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The meaning of Christmas on the farm

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Chores first. Always first. Christmas morning was never about waking up early to open gifts. Christmas morning was like every other morning during feeding season: Cows take priority. The cows have to be fed, bedded down, water checked, etc. before we could do our gift-opening or Christmas dinners. This was just the way it was.

Christmas Eve we went to our little country church. We came home and admired the Christmas tree for a while before heading to bed. We’d wake up Christmas morning to take care of the cattle. Then come in, eat lunch, and finally open gifts in the afternoon.

This is the scene on farms and ranches across the country, I’m sure. Whether it’s a holiday or not, the livestock always take precedence. This infuriated me when I was a child. Why couldn’t they wait an hour or two while we opened our gifts first thing? As I got older, it started making sense. Those cattle provide for us, and we have to provide for them. They are shouldering the cold winter temperatures to help us; we need to do everything we can to provide for them.

No matter the weather, livestock farmers always have to tend to their animals. (Image courtesy of Paula R. Lively, Flickr)

This time of year a lot of us are reflecting on not only the current year, but also our lives. I always like to do a checklist of what I’m pleased with, what needs work, and what is completely off the rails. Then a list of what I want my next year to look like — what do I want more of, what do I want less of, and what is working well. Then make a plan to make that happen.

My marriage is one of the most important things in my life. I value my husband, Matt. I value our relationship. I understand the effect of my marriage on my life. When I was first married, I naively thought we loved each other and that would be enough. I would be a good wife and he would be a good husband, and we would work all our differences out — and our lives would be a fairy tale.

Are you done laughing yet? I know, I know. Naivety is sometimes a glorious thing. Matt and I work together on his multi-generational family farm. Our marriage isn’t easy. It’s hard to find the line between hired hand and spouse. It’s hard to find the boundary between farm life and personal life. When my husband and I are two-thirds of the full time work force of our farm, it’s hard to take off when there is work to be done. And there is always work to be done. Always.

Extraordinary marriages don’t happen by accident. I would argue that farming is one of the most stressful businesses on a marriage. There’s so much uncertainty. So much freedom in decision making and, yet, so much riding on each decision.

Most every farmer I know feels like they work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, yet still doesn’t seem to be caught up. For me, work isn’t the ultimate goal. Maybe for you it is. Just keep in mind, your partner probably has different ideas. Marriages take a lot of work. It’s different for every couple, and I would be lying if I said we had it figured out. Every season is different. We have to keep working and adjusting to make us both happy.

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This time of year reminds us that life is short. We are here for a reason. Everything is happening for a reason. Everything is working together. If today was your last day, did you do what you wanted to do? What are you waiting for?

As we gather together through this season, I hope there is good food, good family, and good friends. I hope there’s good conversations, good thoughts, new ideas and shared history. I hope we remember that though the world is deeply divided right now, there is good. There is happiness. There is joy.

As you go to the dinners, grab a notebook. Write down the things that worked on the farm … and write down the things that didn’t. Write down what you wish for, where you want to go.
Write down the numbers that you don’t share with anybody. Put them in there: how many cows, calves, acres, etc. I’m not asking you to show them to anybody, but put them on paper. Then next year, you will be able to look back on it and see how you’ve changed. Keep this notebook. Write your notes in it. Your farm history is happening, and it is very rarely recorded except in the brains of farmers. Put it on paper so you can see it and your farm legacy will be recorded in your family. You will have good years. You will have bad years. It’s for a reason. Enjoy this season. Enjoy your family, and Merry Christmas!


Kelsey Pagel is a Kansas farmer. She grew up on a cow/calf and row crop operation and married into another. Kelsey and her Forever (Matt) farm and ranch with his family where they are living their dream and loving most of the moments.

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