My farming friend Mark Bradley was one of the inspirations behind The Farmer’s Daughter (the farming part of it) and one of the reason I have a soft spot for farmers in general. He’s one of the good ones, the backbone of our country, salt of the earth, you might say. He’s worked hard all his life and works even harder now in a economy that hasn’t been very friendly to farmers the past decade or so. He posted this beautiful status update a couple of years ago on Facebook that helped launch me into a documentary photo project to capture the life of farmer’s in my area. The project fell apart over time, but I’d love to start it back up again and keep capturing the real people behind the industry that puts food on our tables, telling their stories.
Mark wrote another one of those emotional posts this week. I’m not on Facebook anymore but my dad showed me and I emailed Mark and told him how much I enjoyed it, and asked if I could share it here on the blog. Luckily he said that would be fine.
I watched him as he made his way around the empty barn taking it all in. I could see the sadness on his face and hear it in his voice in all the questions he asked. “Why did they sell their cows?” “Why are they just letting the barn fall down?” I watched him peer up through the hole in the ceiling toward the hay mow that once would have been stocked full of enough hay to feed the cows all winter. Now all it held was the roof that had collapsed into it this winter and the melting snow that had accumulated. This was once someone’s dream, their livelihood, their everything. Now it is a thing of the past. Soon to be demolished the rest of the way and be gone forever.
It is hard to explain what it feels like to walk through an empty barn. For me, it’s very emotional and I could see that in Parker as well. I can stand there and picture what it would have looked like full of cows. It’s kind of like the scenes in the movie Titanic where they are exploring the underwater shipwreck and keep flashing back to a time when the ship was full of people in all her glory. I can picture little kids growing up in this barn, learning life lessons. I can see them in my mind petting cows, watching calves be born, carrying around their favorite kitties. I can see it full of light, life, and warmth on the coldest winter day. I can smell the feed, hear the cows contently eating and the radio softly playing… then I come back to what it is now. Cold. Dark. Wet. Musty. Empty…. it is a heartbreaking scene that is played out in tens of thousands of barns all across this country. Our industry has evolved over the years, and in its wake lies empty barns like this one in ruin.
After awhile of silence as Parker and I wandered around, he turns to me and says “Well, at least our barn will never look like this.” With a giant lump in my throat, all I could muster up was “I hope you are right.”
I don’t know what the future holds. I know farms like ours are becoming fewer and further between every day.
When we got home I headed straight to the barn. I walked in the door to be greeted by the familiar sights and sounds of my cows contently eating their hay and lounging in their stalls. I walk up and down the aisles of the barn with a smile on my face taking it all in, stopping to pet and snuggle some of girls.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for giving me this life. It’s a life that has its shares of ups and downs and constant challenges. A life that is definitely not the easy road. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I can’t imagine raising my kids any other way than on this farm.
The passion I have for what I do is unexplainable, but is driven by my love of this land, my love for my cows, and most of all, my love for my two little farmers. Everything that I do, I do for them in hopes that they may one day be able to take over this farm if they choose to.
We are on Chapter 9 already of The Farmer’s Daughter and I will tell you I’m not sure what’s coming after Chapter 11 because I haven’t hit a writer’s block but I have hit a challenge of where I want to put certain chapters or events and how I want to write a couple of them. I also worry about the chapters I share on the blog being too long, but well, if they are too long for you, just don’t read them. *wink*
Let me know in the comments if you’re falling in love with the characters as much as I am and what direction you hope to see the story take.
If you’re interested in other fiction pieces I’ve written you can find them here on the blog (links at the top of the page), or on Amazon and B&N.
If you want to follow the rest of The Farmer’s Daughter, from the beginning, click HERE.
Alex cracked open a soda and leaned back against the porch railing of the old farmhouse, looking out over the recently harvested fields and breathing in deep the smell of freshly cut hay. He missed his normal beer, but alcohol had become too much of a crutch for him these last few years. He was doing his best to drink less beer and more water and soda.
He rubbed his hand across the stubble on his chin and jawline, pondering if he should shave it off before he headed back to the barn after lunch. He’d been clean shaven when he first arrived at the Tanner’s farm, five years ago. He couldn’t even believe that next week would make it five years exactly. So much had changed for him since that day.
“Hey, Dad, this is Alex. He needs a job,” Jason had said a few moments after they had walked in the Tanner’s farmhouse, two years after their college graduation. He was grinning while Alex’s face flushed red with embarrassment. He felt like a loser whose friend had to find a job for him because he was too inept to find one himself.
Robert, sitting at the kitchen table, peered around the newspaper he was reading and looked Alex up and down, a somber look on his face.
“Know anything about farming?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Alex said honestly, shoving his hands down in his jean pockets nervously. “But I’m willing to learn.”
Robert laid the paper down, leaned back in his chair and frowned. He tapped his fingers on the table and then a smile slowly tilted his mouth upward.
“It’s a good thing Jason already mentioned you might be coming home with him. We need a hired hand to help around the farm. My wife’s parents’ home will be able to move into by the end of the week since they’re moving to a condo in town.”
Robert stood and reached his hand out toward Alex. Alex took it, shaking it firmly.
“Glad to have you on board,” Robert said.
In the next year, Alex worked hard, wanting to please the man he saw care for his family, day in and day out, rarely taking a break, on constant call with farm work, first with his father and brother and then when the elder Tanner passed away, his brother and son. He’d watched Robert try hard to help his fellow farmers, buying their land when they could no longer farm, offering them jobs on his farm or at the family’s farm store. He’d been there when Robert’s father had disappeared further into dementia, then passed away, and he’d watched the family’s farm store expand from selling organic meats and dairy, eggs and vegetables to now offering flowers, plants, and even farming and gardening equipment.
Over those years, Robert had become like a father to Alex, teaching him how to work hard, how to run a business, and more importantly, how to care for a family. So far, though, Alex wasn’t anywhere near starting a family, or ready to care for one on his own. There were days he wasn’t even sure this was what he wanted for his future – to work on a small family farm in the middle of nowhere.
But there were other days, when he looked back on a day filled with accomplishments, when he could sit back and smell the freshly harvested field, that he could imagine himself living his whole life growing food in the soil, caring for the cows that gave the nation its’ dairy, and helping a family support themselves through the work of their hands.
Annie had become the mother he’d never had in his own – caring, nurturing, and understanding. After six months of living in the home Annie had grown up in and working for her husband, he’d found himself sick with a cold and alternating between shivering and burning up as he cleaned out the stalls.
“Alex, you need to come inside and let me make you some tea and honey,” Annie said, standing in the barn doorway, dressed in brown overalls and a thick winter coat.
“I’m okay, Mrs. Tanner, but th – “
“Don’t argue, young man,” Annie said. “You’ll be no good to anyone if that junk gets into your lungs. Get on in here. Robert can do without you for a few hours. You’ll have some tea and lay down in the spare room. No use arguing.”
She turned quickly and began walking toward the house.
Robert stood up from where he’d been inspecting the underside of a cow and jerked his head toward his retreating wife.
“You’d better listen to her. When she gets something into her head, she won’t let it go. Besides, Henry is coming in at 10 and I know he can help us while you rest.”
Inside the house, Annie set a cup of steaming hot tea in front of him at the table.
“Try leaning over that and breathing it in. It will help your nose loosen up.”
Alex nodded and did as he was told.
“Did your mom do this to you when you were young? I bet she did. All my bossing around is probably making you feel like a little boy again.”
Alex stared at the steam swirling up toward him and thought about his mom, how she’d almost never been maternal, though he was sure she had loved him and his brother. When he and Sam were sick, she had sent them to their rooms and set toast and juice in front of them and turned on a cartoon. She never felt foreheads or took temperatures, but sometimes took them to the doctor if the illness hit them hard enough.
“My mom wasn’t really – uh- maternal,” he said with a shrug. “She loved me and Sam. She just didn’t know how to be . . . comforting, I guess you would say.”
Annie turned from the stove and looked at him with furrowed eyebrows. “I’m sorry to hear that. That must have been hard for you and your brother.”
Alex shrugged again. “In some ways. But we turned out okay. I always considered us lucky. We were well fed, had whatever we wanted, except the attention of our parents, of course. They didn’t beat us, so there’s that at least.”
Annie sighed and held her hand against Alex’s forehead.
“But a little love shown shouldn’t have been too much to ask. You’re burning up. I’ll get that spare room set up for you. I want you to sip that tea and then I’ll give you a dose of elderberry syrup and pull out the Vapo rub and put it by the bed. I’ll make chicken soup for lunch.”
Alex shook his head as she walked toward the stairs, amazed at her kindness, especially toward someone who wasn’t even a member of her family. It wasn’t long, though, that Alex began to feel like a member of the family. Jason had already been like another brother. Robert became his surrogate father, Annie his surrogate mother. Even Franny and Ned treated him like he was one of their own, or at least Ned did before he forgot who almost everyone was.
And then there was Molly.
Beautiful, sweet Molly.
He let out a deep breath, clutched at his hair and lowered his head into his hands, trying to shake the image of her shapely figure backlit by the setting sun, standing across from him in the barn. He remembered clearly the day he’d first noticed how beautiful she’d become, how grown up she was looking. It had been three years ago and they had been talking about their favorite music, where they saw themselves in ten years, and what the future held for small family farms, a topic Alex never imagined he’d be concerned with.
“I guess I figured I would be writing for a major magazine or newspaper by now,” Molly said, leaning back against a hay bale, sliding her arms behind her head. “Maybe that’s just not what God has planned for me or maybe I messed up his plans by not finishing my degree. I don’t know. Do you think we can mess up God’s plans?”
Alex felt uneasy but tried not to show it.
“Not sure,” he said casually, leaning on the rake handle. “I’ve never thought much about God, let alone if He, She, or They, has ever directed my path in life. If a higher power is up there, it would have been nicer if he’d directed my life in a few different directions over the years.”
The sunlight pouring in from the window high in the top of the barn hit Molly’s hair and highlighted her red-blond curls. Her skin was smooth, her eyes bright, her shirt pulled tightly against her full, shapely figure. His pulse quickened and he quickly looked away from the curve of her throat, knowing his gaze would keep slipping lower if he let it. He mentally scolded himself, feeling like a dirty old man until he remembered they were still both in their 20s at the time, him only four years older. It wasn’t as if he was old enough to be her father.
Molly looked over at him, moving her arms from behind her head and leaning on her elbow against the hay bale.
He saw compassion in her eyes as she spoke. “But, don’t you think that one of the greatest gifts God could have given us is our own free will? We make our own decisions and sometimes we make the wrong ones because we don’t listen to what God is telling us so maybe it isn’t that he didn’t direct our life but we didn’t follow his directions.”
Alex laughed and shook his head. “I’m not the one you want to have a deep theological discussion with.” He tapped his temple with his finger. “There’s nothing deep in here.”
Molly smiled and his stomach quivered in a way he’d never felt before. “I highly doubt that, Alex Stone. I have a feeling there’s a lot more to you than you let on.”
She tossed a handful of straw at him and skipped past him on the way to the house. He’d watched her walk away, his eyes lingering on her retreating figure before he took a deep breath and softly exhaled a curse word.
“Dang, Molly Tanner, how’d you get so beautiful?” he’d asked himself out loud, maybe a bit too loud. He’d looked around quickly to make sure Jason or Robert weren’t somewhere behind him.
For two years now he had tried to ignore the way she was starting to affect him – the pounding heart, the rush of excitement that rumbled through his veins when he heard her voice or saw her walking across the yard toward the barn.
Why couldn’t he just make a move on her already? He’d never felt afraid to tell, even show a girl how he’d felt – until he met Molly. Molly was different, but he couldn’t really explain how. Maybe it was because he’d developed a friendship with Molly before he’d started feeling a strong attraction to her. Before meeting Molly, he’d always acted on instinct, moving into a physical relationship even if he hadn’t spent time getting to know the woman.
He knew it wasn’t only a fear of rejection stopping him from telling Molly how he felt. He worried how Robert, Annie and Jason would react. Would they see him as someone who had taken advantage of their kindness simply to get close to their beautiful daughter and sister? He couldn’t imagine losing their respect and love, yet he also couldn’t imagine his future without telling Molly how he felt.
Rejection and fear of the reactions of others, including Molly’s, wasn’t Alex’s only concern, though. He’d had a fear of attempting longtime commitment for years, always afraid he’d end up like his parents – in a loveless marriage of convenience. What if he told Molly how he felt, only to pull away from her in fear, refusing to open himself up to her fully and hurting her in the process? Could he even open himself to her? He couldn’t deny he was afraid to try. He’d never been able to do open himself up with any other woman. When they’d tried to go deeper than surface level, he’d broken it off and walked away from them, ignoring their calls or visits.
At one point he’d even considered leaving the farm, going back to Maryland, looking for work in computers, so he didn’t have to face his feelings for Molly. His attraction to her had always been stronger than the fear, though, and he’d stayed on, happy simply to be near her.
Now, though, he wanted to be more than near her, more than simply a co-worker. He wanted to be her confidant and her to be his. And he wanted to hold her, to show her he felt a tenderness for her he’d never felt for anyone else. More than simply wanting a relationship with her, he somehow felt he needed it.
Mavis Porter was already busy giving orders in the church basement when Molly arrived with the Tanner’s contributions of chocolate and carrot cakes two days before the sale.
“We’ll need someone to man the purse and the shoe areas,” Mavis said, clipboard in hand, her blue-gray hair piled on her head in a tight bun, her face long and mouth pursed together.
“I’m available,” Dixie West said, though Molly noticed the reluctance in her voice.
Mavis scribbled on the clipboard.
“Dixie in purses and shoes,” she said, focused on the clipboard. “Perfect.” She spoke to Molly without even looking up.
“Molly, are those the cakes from you and your mom?”
Molly opened her mouth to answer.
“Good,” Mavis said before Molly could answer, her eyes still focused on the clipboard. “Put them over in the kitchen with the others. I have you down to watch the table from 8:30 to noon on Saturday. Will that do?”
Molly opened her mouth to answer.
“Good,” Mavis said, again before Molly could answer. “Make sure you’re on time this year, please.”
Mavis swung around and marched across the basement floor, never looking up from her precious clipboard.
Molly sighed and carried the box with the cakes to the kitchen. One day she was going to find a way to stand up to Mavis Porter, but today was apparently not that day.
“On bake sale duty again?” Maddie Simpson asked, unloading her own cakes onto the counter in the kitchen.
“Of course,” Molly said. “At least she only put me on for four hours this time, unlike last year when I had to sit there all day.”
“I’m on kids clothes again this year,” Maddie said with an eye roll. “I have the morning shift.”
Molly winced. “That might be worse than the baked goods table.”
“All those moms ripping apart the table, looking for the cutest clothes in the just the right sizes,” Maddie said, shaking her head. “And then the pushing and the shoving when two moms grab the same outfit. Last year I thought we were going to have to call Reggie to break them apart.”
Molly laughed, thinking of Chief Reggie Stanton pushing his way between two battling moms, his large belly a barrier between them. Reggie led a small police force of five police officers, including himself. The small town of Spencer was lucky not to have a high crime rate, but the Spencer Police Department was there to break up fist fights, respond to car accidents and fires, and answer the call if someone locked themselves out of their car or a cat got stuck up a tree.
The chief was there to oversee it all and sometimes he even managed to do something. It wasn’t unusual to see Reggie standing to one side shouting orders to one of his officers.
“That’s right, Sgt. McGee. Get him down and you can cuff him while I read him his rights.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up to, ‘im, Billy. He’s not that much bigger than you.”
“If you keep running that mouth of yours, I’ll have Officer Wilson here take you outside and read you your rights, you understand?”
Reggie even managed to yell orders for the driver to stop when Officer John Vanfleet was dragged down Route 220 at 25 mph while trying to open the car door of a suspected drunk driver.
“Stop! If you don’t stop, I’ll have you up on charges of attempted murder!” he yelled, not even bothering to try to chase the car.
It took two other officers to jump into the passenger side window and rip the car into neutral, finally stopping it.
For all his moments of laziness, though, Reggie was still the glue that held the force together, always willing to go to bat for his officers at the borough council meeting, asking for better healthcare or raises or even new uniforms or equipment.
Alice Bouse walked into the kitchen and sat a box of pies on the counter.
“What duty did you get this year?” she asked Molly.
“Manning the bake sale, like every year,” Molly said
“She’s nothing if not predictable,” Alice said with a heavy sigh. “I’m stuck on the register for the first half of the morning. I hate that job. That’s where people try to haggle us down in our prices. Every year I have to remind people ‘this is for charity.’ It really gets old after a while.”
“We’re all old,” Helen Maynard said slinging her box onto the counter and pulling out bags of homemade cookies, already labeled for sale.
“No, I said, the price haggling gets old,” Alice said.
“That too,” Helen said.
Emily Fields, Pastor Joe’s wife entered the kitchen with a box of pies.
“Is this where I should put the baked goods?” she asked softly.
“This is the place,” Molly said with a smile and a lavish gesture toward the counter.
“So glad you are contributing, Mrs. Fields,” Helen said. “Your pies are fantastic. That blueberry one you made for the potluck supper for the graduates at church was outstanding.”
Emily’s straight auburn hair pushed back off her face with a dark blue head band, highlighted her pale skin and bright green eyes.
She laughed and her cheeks flushed red, making her skin even more iridescent. “Oh, thank you. Pies seem to be the only thing I can bake. I have the innate talent of ruining even boxed cakes and burning all cookies. And please call me Emily. Mrs. Fields makes me feel so old.”
“You’re definitely not old,” Maddie laughed. “You’re one of the youngest pastor’s wives we’ve had at this church since I first started attending as a child.”
Alice started stacking Emily’s pies next to hers. “But you know who is old? Millie Baker. Did you all hear about what she did?”
Molly and the others shook their head.
“Well, she thought she was hitting the brake in her car this morning outside the Dollar General but instead she hit the accelerator and drove right into the side of the building.”
“No!” Maddie said. “Is she okay?”
“Yep, but the store isn’t,” Helen said. “Lew Derry was behind the counter and Lanny Wheeler said it was the fastest he’d ever seen him move, considering he’s usually high on that weed he smokes.”
“My goodness,” Alice said, shaking her head. “Someone is going to have to tell Millie she can’t drive anymore. She’s not safe on the road. That Dollar Store could have been the playground and that brick wall could have been a child.”
Helen shook her head. “Well, I’m not telling her. She’ll probably hit me with that cane of hers. Make her daughter do it.”
Molly laughed. “I should have my Aunt Hannah do it. She’s the one who told my grandmother she shouldn’t be driving anymore when she drove into the back of that garbage truck.”
“How did she take it?” Maddie asked.
“Not well,” Molly said. “We caught her behind the wheel last week.”
“So maybe Hannah isn’t the best person to talk to Millie,” Alice laughed.
“It’s not Aunt Hannah’s fault. Grandma is terribly stubborn.”
Helen took a chocolate chip cookie out of one of her bags and bit into it.
“How’s your grandma been doing anyhow?” she asked. “Besides driving into the back of garbage trucks. Since your grandpa passed, I mean.”
Molly took out the last of her cakes and sighed. “She’s struggling, to be honest, but she wouldn’t want me to share that with anyone else so I probably shouldn’t be. . .”
Emily laid her hand against Molly’s arm. “We’ll be praying for her.”
“Thank you,” Molly said. “I’d appreciate that. Losing Grandpa was hard enough but now having to admit she doesn’t see as well as she used to — it’s just been hard on her.”
Joe huffed into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box filled to the top with pies.
“Are those more of Emily’s pies?” Alice asked.
“Sure are,” Joe said. “Best blueberry pie around.”
“Oh wow!” Maddie said. “You must have been baking for days! These look great. I am definitely going to be picking up one.”
Across the room Mavis gestured, showing Jeffrey Staples where to move the tables and chairs for the sale.
Pastor Joe glanced through the open window as he unloaded the pies. “So, I see Mavis’ organization skills come in handy for this rummage sale. What a blessing to have someone with that gift in our church.”
“I didn’t realize that being bossy was a God-given gift,” Maddie said with a snort.
Pastor Joe laughed. “Well, I think maybe it can be. Even if we don’t always see it that way. Those with that gift often keep us on track.”
Molly smiled as she helped the pastor stack the pies. “They also keep us closer to God while we pray for him to give us strength to deal with them.”
The other ladies laughed and nodded their heads in agreement while Pastor Joe just smiled and shook his head, deciding he would keep his comments to himself.
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
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 email@example.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. “
How 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.
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.
Thank you to Lisa Engelbert of Engelbert Farms in Nichols, N.Y. for being part of this edition of Tell Me More About. Engelbert Farms is owned by Lisa and her husband Kevin. It is a family owned and operated business with her sons and their families also participating in day-to-day operations. According to their site: “Engelbert Farms, LLC is a certified organic dairy farm, certified by Vermont Organic Farmers (NOFA-VT). It is a true family farm, farming in the same location since 1911. Kevin, Lisa and their sons Joe and John all actively work on the farm. Their other son, Kris is often around helping out, too.”
I recently visited their farm store and highly recommend their homemade cheeses, especially the lemon and thyme moovache which is only in stock during the summer months. My children and I had a sample and agreed it was the best cheese we have ever tasted.
Tell Me More About is a feature where I showcase artists, business people, businesses or simply every day people with an interesting story.
Image by Organic Valley
Can you tell me a little about your farm, how long you’ve had it and how you got started in farming?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Athens, Pa. When my older brothers decided they didn’t want to farm, my dad sold the cows and took a job off the farm. I’ve always loved animals and loved to grow things, so farming always had a special place in my heart. The Engelbert family had been farming in Nichols since 1911, and in the Southern Tier of New York since 1848. My husband, Kevin and I got married in 1980, and took over management of the family farm from my father-in-law. In 1981, we started farming organically, and became certified organic in 1984. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were the first certified organic dairy farm in the US! We are first and foremost an organic dairy farm, but when our sons graduated from college and came back to the farm, we realized we needed to diversify to be able to support more families. Our operation now includes organic meats (beef, pork, veal), cheeses, small-scale seasonal vegetables, and field crops. With the exception of the small amount of milk that is kept back to be made into cheese, all of our milk is sold through Organic Valley.
What does your farm offer the community?
We have a farm store on the farm to sell our organic, farm-raised meats, cheeses and vegetables directly to our customers. Every piece of our meat is traceable back to the day the animal was born, and our cheeses are made by hand exclusively with our milk. Later in the summer, as vegetables are harvested, we have potatoes, garlic, onions, and other seasonal vegetables available. Products from other sustainable farms are available as well – eggs, chicken, turkey, honey, maple syrup, jams & jellies, salsa and pasta sauces. We also sell meat and cheese to stores and restaurants in the Valley, as well as Endicott, Binghamton, Ithaca and Watkins Glen, and as far as the Hudson Valley and Long Island. Our farm is part of the Tioga Farm Trail, and the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance. Several times a year, we have an open house on our farm and offer samples of our cheeses and smoked sausages, as well as farm tours. Both my husband and I have been heavily involved in organic agriculture at the state and national level, and have done presentations at numerous workshops and field days on organic farming over the past 35 years.
How is farming changing today? What is the future of farming?
Farming has always been a challenging profession, but it keeps getting more difficult to do business and make a profit. Regulations, taxes and land prices continue to increase, putting more and more burden on farmers. Farms are getting bigger and bigger and small farms are getting squeezed out. I would love to see farms start getting smaller and more diversified, with their products being processed and sold regionally. In my mind that would contribute to national security with less imported food, reduced miles that food travels to get to the consumer, and would provide a fresher, safer, more traceable product. I believe to be truly sustainable and profitable in the future, farms will need to sell as much as possible of what they produce directly to the consumer.
What is the most rewarding part of owning a small farm?
My favorite part of owning a family farm is dealing directly with our customers and talking with youth groups. We have met some incredible people over the years, and have made many new friends. It is very rewarding to know that we are providing high-quality, healthy products. We like to know who our customers are, and our customers appreciate knowing how and where their food is grown. When we get thank you notes from customers and from kids that have come for farm tours, it makes us feel like we’re making a difference, and makes all of the hard work worthwhile.
Photo by Lisa R. Howeler
Image by Engelbert Farms
Where can people find out more about your farm and what it offers?
Our farm store is located right on our farm just east of the Village of Nichols, at 182 Sunnyside Road in Nichols, NY- look for the little red building attached to the yellow barn. We’re open Friday and Saturday 10 to 3, year round, unless it’s a holiday. Our website is www.engelbertfarms.com and we have an Engelbert Farms Facebook page, which I try to keep active with what’s happening on the farm.
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