October 05, 2010

Farming at 40

According to statistics provided by the United States government, less than 1% of people living in the United States claim farming as an occupation and about 2% of people actually live on farms.  The average age of the American farmer is 55.3 years of age, with an increasing number of farmers age 65 or over and a decreasing number of farm operators 35 and under.
As the summer rolls to an end, my husband recently had the distinction of moving one notch closer to this older statistic as he turned 40 in mid-August.   I have the privilege of being the “older woman” in our relationship, turning the big 4-0 back in March.  To be quite honest, I’ve found the start of a new decade in my life quite enjoyable.   Gone is the “anguish” of the teenage years, the “discovery and growth” of the 20’s, and what I term as a “floundering” decade of the 30’s.   At 40 comes a certain contentment with life.   The challenge for both of us is that our minds are often still in our 20’s while our bodies are starting to dictate otherwise!  Since turning 40, I have learned  at least five new words that end in –itis, and I’ve also discovered there are limits to what I can accomplish while helping (or sometimes hindering) here on the farm.
The unofficial motto for our farm family has long been “work hard and play hard.”  In recent years, our ability to play hard definitely impacts the threshold to work hard.   For instance, our bedtime is quickly backtracking to meet our son’s.  More than once we have actually fallen asleep on the couch/recliner before Dillon’s bedtime, and I jump awake to realize he is still enjoying TV.   That’s not exactly a proud moment as a parent.  Obviously, Dillon is entering his prime when he can go to school, help with chores, enjoy some playtime and still keep his eyelids open past 8:30 p.m.    For Donnie and me, getting caught up in a great 10 p.m. TV program or enjoying a late weekend night with our fellow farm friends results in sleep deprivation that is hard to recoup.  I remember back to the good old days at Penn State when we were just getting ready to go out at 10 p.m.  Now, I’m flossing my teeth, taking a variety of pills for one of those –itis words and applying over-priced night cream.
While farmers are early risers by nature, age now often dictates an earlier awakening than usual.   More than once recently my husband has grumbled “Had to get up and use the bathroom at 4/4:30/5 a.m.  Figured I might as well get up and get to work.”   Welcome to the world of bladder control, dear.   Turning 40 gives new meaning to “early to bed, early to rise.”  It’s not that we always want to get up early.  It’s that we have to!    Next comes tackling the stairs.  I never minded stairs when I was younger (except for the time when I was 5 and fell down a flight, knocking my front teeth loose), but at the day’s end – or beginning – my knees have become a symphony of snaps and pops.   My dream house list has quickly grown to include a single-level style or at least a design with as few stairs as possible.
Despite some physical shortcomings that might grow with increasing years, I have found most farmers embrace that getting older is more about attitude than age (with a little wisdom tossed in).   I chuckled to myself this summer when, after a particularly hot, long day of straw baling my “younger” husband proudly inquired if I saw him up in the barn stacking bales with several 16-17 year old very hard workers.  “I swept those boys under the table today,” said Donnie, reminding me of Dillon’s proud rooster out in the barn.   I admired his attitude, but I was fonder of my wisdom that day when I opted to haul wagons in an air-conditioned truck.   Employing age-induced wisdom has come in quite handy with other tasks lately.   This includes volunteering to watch the opening at the gate versus the tricky sorting of large market hogs,  offering to drive the tractor instead of trudging along the ground when we’re picking up rocks, or conveniently scheduling a meeting in town when it’s time to clean out pens or wean pigs.  I have found that many of these tasks which seemed quite easy when I first came to the farm 15 years ago take a bit more of a toll on me today.    One task I still don’t mind, although I’ve lost some of the gusto needed to accomplish it, is halter-breaking our sale calves.   After we wean calves in mid-August, the job is to put a halter on them and get the animals used to being tied, led and ready to show.  It’s the closest thing to a rodeo that I’ll every experience, and I love every minute of it.   I have found with my added years that I much prefer the smaller calves (along with the ones that don’t let out a bellar or kick), but I relish diving right into working with them.   Of all the years I have had the privilege to do this, there’s only been one emergency room visit, and it turns out my arm was just badly bruised, not broken.    I would rather spend an afternoon working on calves than doing just about anything else.   Not only does it rejuvenate my youth, it is one of the most rewarding tasks on this farm.   There are times when I’m poked back to reality, such as the time last year when we had a recent graduate from Penn State working with the calves for a week.   We were washing them one day and Adam was from Lancaster as well.  We were enjoying talking about our respective high schools and other details of our hometown.  All that reflecting had me back in my 20’s again, until Adam looked at me in the most polite, sincere way and said “you know, based on when you graduated from high school, you could be my mom.”  POOF!   Nothing like a little dose of reality to brighten your day.    I laughed when he said that because as two 40 year olds with an 8-year old son, we have found ourselves in that interesting position where  at certain functions we seem too young to be Dillon’s grandparents, yet just a bit too old to be his parents.    Thanks to Dillon, he’s one of the big reasons for keeping us young at mind.
Although it’s just started, the 40’s have been quite good to us.    The farm continues to prosper with limited (and aging) labor, the calves have taken it easy on us this season, and Dillon’s entry into 4-H and sports is keeping us on our toes.   While the medicine cabinet inventory contains a few more packages of Zantac, Advil and hot/cold therapy packs, we’re counting on our attitudes to get us to the next generation of American farmers.

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