The Experiences of an Old Farmer

If you live in eastern Pennsylvania, chances are that you either live in or know someone who lives in a housing development. There has been a serious amount of suburban sprawl in the past two decades in the areas surrounding Philadelphia, Reading, Scranton and Bethlehem. These developments are generally situated on what was once rural farmland. The people that used to operate these farms are of a dying breed. George and Joe are two brothers who are among this relatively unknown generation of agricultural producers. They owned and operated a small dairy farm in Bally, PA for their entire lives and their parents did the same before them. Although this generation is quiet and reserved, it seems very important to understand the way they lived before they are no longer around to tell us about it. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on things that aren’t practiced in modern agriculture, but were once common knowledge. For example, it was once common knowledge in Pennsylvania that a bull is only kept by a dairy farmer until it is one and a half years old; just old enough to make new calves, but not old enough to be overly aggressive.

How to Get an Old Dutchman to Start Talking

George and Joe are two friends of my grandfather who was also a life long farmer like most of his ancestors. I used the excuse of visiting my grandfather at his room in the rehab center to begin speaking with them. As I’ve said before, this generation of farmers is very resistant towards outsiders and people they do not know. And so, I had a difficult time trying to get these old Dutch farmers to respond to my inquiries in any meaningful manner. Luckily, my father had given me some background on what might spur these brothers into an interesting, if not amusing, response. After a few unsuccessful probing questions, I hit the button by asking about the owner of a milk truck company.  I asked, “Have you heard anything about Borneman recently?”

“That dumb bastard,” replied George, “I don’t think he’s driving trucks anymore. I think he stopped after he stopped delivering for Rosenberg.”

“He was the owner of the milk trucks you drove, right?” I said, very happy to find him beginning to speak openly in front of me.

“Yep. That’s the guy. Your grandfather drove for him too.”

“Was that for the extra cash? To make a little extra on the side?”

“Just something that we needed to do make ends meat. Wouldn’t have worked for a slug like that if I had the choice.”

“But you still had dairy cows?”

“Yea.”

Lessons in Dairy Farming

Growing up on a local dairy farm that was similar to theirs, I have fairly extensive experience with this subject, but not how they would have done it when these two farmers began in the early 1950’s. I asked them how things had changed over the course of their farming lives. George replied by giving a kind of synopsis of his life. He grew up on a family farm. The same one that he farmed for decades on. They didn’t have vacuum pumps originally to milk the cows. It was done by hand. Most people don’t understand how incredibly exhausting this is. I’ve had to do it a few times during power outages and by the end of 10 heifers being milked, your hands start to cramp and your forearms feel like they’re going to fall off. I asked him what they called it on their farm because I knew what the action of milking a cow is called in this part of Pennsylvania. “It’s called pullin’ teats,” answered George. That elicited a chuckle from Joe, his brother, who just sat quietly throughout almost the entire conversation. I guess 7th grade humor isn’t something you grow out of.  At some point they upgraded to vacuum pumps which makes life so much easier when you have to milk 60 cows twice a day. They used galvanized steel pipes and tanks for the milk up until the 60’s when stainless steel became standard equipment. He concluded by remarking that not much had changed since they first started farming.

“You were pretty deeply involved with the local dairy industry. You not only produced milk, but you ran the trucks to gather it. Was there some other way you were involved? Were you licensed to test the milk as well?” I asked.

“He’s definitely a Keebler,” George said to my grandfather, “All three of us in this room were licensed. We had to test everyone’s milk for antibiotics before we could pump it into our trucks. Other wise that guy’d be screwed. Have to buy out the milk in the truck because the dairy wouldn’t take it at all.”

“You mean that he’d have to buy the other farmers’ milk because his tainted the entire batch?”

“Yep. That’s right.”

“Did you test for anything else in the milk?”

“Butterfat content.”

“That made the milk worth more?”

“Yea. You’re grandpa here was a smart one and kept a few extra brown cows in his herd and that kept his butterfat up, that bastard,” George said this all jokingly and my grandfather just smiled and made a few remarks back.

A Visit to the Farm

Part way through this initial conversation I made arrangements to visit their farm. I drove over at around one in the afternoon the next day. These guys were retired for less than a year and somewhat stir crazy. Their farm was now run by someone else. I could tell they hated that they no longer owned the property, but they’re old men with no next of kin. They have no family to pass the farm on to and they needed to retire so they lotted off a property for themselves and sold the rest.

Luckily, the new owner of the farm was allowing us onto the property so that I could take some pictures and see their farm for myself. I met them outside the barn and I asked if they would like to be in a few pictures. The brothers are very shy and asked, with some very colorful language, that I respect their privacy and not include them in any pictures, or post their address and full names on the internet. I completely understood. I should have already assumed they’d feel this way.

We began our tour around the barn. It was a run of the mill red, two story barn. Well, it was run of the mill for the time it was built. Modern barns are not built at all like they were in the late 19th and early 20th century. Cows were on the bottom floor of this barn, and the top floor was reserved for storing thousands of bales of hay. This top floor is called the loft. It is a very dangerous place because the stacks of bales go up 50 feet and there are several chutes and holes in the floor leading directly to the bottom floor. These chutes are all covered with loose hay so you have to be familiar with the barn to work confidently in the loft.

Their barn was built 2 or 3 centuries ago and rebuilt several times since then

Their barn was built 2 or 3 centuries ago and rebuilt several times since then

George began reminiscing about how barns are not built in the same way anymore. He told me that most are single story pole buildings with aluminum siding and spray-on insulation. Then he told me a story about the dangers of a hay chute. He was at an auction held inside the loft of a barn because it was raining outside. Two guys had sat on top of the hay hopper to get a better vantage point. When they went to get down, they climbed down part of the hay chute. The first guy climbed down normally, but the second guy decided to jump down just as his brother Joe was yelling that jumping was a bad idea. It was too late and the guy fell straight through the thin, hay covered lid and down to the bottom floor. George and everyone else were discussing how it wasn’t funny, but they were all laughing. They laughed harder when the man reemerged covered in cobwebs and dust from the chute.

There were some old milk cans sitting by the side door to the barn. I asked George if he had used cans like these when he was a younger farmer. He shook his head, but it wasn’t to say no. Of course he had used them. That’s the way things were done back in the day. It’s how they originally transported milk. He was thinking about his brother. “That dumb bastard,” he began, “Wouldn’t seal the cans properly. They kept spilling.” I realized that “bastard” was just about his favorite word in the whole world. On a family farm in Pennsylvania, that’s a fairly vulgar word; at least from his generation that came out of the 40’s. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my grandfather swear, and from what my dad tells me, he never drank either. The same goes for other local farmers in the area that I know.

I noticed that the new farmer was growing soybeans in the field. We do that on my farm as well, but we no longer have dairy cows. “You never grew soybeans like that, did you?” I asked, pointing towards the fields on the western side of the property.

“We only ever grew hay and corn,” said George.

This corn crop is grown for feeding the dairy cattle

This corn crop is grown for feeding the dairy cattle

“Same on our farm. We always grew cattle feed. How many bales did you keep for each heifer?”

“About 100 each.”

That’s 6,000 bales of hay in the barn for 60 cows. It could be very costly to buy feed. And so, a lot of these farms were self sufficient in that respect.

“What kind of cows did you have?” I asked realizing that I had forgotten to ask this.

“We had mostly thoroughbreds. Do you know how we used to register a thoroughbred?”

I replied no. So he explained that you received a sheet to fill out and on the back of it were silhouettes of cows. You had to draw in where the black on your cow was on the silhouette. There could be no black touching the hooves. I thought this was kind of humorous, but he didn’t. Throughout the entire interview he remained fairly reserved except the cases where he began talking about something that excited him or that he thought was funny.

Only a few yards from the barn were the red sheds that once held John Deere Model B tractors. They now held an SUV, a pickup truck and a Kama tractor. Kama is a foreign tractor brand and George was not very pleased that his John Deere was replaced with “hunk of Asian crap.”

I began asking him about how he thinks his milk impacted the community. He replied with a shrug, “Kept everyone’s bones strong. I dunno.” He didn’t really know how to explain it beyond those statements. His milk went out to dairies such as Rosenberg’s. All local dairies at one point. Whether he knew it or not, he ensured that the milk people were consuming was clean and free of antibiotics. The milk the community was drinking all came from farms such as his, where the cows’ feed was grown around the same pastures where the cows grazed during the warm months.

“How were your last 5 years of farming?” I asked.

George replied, “Tough. I don’t move around as well as I used to. Neither does Joe. And the money just wasn’t there. Fell into a lot of debt.”

It’s a story that has plagued small farms in the last decade. George explained that it was kind of a choice between two evils. Do they sell the land to some “greedy, dumb bastard” developer or to some “greedy, dumb bastard” who says he’ll farm the land like it’s always been farmed? They chose the latter option, but they certainly did not want to take a forced retirement like they did.

A Final Walk Down an Old Dirt Road

Later in the day, I could tell that George was becoming fatigued from the walk. We had traveled quite a distance from where we started at the barn towards the ending of the northern fields. To finish the interview I asked him, “Is there anything you want me to add into this when I write it? Anything you want to get across to people that they might not know or understand otherwise?”

George caught his breath and thought the deepest I think I’ve ever seen an old Dutch farmer think, “Just that nowadays you do have to watch out what kind of food you’re getting. A lot of it doesn’t come from people like you and me. Ag (agricultural) stuff isn’t made on farms like ours anymore.”

The tractor road we ended my visit on. It's hard to not think of a better time in that light.

The tractor road we ended my visit on. It’s hard to not think of a simpler time in that ambience.

I know that towards the end George was becoming nostalgic. I had reminded him of so many things from a recently closed chapter in his life. He was thinking more broadly about how things were once and how they are now. You really cannot judge a book by its cover when dealing with old generation farmers like George and Joe. They aren’t much to look at with long unkempt hair, big untidy beards, and dirty t-shirts, flannels and jeans. You would never understand the vast knowledge and experience that they have from living a life as a small farmer without somehow getting past their guarded mannerisms. Most of their knowledge will be forgotten as it is normally passed down from father to son, from one generation to the next. Sadly, there isn’t much of a generation beneath them that is willing or wanting to accept their farming wisdom.

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