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March 28, 2013
The Secret Life of Molly
Why I Farm
by Hannah Bird

We did not always have a little farm. In fact, I am quite sure that I would be the very last person who anyone would have guessed would end up pulling calves and steering calves and complaining about the price of hay. I am not the most outdoorsy person. By which I mean that I deeply dislike things like sunshine and fresh air. I am not wild about animals either. This may be because they can sense evil and we really don’t hit it off. I am squeamish about grossness of any kind. I harbor no illusions about the charm or romance of the farming life.

I am a farmer (more accurately I am a rancher but that sounds pretentious) for two reasons. The first was that I married a dairy farmer’s grandson. My husband was always hoping for a piece of dirt and a black and white cow or two. The second reason is that I got sick. I try to do things big, so when I got sick it wasn’t a little sick that would go away. It was the kind of sick that stays and makes you fight every day.

Suddenly, I was worried. I liked my life. I liked my husband and my babies. I liked reading to my kids and taking them to the library. It was a good life. But it was not a particularly admirable life to me. I always thought there would be time later. So when I got sick I began to wonder when I would do something else. But mostly I wondered about what kind of something I could do. I would write of course. I have always written and I will always. But there was something missing.

After World War II, the US government held a land lottery for returning GIs. My grandfather, a young husband and father, was convinced by his friend to put in for the lottery. Young men with no agricultural background signed up for a lottery and if they won, they took classes on farming. Whether grandpa won or not is up for some debate. He was selected to receive a piece of land. In Cody, Wyoming.

Prior to the homesteaders lottery, the only things the grew in Cody, Wyoming were bar tabs and Wild West legends. I remain convinced that the reason they offered the lottery with classes is because only a total neophyte would have considered farming there. A real farmer would have taken one look around and laughed all the way back to wherever he was from. Some place with rain more than four times a year and wind that didn’t flay skin from bone. There is a picture of grandpa. He is standing in a bleak expanse of sage brush smiling. It is his piece of land and he looks wholly undaunted.

The homesteaders took classes to learn everything they needed to know. They lived in the barracks of the former Heart Mountain Internment Camp. My mother remembers living there. They tried several crops and learned how to raise the ones that did the best. They cleared their land one gnarled sagebrush at a time. The homesteaders pulled the barracks apart and arranged them to make homes. You can still see them today, low sloping roofed rectangles arranged in Ts or Ls. The barracks made outbuildings and barns. Then the classes were over. And there was nothing left to do but farm for fifty years and try to make it all work.

They did of course. Grandma and Grandpa raised seven children, uncountable sheep, chickens, and horses. Grandpa grew alfalfa and whatever else might grow. Making a place to be where there was no place to be is a hard thing to do. The kids worked hard. They had to. Everyone’s work was needed. My mom remembers getting water and electricity when she was a teenager. There were few luxuries. And the farm flourished. Over time it became a thing to be proud of, good enough to be the work of a lifetime. The kids flourished to. All seven of their kids went to college. Most hold advanced degrees. They are smart and hardworking and funny and amazing. Most of them have some little scrap of a farm still. They have a horse, or an amazing garden, or goats. They each know how to think and work. They are people who can do hard things. They have all raised amazing families themselves.

I wanted a little piece of that. I have no problem admitting that I could not homestead in Cody. I am not as tough or as brave as those that went before me. But for me, my little farm was hard, so I started there. I am not a great farmer. It does not come naturally to me. Punching a hole in the side of a cow down with bloat remains a daunting task. I always worry when cows are in labor. I still freak out a little when we come back in the house after steering cows. We all look like serial killers. There are some things that are fun. The new calves are a joy. It doesn’t matter how many we have, I never get sick of it. I love their little silky heads. I love watching them tear around the pasture annoying older cows. Watching herd politics in the field will teach you a lot about life and people.

My children have flourished. My tiny ballerinas can throw a steer, give a shot quicker than an ER nurse and buck a literal ton of hay without a word of complaint. My son got to raise the world’s sweetest bull. My littlest kids can herd anything on four legs. We have to work together. Some days that goes better than others. But when it works, it is the pride of my life. My kids are strong and capable. They run across tall towers of hay like mountain goats. They believe they can do hard things.

And sometimes, when I am walking back to the house covered with blood or mud (but always manure) after a the day has gone wrong and then been righted – I do, too.

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