Enjoying the quietest month

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snowy spruce trees
(Ivory Harlow photo)

January was a quiet month on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. Maybe it was quiet because we were quiet, drained after December’s month-long buildup to Christmas and New Year’s.

Maybe it was quiet because most of our farm machines, like all of our fields, were quiet. Whatever the reason, January still brought 100 Holstein cows to our dairy barn twice a day.

These mid-winter milkings always began in morning darkness and always ended in nighttime darkness. That dark-to-dark schedule didn’t make the days longer but it sure made ‘em pass more slowly. Even the cows sensed it. They were slow to trudge into the parlor and slow to leave its semi-warmth. Our slower-than-usual, nothing-to-do-today pace became their slow, nothing-to-do-either pace. It was the one time of the year man and bovine seemed to be in perfect synch.

Same pace

That January pace was the same pace Jackie, the farm’s full-time field hand, maintained year-round. Neither laggard nor speedball, Jackie mostly used this one gear — equal to about third gear our on farm’s fleet of Oliver tractors — whether he was bedding the dry cow shed in winter or hauling hay in summer.

Jackie was never in a hurry because time wasn’t something he watched. As long-time readers may recall, Jackie didn’t watch time because he couldn’t tell time. Time was a concept to him, not a fact. As such, time to Jackie became the time it took for him to drink a cup of Folger’s instant coffee in the dairy barn as he watched the morning milking. Time then became the time the mailman drove by, about 10 a.m. most days.

Noon was when he noticed everyone on the move — dinnertime, don’t you know — and quitting time, 6 p.m., was when he figured it was time for him to quit. In more than 25 years of working on that farm, Jackie rarely missed any of those times by more than 10 minutes either way.

Even slower

In January, however, Jackie’s slow pace slowed even more. He’d linger over two cups of Folger’s in the dairy parlor each morning. My father, always patient, said nothing. It was, after all, January. Soon enough, Jackie would disappear to do the chore he knew awaited him and, an hour or so later, he’d be back in the dairy barn for another cup of coffee.

Again, my father, always patient, said nothing. Howard, the dairy’s full-time herdsman, had a similar no-clock clock. Unlike his younger brother, however, he could tell time; he just didn’t need to.

Most Januarys passed without my great Uncle Honey on the farm. Technically, according to the Social Security Administration, anyway, Honey was retired, so he often spent winter afternoons playing either euchre or pinochle with some friends as a baby bottle of Budweiser, his daily limit, warmed nearby.

One January he and Aunt Esther actually took a Caribbean cruise to — if memory serves correctly — all points south, including Venezuela.

Some relief

My father, who did not inherit Honey’s hurry-up giddy up, must have been elated: an entire month with no iron to unbend or weld, no tractor clutch to repair or replace, and no fire to be on the lookout for, or to put out.

The person on the farm who enjoyed January’s slack pace more than anyone had to be my mother. With Christmas over, all the children back in school and no Uncle Honey to cook noon dinner for, she finally had time to pursue her passion, sewing. Weeks-long sessions yielded dresses, shirts, winter coats and blouses that were so finely crafted that no one could tell whether they were homemade or store-bought.

Soon enough, though, February always arrived. Along with it came Jackie’s single-cup mornings, the threat of a refreshed Uncle Honey reappearing and, usually, a long-enough thaw to remind us that another year’s fieldwork was about to begin.

And that was just fine; we had enjoyed a quiet January, after all.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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