When many people drive past a farm or stop in for a visit, they gravitate to some of the most common (or even cliché) sights that embody those farms: tractors new and old, that one ornery steer fussing from the safety of the other side of the fence, or an old farm dog who tries his best to look and sound ferocious (but deep down is really just waiting for his farmer owner to wave and love on him). Or, perhaps, it is that classic image of the old farmer, whose weathered face tells the story of a lifetime of hard work and touts an abundance wisdom from atop a pair of faded overalls.
Amid all of this, there is one aspect of farm life and farm living that those on that outside rarely notice, one that is often a cog vital to running the entire machine: the farm kid.
These youngsters are hard-working and seemingly underappreciated by a public that is often in the dark about the contributions made by farm kids in helping to provide food, fiber, and fuel. The environment that shapes a farm kid is unique. They are born into a way of life that only 1 percent of the population experiences. From following their parents’ muddy boot prints to and from the barn as soon as they can walk, to being a teenager helping dad do an emergency wrench job on a failed implement so they don’t fall another day behind, they learn to prioritize what is really important for the sake of the family farm. Work ethic is expected, not merely hoped for in a farm kid. Every season is a classroom that teaches these kids life lessons that they will carry with them forever.
Farm kids learn about chores, sacrifice, and the all important individualism that is the American farmer — all while still embracing community.
And it’s not all work and no play for farm kids — actually very much the opposite. Many will do a full day’s work on the farm and then hit football practice that evening and give 110 percent. Figuring out baseball practice in the spring when planting season on the farm is starting to gear up. Stacking hay all day in that summer heat makes them appreciate that ice cold cola and air conditioned movie theatre that night just a little more than the folks around them. The young woman’s prom picture doesn’t tell the story of her day that started early feeding and caring for the livestock.
Building forts in the hay loft and catching snakes at the pond may very well be the national pastime of every young farm kid.
I was blessed with three farm boys of my own, even though one is now away to college. Only a farmer understands what it is like to break up a brother fight in the middle of a field. Only to see them goofing around and laughing with each other 15 minutes later. I don’t have any daughters, but I know their work ethic and tenacity on the farm is no less significant. How do I know this? Because I married a farmer’s daughter. She can do anything on the farm I can, and I’m grateful to her for teaching my boys what a strong female farmer looks like.
And, to be sure, farm kids are not just “extra” or “free” labor, and of course, no farmer wants their kids hurt while working the farm.
But they are not exempt from the dangers that come from farm life. We do regular #farmerdown posts on our social media. In November of 2019, here in Central Indiana, we lost an 18-year-old named Colten Howard in a grain bin accident. It stood out in particular to me because I have boys that age. They like to hunt, fish, play sports and goof around, too. Remember him.
My middle son, Elijah, experienced a pretty bad accident while fixing an implement. I cautioned him a few times to be careful, but sure enough he got into a hurry and told his younger brother to lower the implement while he was still underneath it. His younger brother could not see he was still under it and lowered it. Thankfully his trip to the ER involved only stitches, but could have been so much worse. I recall looking at him laying there getting stitched up, telling me it hurts while I replied, “Cowboy Up” … and then walking outside the room to hide my tears knowing it could have been worse.
Here is to the dairy kids who wake before dawn and work past dusk because dairy farming is twice a day, 365 days a year. Here is to the row-crop kids who plant until it is planted and cart until it is harvested. Here is to the ranch kids who stay up late with the sick calf and then cry when it doesn’t make it, ready to do it all over again. Here is to the orchard and vegetable crop kids who labor in the heat to keep that produce aisle full. Here is to those farm kids. To their resilience, courage and work ethic. They are our future.
Jonathan Lawler operates Brandywine Creek Farms in Indiana and is an advocate for hunger relief and agriculture. He is working on a TV show called Punk Rock Farmer coming in the spring. His motto is FARM OR DIE.