa says. “When we tried rebuilding the first time the barn collapsed and we had to start all over for the second time. Luckily it was summer by then and cattle could be in the pasture because we were running out of room without the barn.  I think rebuilding was more of a new beginning. Scott designed the barn just the way he wanted it.”

The new barn became a more friendly place for a more modern farm. It’s available for tours by local 4-H groups or local schools and it’s also a great location for meetings and the small office even provides a place for Scott to crash when his pigs are in labor and he needs to keep an eye on mom.

Scott appreciates those who encourage people to go out and buy a gallon of milk or a block of cheese to support the dairy farmer but in the long run that won’t help much, he feels. The people who are actually benefiting from the sale of dairy are the middle men or larger corporations. The profit isn’t trickling down to the farmer.

“The biggest challenges in farming today are the big farms pushing out the little farms,” he says. “I call it the Walmart effect. There used to be a lot of little mom and pop stores especially here in the Valley. Now you go to Walmart. Same in farming. There are more 1,000-40,000 cow farms and they can make more milk, cheaper that we can at 100 cows or less.”

Dairy farming is not regulated in the United States and that lack of regulation means the people doing the hardest work are getting the least benefit, Scott feels.

DSC_9020“We are at the bottom of the food chain so we don’t get it. It’s always the middle man,” he said. “So if you want to go out and buy a gallon of milk I’m sure they appreciate it but it’s not helping me.”

Nothing is helping at this point, he said.

“As far as I am concerned, the dairy industry is not regulated – like, for example, Bill Gates goes out with Microsoft, they let him get so big but they don’t let him corner the market you know..he’s got to sell off or whatever,” Scott said. “The Dairy Farmers of America controls 80 percent of the farms and a couple other small farms are co-ops but Maryland and Virginia right now they are losing money because they’ve got too much milk. They’re trying to sell it at lower costs but then they don’t have operating capital. I was forced last October to sign with DFA or [I] don’t have a market. I didn’t have a choice.  So they say ‘you want to sell all your cows and your livelihood or do you want to join with the DFA?'”

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Scott gets some help on the farm from members of the Athens Area Future Farmers of America and his nephew, Simon. 

DSC_8980Scott credits the Athens Area High School Future Farmers of America with helping to not only keep area farms in the area running but keeping young people interested and up to date on the changing face of farming. In addition to learning about farming, these students are also learning a work ethic that has already shown to benefit them in future jobs. When a potential employer looks at a resume and reads that a young person has worked on a farm, they know they are a hard worker, Scott said.

“Every one of the kids that have used me as a reference has been hired at the post high school job choice,” he said.

“Pride, passion, stubbornness and stupidity all play a part of why I am still farming. I have pride in my craft and ability to still make this life work even with everything working against me. I have passion for my animals and my crops.”
– Scott Walrath, farmer, East Smithfield, Pa.

Scott doesn’t want to give up on farming. He wants his children to grow up the same way he did – getting much of their food from their backyard, climbing tress and milking cows and splashing through the mud and catching fireflies in the summer.

“I want to raise my kids here ,” he said, as he turns his tractor into an empty field to spread manure and prepare the soil for planing later in the season. “The joys of raising a family on the farm is the closeness we have. The kids can ride in the tractor with me, go to the barn with me and when there is hay or other work to be done there is nothing like all of us pitching in and getting the job done, even if it’s until the middle of the night.”

His children, like many children who grow up on a farm, will always know the value of a dollar and what hard work really is, he said.

DSC_8965-2“They get to experience so many of God’s wonders from the birth of the animals, to animal husbandry, to building things, to growing our own food,” Scott said. “My kids never say that they are bored and don’t need video games to keep them entertained. One of the biggest things I  teach them is common sense, which is very lacking in society today.”

Scott knows continuing to farm doesn’t look like the wisest choice to some.

“Stupidity also plays a role – a big role,” he says about his determination to continue the farm. “My body is breaking down early, I rarely get time off, and my stress level is at an all time high. I am sure a 40 hour a week job would be better for my sanity and my health, but I am not made that way. I don’t think I would know what to do with myself if I didn’t have something to pour my mind, body and soul into.”

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Tell me more about … Mark Bradley, dairy farmer, Sayre, Pa.

We were in the midst of an arctic cold snap back in January when a friend of mine shared a post on Facebook about farming written by a farmer friend of hers. The post ended up going a bit viral. I contacted  the author, second generation dairy farmer Mark Bradley, of Sayre, Pa., as soon as I saw the post and asked him if I could come photograph him at the farm one day. He kindly agreed.  This is the post that caught the attention of me and others:

I stepped outside this morning to be greeted by negative whatever it is, plus a vicious wind. I knew before even stepping in the barn that it was going to be a rough one. It was a nice 34 degrees in the middle of the barn, but colder along the northwest corner. We got the cows all fed, I thawed out a couple water bowls, then started milking.   As I was putting a milker on Hershey, this cow Candy turned around and put her soft warm muzzle alongside my cheek and in my neck. She loves to give kisses and get hugs, and she knew I needed a hug now more than ever.

 photo by Mark Bradley photo by Mark Bradley  Photo by Mark Bradley Photo by Mark Bradley

I wrapped my arms around her soft head and with tears in my eyes, gave her a big hug. Sometimes it just hits you…the reality of the responsibility of being a farmer. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, how crappy it is, how sick you are, or how tired you are.  Good day or bad, our cows count on us to take care of them, and we do whatever it takes to keep them happy. Dad and I milk around 50 cows, and have another 50 or so of youngstock. So over 100 animals ranging in age from a few hours old ( yes I had one born last night) to over 9 years old count on us everyday. Just dad and I. No hired hands, no substitutes…

I’m not complaining, I’m not looking for sympathy or a pat on the back… I’m just trying to help people understand the commitment that farmers have to the animals they love.  Buy milk, buy cheese, buy yogurt, buy anything dairy… if your kids don’t like white milk, buy chocolate. It’s still better for them than soda or sports drinks…stay warm. I’ll be outside thawing out the frost free waterer that is not supposed to freeze.”

Thank you to Mark for letting my kids and I visit his farm and for answering some questions about his lifestyle and dairy farming in Bradford County, Pa.  He has also been gracious enough to agree to be part of my personal photo project focusing on dairy farms in Bradford County. If you are a farmer, or know someone who is, and would like to be part of this series, aimed at bringing awareness and appreciative attention to farmers in our communities, please contact me via my contact form on this site or at lisahoweler@gmail.com


Tell us a little about yourself… where your from originally, your family, hobbies, etc.

“I was born in Sayre and raised on the farm that my father and I operate. My parents bought the farm in 1979 (a year before I was born), so I am the second generation to run the farm. My father’s grandfather had a small dairy farm just up the road from where he grew up a few miles from our farm, so his interest in farming was gained at a young age. My wife Nichole and I have been married 12 years, and together we have a 6 year old son (Parker) and 3 year old daughter (Lexi) who both love the farm. In my spare time I enjoy taking Parker hunting, fishing, woodworking, and fixing old tractors. “

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DSC_5843-Edit-2How long have you been farming? How did you become involved in it?

“I’ve been involved with the farm my whole life. From a young age I would help out with whatever chores I could. I’ve always loved being around the cows, and as I got a little older I was able to drive tractors and run the machinery helping out with the field work. I didn’t always see myself coming back to the farm… after high school I went to college with the intention of becoming a teacher. It was the first time I had ever really been away from the farm.

I came home every weekend to work on the farm, and I dreaded going back to college every Sunday night. Just over a year into college I began to realize that my heart was in farming, and that’s what I wanted to do. I changed my major from secondary education and finished in 4 years with degrees in physics and geology. After graduating, Dad and I formed a formal partnership, and this spring will be 15 years operating together.

What is the main focus of your farm?  

Dairy is the main focus of our farm. We milk around 50 cows which produce about 200 gallons of milk a day. We raise all our heifer (female) calves, so we have around 100 total. We grow and harvest almost all our feed on 225 owned and rented acres.

Considering the hardships farmers face in the United States especially, what keeps you from giving up on farming?

Honestly, it is a labor of love. I love working with the cows, and I love working the land.  It is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. There are always bad days, but I can’t see myself doing anything else.

 

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What do you think the future holds for farming in the United States? 

The future of dairy farming in this country is worrisome.  Small family farms like ours are disappearing at an alarming rate. Farms are becoming bigger with more cows, and are run like a factory with many employees and shifts. They are still producing good quality milk, but the cozy small farm where the cows have names and the farmers care for them and know them like pets is going by the wayside.

What is the best part of your farming life? 

The absolute best part is sharing the farm life with my kids. They see what I do and are eager to help. They understand where their milk and meat come from and they know how hard we work to put it on the table. My heart melts when they go on and on at the dinner table about how good their milk is, and talk about which cow it might have come from.
Aside from raising our kids on the farm, my other favorite thing is working so closely with nature. There is something so amazing about helping a calf to be born, then raising that calf into mature milking cow. The same can be said for planting seeds and harvesting the crops.

What is the hardest part of your farming life? 

This is a tough one to answer… I would have to say the disappointments.  I had an old farmer tell me one time that it’s human nature to want to be in control, but it’s God that is in control, and we have to trust in him. I tell myself that whenever something happens that is out of my control.

You can put your heart and soul into getting a crop planted, only to have a drought or have a torrential rain that ruins it. Your favorite cow can get sick and despite your best efforts you may lose her. Machinery breaks at times when you need it the most. Cows go into labor at the most inconvenient times.  Dinners are missed because something requires immediate attention. When I get sick, no matter how bad I feel, I still have to get up and get the work done because all the cows are counting on me.

Anything you would like to add?

When I tell people I’m a farmer, most will respond with “that’s a hard life”.  They are right. But it’s a good life. There is nothing more satisfying to me than being able to do what I love day in and day out.  At the end of the road, it’s not about how much money you made, but about the quality of life you lived. I am so blessed.

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