Story and photos by Meredith Bernard
Some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in life I owe to cattle, crops, a farmer and a piece of dirt. As unpoetic as that may sound, it’s birthed from a life I never dreamed I’d be living and, as I now know it, a life I wouldn’t have any other way. Those lessons haven’t always come easy, but the ones worth learning rarely do.
For a girl who grew up with “rural roots,” but not on a farm, finding myself married to a farmer, raising two kids and a whole lot more cattle and crops together, has been in every way the most beautiful, messy journey of truly finding myself. From the outside looking in, a lot of people see nostalgia and romance in farm life, and they aren’t wholly wrong. There’s a big heaping of both on any given day, but there can also be a huge side of manure, mud, worry and stress dished up alongside. The real reward is in finding the silver lining, not living under the cloud.
So what has farming taught me? In so many ways, it has taught me there’s always worth in the wait.
Winter is not my favorite. In fact, I tend to think I wasn’t made for it, if that’s anything one can be allowed to think. It just doesn’t suit me. I don’t like cold temperatures. I don’t like cold rain. I don’t mind snow, but I don’t like having to work in it. I don’t like feeding cows every day in the mud. I don’t like the lack of sunshine or hours in the day. I also don’t like whiners, and sometimes that includes myself. The thing is, though, without winter, spring would never come…and I do like spring. Spring is the silver lining on the cloud of winter and though it may not come as soon as I’d prefer, when it does, I’m all the more grateful. There’s worth in the wait.
There is a day every year that seems to come out of nowhere. It will look a lot like me behind the wheel of my truck heading up our dirt drive and it will sound a lot like me saying to myself (or my dog or my husband or child, if I happen to not be alone)… “When did that happen!?” Because overnight, the trees will have budded, tiny shoots of green will start to show themselves, and I’ll once again remember that winter doesn’t, in fact, last forever. And on that day, in that moment, I’ll know that we made it. We made it through winter and once again the farm will begin the cycle of life that, every year over, gives me hope.
On our farm, spring means go and go means busy. Busy prepping soil for planting, prepping equipment for making hay, and prepping cows to wean their calves in preparation for having new ones. Busy moving cows to greener pastures and tending fences to keep them in. Busy buying seed, praying for enough dry weather to get it in the ground and enough rain to let it grow. Busy hoping for the best and falling back on faith to make it through the tests. Spring means new life, new beginnings, another chance to make a go. And it never fails to remind me there was worth in the wait.
Then comes summer with its heat, humidity and usually a touch of drought, along with the worry the grass won’t keep growing and we’ll not have enough for reserve. In the meantime, we make hay while the sun is shining, haul it from the field and lay it to rest in long rows or piled high under a few barns to keep for winter feeding. We’ll spend a week cutting corn for silage, pack it tight in its pit, cover it with tarp and tires and then sit, covered in dust and sweat, under a shade tree. With nabs and a Coke in hand, we’ll give thanks for the gift of friends that help with harvest and that nothing more broke down (because something always does.) We’ll talk about this year’s crop and compare it to ones in years past, because that’s what farmers do. Then we’ll say it’s good to have it in, because there’s worth in the wait.
Then one day, the wind will shift and I’ll find myself looking for a jacket (which will still be on the wall hook where I left it in early spring). I’ll head up the same dirt drive in the same old farm truck and exclaim with the same incredulity I did six months before, “When did that happen?!” The leaves will have started to change color and it will seem as if half let go of their grip on the limbs overnight. And then I’ll say (more than once)… “Fall is my favorite time of year, I’m so glad it’s finally here.” It’s always worth the wait.
Fall is my favorite time of year. Not because winter is coming, but because with it comes a second “spring.” Our farm bursts forth with new life not once but twice a year, the second time with a different ring. The sound will shift from the hum of tractors in the field to new calves bawling and mamas lowing in return. On the daily, our not-so-little-anymore family of four will pile into the mule (the kind with a motor, not a mouth) and go out and about the fields, checking for new littles. We’ll make sure all is well, take record of what we find and ooh and ahh over the wobbly legs, mamas licking them and their first attempts to nurse. There’s honestly nothing on earth like watching a newborn calf make its way into the world and honestly nowhere else I’d want to be than in that moment, watching it happen.
As with all living things, not everything always goes right. Those moments -- the hard ones when things go wrong -- have been the proving grounds for the biggest lessons of all. Sometimes it’s a Sunday morning right before church when my husband drives up with an orphan calf. We switch gears and do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Our kids will grab beach towels, rub the calf dry, and then we’ll bed it down in the barn. Colostrum (the calf’s first milk with all the antibodies it needs to get a good start) will be mixed and we’ll slowly but surely get him drinking from a bottle. Then, three times a day, he’ll be fed until he’s big enough and strong enough to move to twice-a-day feeding and eventually onto feed. Our children have and will continue to learn about the cycle of life in all its grit and glory and the responsibility we all have in helping see it through.
Then one day, the jacket won’t be enough and we’ll have to pull out the insulated bib overalls and gloves, and winter will be upon us once again. We’ll uncover the silage pit, load it into the feed wagon with the backhoe and haul it daily to the feedlots where the baby calves will now be big enough to eat it alongside their mamas at the trough. It will rain, there will be mud and it will be cold for a few months. Then one day, I’ll not need the coat, gloves or bibs and I’ll be heading back up the drive and notice those tiny green shoots again. And I’ll know once again, there was more than enough worth in the wait.
Meredith Bernard is a photographer, writer and farmer living and working with her husband and two children on a beef cattle farm in Milton, NC. Connect with her online at thisfarmwife.com.