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No Rose Colored Glasses: The Harder Realities of Farm Life

May 27, 2015

As someone over at the “I Grew Up Country” Facebook group commented, “It takes someone being off the farm for many years to remember only the romance,” (or something like that): the magic of fireflies on a late May evening, the walks through fresh smelling woods and pastures, finding refreshment and renewal from the hard hard work that is true farm life.

I shared my egg gathering “fight in the hen house” story here in the early days of my blog, a trip back to the farm during my mother’s 90th birthday days celebration last summer, and special memories here. But the actual labor, well, it is anything but romantic.


Caged chicken layer house, circa mid 1960s.

This picture takes me back there, and in ways I don’t even want to think about: our chickens in their pathetically small cages over rows of manure. Dad cleaned the crap out frequently but 10,000 chickens make a lot of you-know-what. The stench was so bad you either had to wear a dust bonnet to keep your hair from reeking, or always shower and wash your hair before going somewhere. When you gather eggs twice a day, showering after each time isn’t always possible. I think about that when I whiff “dairy farm” in the local hardware or Walmart sometimes.


Me reloading layers of eggs into cartons. Notice trendy boots.

And here are the egg gathering carts I mentioned but didn’t have a photo of when I wrote about egg gathering–the way we did in the cage layer house. Lifting cases with 30 dozen eggs in it—that’s 360 eggs—wasn’t easy. Doable, but it could get to your back after awhile.

In summer, bailing hay and straw was the hottest, heaviest, sorest-muscle inducing labor there was: no wonder most farmers use the huge round bales nowadays and move the bales by tractor.


We’ve been behind on our garden work this year due to an early beach vacation, extremely long hours for my husband, and my own horribly hectic work and evening meeting schedules. So this past Memorial Day weekend, we buckled down and whipped the yard and garden back into shape. I was so bushed and almost staggered with fatigue. I remembered summers helping Dad on our farm in Florida, where Deep South unrelenting sun and heat—especially after nine months of being spoiled by the sheltered life of a college student—made me almost faint after getting up from the tractor seat.

I’ll take office work any day over baling hay or hefting egg cases, and find it mildly interesting that my three daughters, at this point in their lives, have also ended up being office workers in various capacities. They have good, interesting jobs, but it boils down to a computer, a desk, and a chair.


Little log cabin on the farm: top left, Pert; me, and little brother, Terry on stoop. Sister Nancy owned a camera, so she was taking the shot. No selfies back then.

But, at day’s end or week’s end, there was rest. My father built a cabin in our back pasture in Indiana and we’d retreat there for Saturday night hamburgers. Here’s one of the first picnics we ever had back there. And on Sundays, we only did the work we had to do—gathered eggs and fed animals. Everything else would wait.


Basketball “court” beside our garage; notice chimney which heated the garage with small wood stove.

Here’s another way we wound down after gathering eggs or even catching chickens, shooting hoops. Notice the brightly painted rectangle around the hoop, the better to train my hoops-star sister. Here is also where we stored our garbage and trash until it was either burned or (yikes) cans dumped in the woods. “Slop” (food leftovers) went to the hogs, of course. Not so much romance here, either.

Life on the farm? I’ll have to say I’m happy to be surrounded by green hay fields, but I’m glad I’m not farming them.



Did you grow up on a farm? Do you remember the work or the fun times? Anything specific?

If you didn’t grow up on a farm, did you ever wish for that life? Why?


Dinner on the farm as a family? Of course, every day, either at noon or in the evening. I’m pleased to know people still value keeping family dinner, as I wrote about in this book, available from the MennoMedia store and elsewhere on line.

Whatever Happened to Dinner?

From → Family Life, Nature

  1. Boy, oh boy, I remember the harsh realities of farming – tomato plants brushing against my legs as the hot sun tattooed green gunk onto my skin. One summer as a teenager, I was the hired girl for a farm woman pregnant with twins. My job included feeding steers, gathering eggs, and garden work – all in the hot summer sun.

    It was a simpler time, but not necessarily an easier one.

  2. The farm is a perfect place for young children. Open space, freedom to explore, and (relative) safety. A literal free range. And it teaches many lessons. But it punishes severely those who don’t work hard and discipline all the labor available. So the adolescent years can seem harsh. Nature is wonderful when you work with it, but you always need to weed and heave and sweat. Even then, one storm can sweep away all your hard work.

    Great stories and pictures. Good for demythologizing.

  3. Robert Martin permalink

    Lessee… up at 6 in the morning to head out to the barn when it’s 20 Farenheit to milk the two goats who were currently in milk… having to remove my gloves so I could actually do the milking and coming back inside with a gallon and a half of fresh milk but numb hands… and then, while the milk is being filtered into the quart jars for refridgeration, BACK out into the darkness to gather the water bottles from the rabbit cages to thaw them out so our protein source would have water during the day…

    …and let’s not forget the hours and hours and hours spent in the vegetable garden from late March to mid-October tilling, harrowing, planting, weeding, etc. Picking potato beetles off the plants and putting them in a jar of kerosene was gross… but then turning around and dumping the jar out in the driveway so you can light it up with a match was SOOOO cathartic…

    …and let’s not forget the many late nights gathered around the bushel basket on the back patio with my grandparents, cousins, parents, and siblings hulling beans and peas, snapping beans, and sharing the stories of the past and present together.

    In some ways, there’s a romanticizing. But now that I have my own vegetable garden complete with all the sweat and blood and stink and mess, I realize that it was in those horrible painful, unconfortable, and difficult parts of farm life that the real character building happened… and I remember that pain of the past as a GOOD thing now… but ask my 14 year old self and he’ll tell you he’d rather be sleeping….

    • Robert, you haven’t commented on here in eons!! Glad you were inspired to contribute your own little post here filled with excellent additional ammunition for why we’re glad for a farm upbringing, but glad it is over, except for the gardening …. 🙂 At least that’s where I’m at. I do like gardening now for the exercise, the fresh food, the therapy after being chained to a desk; but I’m not a big fan of the canning and freezing that goes along with a big garden.

      Love your trace-back to your 14 year old self!

      • Robert Martin permalink

        For me, the farming isn’t over… just reduced in scope. We have a plot at Bally Mennonite Church in their God’s Acre area where my family and I have our little torture plot of beans, tomatoes, cabbages, kale, peppers, carrots, squash, melons, and red beats…

        …yeah, I’m inflicting this pain on my own kids and darn it, if they won’t appreciate it some day. 😉

  4. Athanasia permalink

    Well, I grew up on a farm, property of my mother’s family, going back to my great grandparents and their siblings. They managed to amass quite a large area. By our time much was cleared for fields but we have various woodlots and treed areas still. The house we lived in was built by my (not yet) maternal greatgrandfather’s business for my maternal grandmother’s family (dairy farmers) . My grandmother Leenie (Magdelena) met my grandfather Abram during this time. They were married a year later, when she was 18 and he was 21. He continued to work for his father, eventually setting up a cabinet making workshop on the property and leaving his father’s business. They had 10 children. My husband now owns and runs the cabinet making business…I met him when he came to see about buying from my mother and her siblings.

    So we live on a farm, but my own immediate family of mother and father have never been farmers. My parents were both teachers. My family before me and my mothers siblings, many now still are dairy farmers and cheesemakers from Switzerland. It was in the late 60’s when they decided to move the dairy cows to another location with other relatives and close our cheese factory which combined with another family one south of us. The factory building is still on the property , it is located by the spring that provided the cold water.

    My uncles and cousins grow various crops…we have silage corn and alfalfa and hay and soy beans and 2 of my uncles grow sunflower seeds for a company east of us. One of my aunts raises turkeys every year for Thanksgiving. My oldest girl and some of her cousins have a free range egg farm and a CSA. They have also taken over the honey business of an older couple. A year ago she started with goats to milk and sells that so far to a woman who makes soap with it. We have a farm stand that is along the circle drive for the woodworking business mainly run by my 2 oldest uncles and their wives but which my youngest girl has taken a strong interest in. She is constantly down there during the growing season selling whatever she can, like asparagus, rhubarb, zinnia seeds, hickory nuts…she even talked me into putting out some pies last year.

    We love being out here and I so dislike seeing the subdivisions that are popping up in what used to be farm land. I know some folks just have no one to take over their farm and the need to sell for their retirement is just so strong and developers are so pushy. The family has had some luck in acquiring property over the years before it goes on the market, such as the honey and the egg farm. The egg farm used to be a standard one, similar to the one you described, before, until they converted it. I learned how to do many things on the farm and we all knew to help when it was needed but I have never driven a tractor. I never wanted to…I’m kind of a coward around machinery. For me farm work was always fun, but I never did the year round every day work of it as my existence as my other relatives did, and many of them still do.

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