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The Suffering Farmer


Kate arrived in our lives like the deus ex machina from an ancient Greek play.  Chaos was at the height of her fury at Sap Bush Hollow:  Dad was limping through the fields, moaning from his easy chair as he fell into it each night. Mom couldn’t decide whether she despaired the endless to-do lists or the non-communicative (text-me-don’t-talk-to-me) interns more.  Bob and I wondered if we’d ever see each other again, if we’d ever know days off, much less be able to take our girls on a vacation.  And suddenly, this bright, curious, competent, and powerful young woman showed up on our doorstep, her only baggage a vet tech license and a  sense of humor.

Kate loved the work.  She loved the animals.  She loved the food.  She even liked my kids.  And she wanted to stick around.

It was her arrival into our lives, and a desire to keep her there, that made us finally take measures to pull ourselves together.  We crunched numbers, took farm transition and business planning classes, tore into the darkest recesses of our family finances and interpersonal dynamics.  We came up with a plan to make it work.

And we were able to entice her and her fiancé, Joe, to move to West Fulton.

Mom and Dad began spending time off the farm.  Bob and I scheduled to take the girls to the Moab desert next fall.  Saoirse jumped with both feet into the new business plan and began training herself to work in the cafe. Ula identified Kate as the ultimate superhero, and became her shadow, absorbing her fascination with animal health, along with every bit of information about observing, diagnosing and treating any possible ailment.

But it wasn’t long before Dad went back to moaning in his chair at night, Mom resumed complaining about the to-do lists,  Bob and I began working through our days off, and I relapsed into my most famous mode:  Don’t talk to me now.  I’m too busy and frantic trying to hold it all together.

I credit our nation’s renewed interest in the future of soil, good food and farming for fueling Kate’s journey to our pastures.  I credit  the Dust Bowl, and then fifty plus years of Post World War II farm culture for our dour degeneration once we had her here.

There was a time in our nation’s history, most notably during our golden age of homespun, when farming was synonymous with good living: solid houses, abundant food, established families, good business prospects, days of rest.  The industry took some bumps and turns, but the vocation held its appeal right up until the Dust Bowl, and then the industrialization of agriculture that began in the 1950s.  By the 1970s, we were drowning in a farm crisis in a nation that no longer cared about us.  It seemed like it wasn’t until we disclosed our new farming story:  that we were over-worked and underpaid, that we captured the attention we needed to start pulling ourselves out of the shit.  We were no longer esteemed family businesses, the backbone of our community.  Our survival was contingent upon our ability to  complain, and to incite guilt and pity in anyone who didn’t work as hard as us.  In my own family, it seemed like the culture of suffering rose to a whole new level:  being over-worked was a form of self-defense.  If you are over-worked and suffering, you can’t be asked to do something else.

I was reminded of all this the first week of June.  Bob and I were scheduled to deliver our fleeces to the mill, two days’ drive away in Prince Edward Island, on the 7th.  To be able to take those days away without letting things fall behind here required a Herculean effort.  There were several days when we had little more than three to five hours’ sleep.  Seeing our strain, Kate stepped in.  She let the kids come up to her place to watch a movie one night while Bob and I loaded wool.  We staggered up the stairs to her apartment to retrieve them sometime after 9 that night, flopping down on her couch while we waited for the film to finish.

“So you must be excited, right?”  Kate effused from her chair beside me.  “Four days away!  Gorgeous scenery!  Some rest! Great food!”

I turned and faced her as a sneer curled my lip up to my nostril.  “Excited?  No!  We have to work twice as hard for every day we take away!  This sucks!”

Her smile faded.  She rewarded me with a compassionate reply,  fully imbued with appropriate acknowledgements about how hard I work, which, of course, I was aiming for.

We rounded the girls up and brought them home, where I continued my dramatic display, dragging my body across the kitchen floor, using the bannister to pull myself up the stairs, complaining to the girls that I was too tired to read to them before falling asleep.

It was still dark outside when I woke up, the full weight of the stupidity of my actions heavy in my chest.

What was I thinking?  Living four miles down the road and only two miles from the farm is a young woman who is considering a future in farming.  She has thrown herself into the soup pot of family and business.  And sitting on her couch, I was faced with a simple choice.  I could tell her the soup was toxic, or that the soup was delicious.  And I told her the soup was toxic?!

In addition to farming with her family, Shannon Hayes has written six books: The Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, Radical Homemakers, Long Way on a Little, Cooking Grassfed Beef, and, most recently, Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled. They are available for sale in paperback and electronically at her website (Click!), as well as through most conventional channels.
In addition to farming with her family, Shannon Hayes has written six books: The Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, Radical Homemakers, Long Way on a Little, Cooking Grassfed Beef, and, most recently, Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled. They are available for sale in paperback and electronically at her website (Click!), as well as through most conventional channels.

Yes, I was tired at the end of a long day.  But I’d spent the entire day doing things that mattered to me, with people I love to be with.  And at the end of a long week doing just that, Bob and I were going to climb into the pick-up truck and drive up the coast with a load of wool, feasting on seafood at every stop, gorging on movies with free hotel internet, listening to audiobooks while we drove.  I’d knit while he was at the wheel, we’d have a chance to talk uninterrupted, to sleep in a bit, to check out coffee shops, to sit beside the ocean.

I replayed Kate’s question:  You must be excited, right?  The correct answer would have been Yes.  Yes, I’m thrilled to take this trip.  Yes, I love seafood.  I love the smell of wool in the back of the truck.  I love to touch the yarns and review the blanket orders at the mill.  I love to knit while we drive, to pull over to the side of the road and make a picnic wherever we happen to be, to hold Bob’s hand in the truck seat.  And, sure, there was a push to get ready.  But did I have to incite pity and guilt because of it?

longwaylittlesupportsOnPastureWhat am I imparting to the next generation of farmers with that kind of attitude?  My continued pleasure in this life is contingent on her newfound pleasure in this life.  The myth of the long-suffering farmer needs to be destroyed.  It will scare away the next generation.  It will ruin our own time in the vocation.

Kate stopped by my house just as the sun was coming up.  I rushed out to her truck.  Before she could even say good morning, I fumbled through an apology.  “Kate – That question you asked last night?  I was stupid in my answer.  Of course I’m looking forward to going!  I shouldn’t have said what I said. We all run around like our lives suck.  It’s like our family is in a competition to see who can suffer more.  But the truth is, it’ll be a great trip.”

“I know!  Riding in a pick up with your man!  I totally get that!”

I smiled.  “Kate?  Can I ask you just one favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Just don’t tell my mom.”

Photo credit: Destitute peapickers in California: a 32 year old mother of seven children, February, 1936: By Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, LC-USF34-9058-C (film negative)]







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Shannon Hayes
Shannon Hayeshttp://theradicalhomemaker.net
Shannon Hayes (also known as "The Radical Homemaker") works with three generations of her family producing grassfed meats on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. She is the author of several books, including The Grassfed Gourmet, Long Way on a Little: An earth lovers' companion for enjoying meat, pinching pennies and living deliciously, and Radical Homemakers. Hayes blogs weekly at TheRadicalHomemaker.net and holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, where she studied sustainable agriculture and community development.


  1. Congratulations on finding the silver lining, just don’t hide it from your mother. I grew up farming, farmed and have worked with farmers for the past forty years. It has always been dead hard work, less so as mechanization took hold, i.e. my brothers and their sons now ride in air conditioned cabs with better sound systems than my house and the hydraulics do the bulk of the grunt work.
    My parents worked hard, raised six children and never complained about work done or to be done. At 90 years of age, my father moved off the farm because he hated seeing work that needed to be done and he could no longer do it. If what you are doing isn’t working, why keep doing it? If it is working, why complain?

  2. I can relate to everything that Shannon has expressed in her article about the toil of ranching. It seems like every night I drag myself to bed and am so thankful for the hours I get to lay there and relax as I drift off to sleep. The work never seems to end and even when we get an intern to come in and do some of the mundane weeding and mulching of our gardens, my mind is soon going in a different direction, to determine where the cows are going to be moved to next or which steer will be loaded onto the trailer for butcher on Monday or the many tasks that lie ahead on one of the other ventures that keep this place hopping. For as tired as I get at the end of every day, I still would not want to be doing any other vocation or to have to be working for someone else who might have a different motivation as to how he would like my day to go. I love the interaction with the animals, the satisfaction I get when a customer exclaims how wonderful the 100% grass fed beef is or that they love the real chicken flavor of our certified organic pastured chicken. The work never seems to end but the enjoyment I get from working on our farm, raising sustainable meats, caring for the animals that really seem to be glad for their life and providing the best that is possible as far as food for consumption can be. We have a saying on our farm, “Our animals have a wonderful life, with one bad day.” That kind of sums it up for me.

  3. I read Psalm 65 which is versified by S. Wiersma. Especially this:

    You bless the earth with streams and rivers
    and with the gentle rain.
    You settle ridges, soften furrows,
    and bless the sprouting grain.
    You crown the year with ample harvest;
    a rich abundance springs.
    All flocks and grains and hills and meadows–
    yes, all creation sings.

  4. That’s a good and interesting comment, about which I would like to hear more. I am not certain well you are located.

    Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed this piece. Most of my friends who are ranchers don’t complain; they love their lives — even if they love them with a deep and penetrating silence.

    But I get it. On those few occasions that I have done ranch work, I have been dead tired exhausted. Everything takes soooo much time. Hauling (by horseback) salt up to cattle in the high Uintas – endless. Still, you have to love that life. The commenter above can contact me if you are so inclined at chevaliercommunications@gmail.com. Or find my own website http://www.joanchevalier.com

  5. I think some overload comes from all the extra time spent due to government regulations. And it is not just the paperwork.

    Some we are so used to we don’t even think of them. As sheep ranchers we can no longer control, and the government trapper is also no longer allowed to use, effective means of coyote control. This means an extra hour a day feeding guardian dogs. More for ranchers with sheep in different locations. And not being allowed to use Selenium fertilizer like Oregon ranchers are allowed to do. Instead we have to give Selenium shots and use loose mineral, which is a lot more time consuming than a mineral/salt block.

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