Farming and Parenting
What happens when children enter the farming life?
Written onNovember 17 , 2014
Farming isn’t a job—it’s a lifestyle. While most people have a job that is away from their home and family, farmers often don’t. Their farm is their home (ideally), and if they have kids, those kids are part of their work (often). One could argue that the busiest people in the world are farmers and parents. For those who are both, how do they manage?
Jennifer Blackwell of Elmer Farm in East Middlebury farms with her husband, Spencer, and their three children, Angus, 8, Ida, 5 ½, and Mabel, 1. While talking with me for this article, Jennifer canned 14 quarts of tomato sauce and nursed the baby; this is how farmers manage to do it all. They are experts at multitasking and efficiency, and the kids seem to develop those same skills. Farm kids grow up working because that’s what is happening around them all the time. Parents invest tremendously when the kids are too young to help out, and then later hope to reap the benefits when the children are truly able to be productive.
Angela Russell and her husband, Craig, run Brotherly Farm in Brookfield and Randolph Center, where they have an organic dairy herd, as well as turkeys, chickens, and pigs. Angela says of their three children: “They are simply always there helping in some way, sometimes by their desire and sometimes not. The oldest [at 14] in the last two years has become a critical part of the cropping by driving tractors and being able to do all the things that an adult could do to help. When time is short or there is extra work that needs to be done (or they want to), they help with milking. Every day there are animal chores at the house and that is something they accept as a normal day.”
Farming offers children a set of life skills that most kids today just don’t get. “Farms are great places for children to learn and experience life, death, hardship, and joy—our children have already gained more than they realize from living on a farm,” says Christa Alexander of Jericho Settlers Farm in Jericho Center. Christa and her husband, Mark Fasching, grow organic vegetables and meat on the farm where Christa grew up. She says their youngest child, Hazel, 4, “loves to help and has been known to spend all day in the field with me on harvest days—helping pick up kale bunches, digging for worms, painting with mud, taking a nap in the car when she feels like it.”
But Christa adds, “The only downside [of farming with kids] is the huge time commitment the farm takes, which means less family time than we’d like. I am very aware that the farm can make us too tired or stressed to give them all the attention they need at certain times. But it has required them to become very independent and able to self-entertain, as we’re not always available to take care of every need for them.”
Work does become easier when you enjoy it. Lila Bennett of Tangletown Farm in West Glover says that she and her husband, David Robb, decided to focus their farming venture on livestock rather than vegetables because animal chores seemed easier to do with children. “What kid wants to weed all day?” Lila jokes. “Not many I can think of. But caring for baby piglets doesn’t seem to get old…. Just yesterday our middle child [at 9 years old] said, ‘Today is the greatest day! All my favorite animals arrived: piglets, chicks, and bunnies!’” Lila also says, “We try really hard to only expect just a teeny, tiny bit more than we think they [the children] can handle. It seems to work.”
Not only do farm kids get to develop their own work ethic and skills, they also have the opportunity to see their parents hard at work; most other kids watch their parents drive away to perform mysterious tasks at some mysterious place. That said, the work that farm kids observe is sometimes slowed down for their benefit, “We don’t farm at an adult pace very often,” says Lila. “We farm at a kid’s pace. Sometimes it takes a lot of deep breathing.”
Farm kids also see the direct connection between work and livelihood. They follow the journey of the butternut squash from a seed in a greenhouse in snowy March all the way to harvest in October, and then to market in November; when money changes hands for that squash, the children can understand where that money came from. “[Our children] get to see Spencer and I working hard and doing work that is really meaningful to us,” Jennifer says. “It feels good to role model that for them.”
Certainly one luxury of farming is eating well. For many children, trips to the grocery store do little to illuminate where food actually comes from and what needs to happen before we can eat it. But the more kids are involved in growing, harvesting, and cooking their vegetables, the more likely they are to eat them. “The kids will try most anything if they pick it themselves,” Jennifer says.
This idea—that the spirit of adventurous eating will be strengthened when kids observe food’s journey from soil to plate—is harder for most people to accept when we talk about meat. Farm families couldn’t spare their children the reality of slaughter even if they wanted to. In order to ease their children’s reaction to the death of the animals they’ve helped raise, Lila and Dave are clear with their children that some animals on the farm are pets while some are there for other purposes. The children understand the difference, but Lila says that hasn’t always been the case.
“We made the mistake years ago with the first sow we ever got. Her name is Franny, and she is probably 600 pounds now and hasn’t had a litter in two years. But our kids love her and we can’t get rid of her; it would be a disaster. So we have a humongous, expensive pet.”
Angela Russell says her children—Alex, 14, Emily, 10, and Abigail, 8—easily take in stride the relationship they have with the food animals and appreciate how much better the meat is that is grown on their land. Large animals get sent away to the butcher, but the Russells slaughter poultry on-farm, which can have more of an impact on their children. “Generally, I try to process [the poultry] while the kids are away, just to spare them a little,” Angela says. “That being said, they have all been there on processing days and it does not seem to bother them. I think this is probably because they have been exposed to it since they were young.”
She admits, however, that the situation is more difficult when they have to ship a dairy animal to the butcher for either health or overstock reasons. “They kids know that meat animals serve a purpose and only stay for a while,” she says. “The dairy animals also serve a purpose, but since it is a longer purpose, everyone seems to get attached to specific animals or animals’ families…. We have to let some animals go because we can’t just keep everything. This creates a bit of tension and unhappiness for a while, but we have yet to figure out a way around the problem. I think this is one of those life skills or coping things that farming teaches: We can’t always have everything.”
At times, going from being a farming couple to being a farming family can require an adjustment. Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell started farming independently of each other at the Intervale Farm in Burlington, then joined forces when they started Elmer Farm in 2006. Jennifer says, “We were farming before [we had] kids, which in my experience was difficult since as a couple we had a rhythm of farming together and we shared many of the same tasks. I drove tractors, laid out pipe for irrigation, and took part in all aspects of production.” Jennifer and Spencer now have three children, for whom Jennifer has been the primary caregiver. Over the years they have had to figure out how to maintain her role as partner in the farm when she doesn’t do the same tasks that she did at the farm’s inception.
“Once my daughter was born, it was much more difficult to keep up with the demands of being a mother caring for a newborn and spirited toddler and farming alongside Spencer. It was clear we had to divide up tasks,” Jennifer says. “We planted more that year and hired our first employee mid-summer. It was a blessing to have a worker to fill in for my absence but it also sent me into a deep depression. It was heartbreaking to see someone in my place.”
As the children and the farm grew, Jennifer began to find a niche on the farm, doing more office work, as well as managing the CSA membership and communication, and farm-to-school events. Jennifer and Spencer’s roles were becoming more and more divided. “We balanced each other well, as he loved being in the fields and I easily connected with our customers and drew them into our business,” Jennifer says. This natural divergence of tasks came with a price though: Jennifer struggled with the loss of her identity as a farmer. “It took time for me to gain confidence in being a mother, and a much longer time to find balance between being a mother, a farmer, a business partner, and wife.”
Caitlin Burlett and Jesse Kayan of Wild Carrot Farm in Brattleboro raise vegetables and meat on 42 acres of land. They are also new parents; daughter Selah was born this past summer. Caitlin talks about how she and Jesse recently started using horses on their farm and were learning that skill together. “I did a lot last year with the horses, and some this winter, but as I got more and more pregnant, it just didn’t make sense for me to be doing it,” she explains. “Jesse’s just taking off on his whole learning curve, so now, even when I could be doing it, he’ll be able to do it faster and better, so it will make more sense for him to do it.”
Given that soft skills on a farm, such as customer relations and website design, are easier to do from the house, or after hours when children are sleeping, they are tasks that can easily become the woman’s purview. This work is important to the running of a successful farm, but can require an adjustment in identity for a farm woman who is used to driving a tractor or managing a harvest. “That’s true with a lot of different aspects (of farming),” Caitlin says. “I feel left behind, almost.”
Raising children on a farm is indeed an intense, all-encompassing experience, with many advantages, and also many challenges. But what do the kids think?
Jennifer Blackwell tells the story of her son Angus. “This year Angus was working a sharing project for school. Part of this was a fill-in-the-blank worksheet. On the last line of this sheet he had to finish this sentence: ‘I am special because...’ and his answer was ‘I live on a farm.’”
Yes, farm kids and the farming parents who support them are definitely a special bunch.