The heartache is real as family farms start to fade away

It was a humid August night and the field next to the now defunct dairy barn was full of equipment and maybe a couple hundred people. An auction trailer was set up off to one side and to anyone driving by it might have looked like some sort of community festival, complete with hot dogs and drinks and baked goods. But this wasn’t a party or celebration; it was the end of an era.

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The Robbins family had been farming this land and milking cows here for more than 40 years but debt and the inability to survive financially forced them to make the hardest decision in their lives – sell the farm equipment and the livestock. If that sale didn’t cover the debt they’d sell the barn, house and property too, Billie Jo Robbins said, admitting she was unsure what the future held for her family but that her faith in God’s plan for their lives was helping to lessen some of the anxiety.

She had taken a job at the local bank the year before to try to help the farm stay in business, but as milk prices dropped and operation costs rose, the family couldn’t plug the holes fast enough. Her husband, Paul, recently took a job at the local cheese making factory and the dream of passing the farm on to their two sons, Matthew and Kevin, is now gone.

The loss of a family identity and business is heartbreaking but even more heartbreaking is that the Robbins aren’t alone in their struggle and forced life changes.

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“Local dairy farmers forced to auction off farm.”

It’s a headline that should be in more newspapers and on more news sites than it is because it is real and it is happening in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the Robbins live, but also all across the country.

It isn’t only dairy farmers being forced to close their doors. Farmers of all types are being crushed under the blow of low product pricing, but dairy farms are being hit the hardest and according to various media outlets the hard hits are coming for a variety of reasons, one of those an oversupply of milk. Some question if the push for people to drink less dairy and more plant-based proteins is one reason the dairy industry is suffering, but this seems unlikely with Americans love of ice cream, pizza and milkshakes still going strong.

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And even worse than the farms closing down are the suicides of farmers who collapsed mentally and emotionally under the weight of the pressure and the feeling of failure.

According to an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) site, one co-op had three out of 1,000 farmers commit suicide in three years, and while those stats might not seem alarming by quantity the fact they are happening at all when at one time they weren’t, is frightening.

Even here in Bradford County farmers are receiving letters from their co-ops, first with dismal news about the future of dairy prices and the information for suicide hotlines and how to find counselors.

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DSC_9324_1DSC_9268Standing in that field the day of the Robbins’ auction one has to wonder who these buyers are. Local farmers? Corporate farmers? Farmers barely getting by themselves? Billie Jo wondered too and admitted it felt awkward selling their equipment to farmers who may be struggling the same way they were. She didn’t recognize many of the people there but others she knew because they were there for something more important than buying.

“Many came here simply to support us and that means so much,” Billie Jo said.

Farmers support each other, which is one reason many farms in this area of Pennsylvania are surviving at all.

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Sitting in a truck, waiting for her husband, a farmer from Troy says she doesn’t know what the main reason for milk prices dropping so low is but she feels before long the Bradford County landscape won’t be dotted with very many family farms anymore. She and her husband, now in their 70s, own a dairy farm and can’t imagine doing anything else. They’ll keep farming as long as they can.

Knowing they aren’t alone in their heartache or their struggle helps the Robbins deal with their situation easier than some might. Their faith in God keeps them trusting that beauty will come from ashes.

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To read more about the struggles of dairy farms in Pennsylvania you can visit my posts on The state of dairy farming in Northeast Pennsylvania: tangible struggles, palpable heartache and immeasurable joy and The Farm and Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, Sayre Pa Dairy Farmer

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Five places to capture memorable photos of your children

DSC_3155You’re thinking to yourself right now – I’m sure you are – that your house is too dark for photos of your children and that your flash is unflattering and makes your children look albino (which isn’t bad if you are an actual albino, of course.)

So, where can you take photographs of your children that you will cherish for years to come if you don’t believe you can take them at home? (And actually you can take them at home and I’ll tell you how in my next post.)

There is nothing better than being able to distract your child, and maybe even you, with something fun so you can photograph them while they are in action and you are all relaxed. Here are five ideas where to take your children for some photographs of them that you will want to frame and put on your wall or print out to place in your scrapbooks.

1) A local playground. Here is the key about taking photographs of your children at the local playground: don’t try to pose them. In fact, not trying to pose them anywhere is probably the biggest key to child photography. Strict posing of young children often results in disaster and that disaster usually includes tears. Sometimes tears are acceptable for photographs, if you want to capture the emotion of the moment, but minimizing them is always desirable.

If you want photographs of your children as they really are, let them play and photograph them as they play, whether that’s getting messy in the mud or sliding down the slide. Are you looking for a photograph of them looking right at the camera? Well, then get that camera ready because without a doubt they’re going to need mommy or daddy at some point and they are going to turn and look for you and, consequently right at you. And if they don’t? Calling their name once or twice will, sometimes, result in them turning their face toward you. The moment they turn is when you snap the photo you want because as all parents know, asking for them to stop and pose for you may result in cheesy smiles or, worse yet, shakes of the head.

 

2) A hiking trail.

Not only are you all exploring and experiencing nature but the natural backgrounds and soft lighting created on many hiking trails is the perfect setting for memorable images of your children. If you’re a homeschooling parent, and even if you’re not, you can also make the excursion an educational one by learning more about the plants and trees and animals you encounter.

A couple tips: make sure to protect yourselves from ticks (as Lyme Disease carrying ticks are very prevalent in many areas of the United States, especially Pennsylvania and especially in 2018.); wear protection from the sun; bring water, a snack and a first aid kit; and read up on what those poisonous plants, like poison ivy and oak, and poisonous snakes look like!

One other tip for hiking trails: expect a mess at some point so try to grab your photographs early in the hike if you’re looking for photographs of “clean” children. I have no concept of a “clean child” in my family so this one isn’t a concern for me, luckily, and I just roll with the mud and the wet moments that are sure to occur.

_DSC08493) Museums.

Your local, or even not so local, museum is a great place to learn about history or art and photograph your children. Not only can a museum provide dynamic and interesting backgrounds but it can also provide faces looking up at paintings (great lighting and a good look at the face for the scrapbooks), colorful backgrounds and children engaged in hands on learning experiences.

Visiting a local museum is also a great way to support local art, history, science, whatever the museum features. Tip: be sure to double check for any signs that might prohibit photography in certain areas and again, like other excursions, take snacks (if they are allowed) to be sure you aren’t stuck with photographing hunger-induced meltdowns.

 

4) Small fairs or art shows.

Almost everything about a small, community fair or art show lends itself to stellar photographs of your children that capture their true personalities. There are rides (laughing faces), games (winning faces), food (messy faces), and sometimes animals (sweet faces). Yes, you may have noticed a theme in that previous sentence because capturing the face of your child is what this is all about after all.

As is the case in other locations, be sure to watch your backgrounds so you don’t end up with the creepy looking dude at the fair standing in the background of the smiling image of your little one.

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5) Ice cream stand.

Nothing makes a kid happier than dairy and sugar, unless, of course they are lactose intolerant. Actually, in all seriousness, my son is lactose intolerant and he takes enzymes that allow him to digest dairy, so the lactose intolerant still can enjoy a trip to the ice cream stand and you can photograph your children while they are in one place, slightly confined and entranced by their frozen treat. Fun images to capture are their ice cream mustaches and their first few licks when the ice cream is bigger than their head.

Bonus: if the ice cream stand has a miniature golf course with it! Even more fun photos can be taken while they play through the course a couple of times.

A couple closing thoughts to keep in mind before you head out the door for photographs with your children:

– make sure your camera battery is not only charged, but in the camera.

– make sure your digital camera has a memory card.

– If you are using a phone, make sure you have a full battery charge or bring a car charger with you.

– try to get yourself in a couple of the photographs so your children know you were there too.

And last, don’t worry if your child doesn’t look at the camera in every photograph. Photographs of children not looking at a camera but still having a good time, laughing or loving each other will still provide great memories for them and their family as they grow.

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Waiting for Spring: April 10 on 10

When I walked out of my room and into my son’s , which has more accessible windows than mine, and saw the snow on the ground I’ll admit I wanted to cry. This year it’s seemed that spring will never come. The days have been cold and gloomy and wet. I honestly thought that by now I’d be writing about bright, sunny, warm days filled with fun with my children. Luckily, despite the lack of warmth and sun, the children and I have been able to squeeze in some fun and even a few beams of sunlight.

Since we started homeschooling my son a couple of weeks ago we’ve had more time for family outings and excursions and have done a couple in between school work. We visited the farm of some friends of mine as part of my farm awareness project and not only did it give us some much needed fresh air, but it also opened our eyes even more to the hard work of local farmers and the current challenges facing them.

The other day we thought we’d venture out to a baseball game, despite cold weather being forecast, and try to catch Tim Tebow who is playing with our local Double AA team, about an hour from our house. It literally snowed during the game. That’s how cold it was. And to top it off, Tebow never even took the field, but I did manage to grab a shot of him “slapping five” or whatever players do at the end of the game.

This week we are supposed to have warmer weather but I will believe it when I feel it.

This post is part of a 10 on 10 blog circle with a group of other photographers. Each month we post 10 photos from our previous month, from either one day, or throughout the month, to share in a blog post on the tenth day of the month. To continue the circle, click on the link at the bottom of this post.

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Be sure to continue the blog circle by visiting Erika’s blog.

Creative funks smell and feel funky

It isn’t unusual for me to hit a creative funk in the winter. Days are short, the sun hides behind clouds and it’s too cold to take the kids anywhere to explore.

I still try my best to take photographs inside the house, or whichever building we have sought shelter in from the nasty cold of winter, but honestly my heart usually isn’t in it until the warmth comes back.

This winter has seemed particularly long, probably because of the loss of my aunt in December and some stress my son was facing, but also the blasted cold weather and gloomy clouds.

DSC_7860With that Daylight Savings Time thing we do here in the States, we now have longer days (which simply means more daylight hours). This is a wonderful thing if you have sun and less exciting if it’s simply a gloomy, rainy or snowy day.

Last week marked the official  first day of Spring, but our weather hasn’t realized that yet and has remained cold, for the most part. This week we are supposed to have an upward trend and I’m hoping that will mean an upward trend in our moods too.

DSC_8308-2Despite the cold we have had sun and the sun makes the cold slightly less oppressive. It also creates some pretty lighting opportunities in some of the rooms of our house.

DSC_8313This week we are looking forward to mild, but still warmer, temperatures that will hopefully afford some more opportunities to escape the house and breathe in some fresh air.

So how about you, fellow creatives, or even you non-creative folk? What’s the weather like for you and what do you do when you find yourself in a creative funk?

10 on 10 for March. Also known as my favorite photos from February and March so far

I am so ready for spring that my brain has literally gone into a sort of hibernation that involves denial that it is still winter and we will still be getting snow and ice and cold days that require large, puffy winter coats and knitted hats. If someone says “did you know we are getting snow tomorrow?” I look at them like a deer standing in the middle of the road, entranced by headlights. 

I’ve fallen deep into researching my family on ancestry.com so that has helped to distract me from the fact it’s still winter, but it’s put a bit of a halt in my photography, which is why this month is simply a collection of some of my favorite photos from February and the beginning of March. Included is a couple of shots from my farm project. 

This post is part of a monthly blog circle where we feature ten photos from a day or simply the previous month. ]To follow the circle scroll to the end of the post for the next link.

 

To continue the circle visit Anna Hurley and check out her beautiful photos!

The Farm

The little boy was leaning nonchalantly  against the door, with one hand on the door knob and when we jumped out of the van he said into the cold wind that whipped at our faces, sounding more like an adult than a child,“Welcome to our farm. Come on in.”

I smiled to myself at the sound of such serious, grown up words coming from someone so young and thanked him for the greeting. We stepped into a small, dark room filled almost completely by a large metal container, pipes running along the ceiling and walls, and a deep, metal sink at the back of the room. A small fluorescent light barely lit the room but a small window provided a little daylight.

I had started a personal photography project and series about small, family farms in Bradford County, Pa. and this was the first farm I had visited. The boy, wearing a winter coat and a knitted winter hat down over his ears, launched immediately into a tour of the barn, starting by showing my 11-year old son the nozzle where the milk truck driver would put the hose to siphon the farm’s milk collection from the refrigerated container into the milk truck. He motioned his hand up in the air along the path of the pipe system, showing us where the milk comes into the room and travels down into a clear sphere and then down another pipe and into the main collection vat.

Next he motioned us toward a door to our left and into the barn where he said his dad was feeding the cows. Cows were lined up in two rows, each in their own stall, ready to be fed and milked. They turned to watch us walk in and almost seemed to be listening to our young tour guide.

Before I could ask the boy his name or how old he was, he had a handful of the cow’s feed in his hand and began telling us it was made up of ground corn and hay and other nutrients. A man with salt and pepper hair and mustache, wearing a pair of faded blue overalls, pushed a wheelbarrow full of feed toward us and smiled at the boy and us. “He’s giving you the tour, huh?” He asked.

I said he was and doing a good job.

I finally was able to slip in between his explaining how the farm works to ask him how old he was and his name. His name was Parker, he said, and was six. When I asked how he knew all about the feed and the barn and the cows and milk, he said “I just do.”

Of course I know why he knows all he does. He is the son and grandson of farmers. Each day he watches the men who have shaped who he is and who he will become work hard for the life they want and they life they need. They work not only to survive, but to thrive.

His grandfather and dad milk the cows, care for the cows, feed the cows and they run the tractors, cut the hay, grind the corn and clean the barn. He is a boy being taught that to get what you want in life, whether that be a peaceful life on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania, or a life full of adventure and thrill, there must be some blood, sweat and tears shed. To reach a goal you work and you work hard.

It’s something his dad Mark knows a lot about. He thought he’d find his dream at college, but it was there he realized he had been living his dream all along on his family’s farm, right where he grew up. After he earned a degree he returned to the farm, the quiet, the tough life but the rewarding one that maybe he thought he never needed or wanted. Isn’t that how it is for a lot of us? We think we want something different from where we are and what we have when really, all we ever needed could be found right where we’d always been and among what we’d always had.

And sometimes we realize that what we want to do in life isn’t what will bring us monetary riches, but will bring us riches of the soul.

“Honestly, it is a labor of love,” Mark Bradley said. “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.”

It’s not a job.

It’s a lifestyle.

It’s a labor love.

So much of what we do that really matters is just that – a labor of love – work that might not light up our pocketbook but will light a spark in our spirit. And from that spark will come a fire that will burn through all the distractions of life and leave for us a clear picture of what is good and right and perfect about this thing we call living.

10 on 10 for January

Good light is hard to find in our house at any time, but it’s even worse in the winter. Luckily there seems to be one or two pockets of light to be found in at least a couple locations in our house. For this months’ 10 on 10 I thought I’d share ten images taken in those pockets of light. This post is part of a monthly blog circle. To continue the circle, following a group of photographers all sharing ten images from either a theme or a day or simply the previous month, follow the link at the bottom of this post.

To continue this blog circle visit Nikki Gould’s beautiful work!

The star

They carried the star up the steep, snow covered hill because the truck’s tires spun and sent the hunk of metal skittering sideways toward the old dirt road. In the end they left the truck in the field and slid the star, made of wood and strands of Christmas lights off the roof. Their breath steamed patterns out in front of them as they walked and the sun, a misleading sign of the outside temperature, cast long shadows onto the untouched surface of the snow that fell the day before.

Ropes were looped and tied and hooked on a pulley, the ladder was climbed and the star was hoisted with a couple reminders from father-in-law to son-in-law to “be careful of the lights! You’re hitting the lights on the tree!” But finally it was high enough and nails were hammered in to hold it in place.

Dad built the star several years ago and put it at the edge of the woods, at the top of the field and where people driving by on Route 220, across the Valley could see it. It has become a beacon, you could say. A beacon of good will, or peace, or joy or whatever it represents for each person who sees it. It can mean a lot of things for a lot of people but for Dad it is a sign of hope and the real reason behind Christmas. After all – isn’t that what the birth of Jesus was all about? Bringing hope to a hurting, fallen world?

So on this little hill, in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania my dad hangs his homemade, 50-some pound star, and with it hangs a little bit of hope – hope for health, for peace, for love for all, hope for the broken, the weary, the shattered souls.  And it reminds us who is the hope of the world.

Isaiah 9:6-7

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

Stuffed animals need hugs too

“Mama, wanna play with me? You wanna play with me?”

Her pleas sounded more like a demand than a request and I knew if I said ‘no’ she would keep asking, demanding and continue to look heartbroken and crestfallen.

Each day she follows me around with the same demand – I mean request – so I know the drill now and most days I’m thrilled she wants me to play with her.  What an honor to be the main person she wants to play and interact with in this season of her life.

On this day she had dragged her stuffed animal entourage onto the front steps and sidewalk. She set them up in a circle and sat in the middle of them and instructed me to do the same. Then I was directed to “‘tend you Mama bear,” which is the stuffed white Christmas themed bear that was given to me by my husband.

 

I pretended I was Mama Bear and asked the other animals how they were and Little Miss about her day.

I hugged the fluffy white Christmas bear against me and buried my face in its’ white fur.

Sitting there on the sidewalk in front of our house I felt nostalgic thinking about how my daughter was doing what I had once done.

As a child I would drag all my stuffed animals outside in our side yard in the country and set them up on a blanket and cuddle with them and care for them by covering them with blankets.

Even in our youth we women seem to have that mother instinct already ingrained in us it seems. We cradle and rock babies and whisper to them it’s all going to be okay even if we aren’t sure what okay means.

“What are you doing?” a small, slightly indignant voice brought me from rural memories back to the reality of the concrete surface of town life.

“I’m hugging the bears,” I answered, sure she would agree with my reason. “They need a hug right?”

Her expression was a mix of disgust and pity.

“Mama, they don’t need hugs,” she said and I swear I saw her tiny toddler eyes roll up just like a teenager. “They’re just toys.”

And just like that she burst my sentimental bubble of imagination and shattered it in a million pieces on the ground with her cruel dose of reality.

I shrugged.

Then I hugged the fluffy white bear and sniffled a little in its’ fluffy fur.

That’s okay. Someday she’d be old enough to understand that stuffed animals need hugs too.