Lessons from farm linger a lifetime

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Not long ago, I re-connected with a young friend who once was the little girl in my life, and what a joy it has been!

Heidi was a dark-haired toddler, initially so shy she rarely made a peep when I first came to know her. Her grandmother was known as the most uplifting, generous teacher in our district, and had approached me one day at school to ask if my parents had any rental homes available, as her daughter was looking for a place. Heidi’s mom soon came to inquire about renting the “dairy farm house” as we always called it.

From the beginning, it was a perfect fit; a hard-working single mom and her youngsters, Heidi and Scott, rounded out this sweet family. Dad came to adore those two children, and would often call Heidi by the wrong name in an attempt to draw her out, as she so often shyly hid behind her mother.

Early lessons

When Dad had new grain bins constructed, he invited Scott and Heidi to play inside, explaining they were safe only when empty, and only when he specifically invited them, as any place on the farm could look fun, but actually be dangerous. He never missed an opportunity to give a farm safety lesson. When he talked, kids listened.

Heidi found him imposing, this tall man with exceptionally dark set eyes, though she also came to know him as a man of kindness and integrity.

Life lessons

After recently re-connecting in writing, Heidi — who has traveled the world extensively, speaks numerous languages and is CEO and owner of a company in North Carolina — told me she has come to realize that starting life on our dairy farm shaped her life in wonderful ways.

I share some of her thoughts with her permission.

“At 13 going on and into 14, I milked the cows, kept things sanitary and tidy, fed the calves (and multitude of barn cats), and whatever else was needed to keep this small part of the farm running. Looking back, I don’t think I had any idea how much the farmer had to attend to so that the farm kept moving productively…

“I now recognize the practices we did at the time as ‘just the right thing to do’ would be called ‘organic’ today. It was all natural. Cows in the fields, only milk in the milk.

“We would occasionally drink the milk whole and warm straight out of the clear system pipe into Dixie cups that my grandmother brought to the milkhouse along with a pan of fresh brownies.”

Hard work

“It was hard work (the milking, not the brownie eating!) — the cows didn’t care if it was -20 with mighty winds, or 102 degrees, your birthday, Christmas, or a Jr. High school dance for which you were going to be late and made fun of (kindheartedly) for smelling of the barn.”

By the time Heidi was old enough for those school dances, I had moved to North Carolina for several years and returned, often helping Dad with the milking whenever he needed me. It was then that Heidi became my sidekick in the milking parlor.

Heidi remembers that when production went up significantly because of our relaxed, gentle approach to the herd, “so did my paycheck!” Heidi saved every penny, and it is this money that financed her first trip to India.

“Your dad would not have had to do that. I realize now what a kind and generous man he was.”

She describes my mother as a woman who “defined elegance for me early in my life… always well-manicured and made-up whenever I saw her: out in town, or in the milk house helping out, or at home letting us ride the metal pedal tractors (I loved those!) on the concrete pad in the yard.”

She says that my mother redefined the term “farmer’s wife” in Heidi’s personal vocabulary. She said she often tells people her childhood on the farm and later, her very first job there, set her on a good path, her character being formed before she was old enough to even realize it.

Heidi was, for me, a joy for many reasons, not the least of which for a time she became the little sister I never had. I loved to get her chattering, and it did my heart good that she looked after the barn cats.

Cast of life coaches

There are circumstances that come to shape us, both the paths we choose, and those chosen for us. Heidi says she will forever be grateful for having grown up in a small and caring farming community that helped to form the person she has become.

Like acts within a play, it is the various background settings, along with the characters, who bring color to the story, impacting the entire cast. As life’s reality unfolds without a script, we never know who is being impacted by our deeds and our words.

It touches my heart to know that my parents and the dairy farm played such a positive part in this wonderful life. Heidi credits our family farm and the community surrounding it for giving her a solid foundation for wherever she has roamed, from Madison Avenue to Dubai and the many diverse villages in between.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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