I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of people that grow up on a farm; those who can’t wait to leave and those who never leave. My sister is definitely in the former group. My mother used to joke that when my sister was a kid she’d say, “What? There’s a train leaving? When? Where’s it going?” She now happily resides and thrives in the suburbs of Chicago. The three brothers never ventured very far away. Two of them make their living from family dairy farms and the other raises heifers. I guess I fall somewhere in-between the two categories. I left, but did I really leave?
I can’t be positive, but I don’t think I’ve missed a single County Fair in my 45 years. By the time I was born, my oldest brother was in 4-H and I just assume that I was brought to the fair as an infant/toddler. What I know for sure is that I have not missed a single fair since I was nine years old, the youngest age at which one may join 4-H. The 4-H program is definitely part of what molded me into the person I am today, hence my intrinsic need to return to the fair every year since I “graduated” the program *gasp* 27 years ago.
Twenty seven years has brought a lot of experiences, some good, some … not so good. College, marriage, work as a herdsman, divorce, employment in the biotech industry, lay-off, employment in the pharmaceutical industry, rounding back into the dairy industry, re-marriage. All through this journey, the farm stayed near and dear to my heart. While working at the pharmaceutical, I was given an amazing opportunity to spend a month in Switzerland to help at a facility there. After two weeks, I decided that I would always regret it if I didn’t make a trip to see the Swiss Alps. I ventured off alone on a two hour drive in a country where I spoke none of the three native languages. As beautiful as the countryside was and as much as I was enjoying the opportunity to be there, I was homesick. When I’m homesick, I don’t mean homesick for the house in which I happen to reside, I mean I’m homesick for the farm; the place where my heart is always filled with a certain sense of peace and belonging. After about an hour and a half, I stopped at an overlook to take a picture of the breathtaking mountains in front of me. I was steadying my camera when I heard a faint ringing. I lowered my camera and scanned the horizon, trying to determine what the sound was. And then I saw them. A whole herd of Brown Swiss cattle, all of them with cow bells on. It was the most amazing sound. In that moment, I was filled with joy and there was one person that I couldn’t wait to call and tell about my experience – Dad. I later drove directly past that herd of cattle and stopped, got out and pet one of the cows. She was the happy recipient of a good scratching behind the ears and I was the contented recipient of cow odor on my hands. My boss would later say, “Valerie, you’re the only person I know who we send 4,000 miles away on business and you end up finding farm animals.”
These days my employment keeps me a bit more in touch with my roots as I work in Quality Assurance at a milk facility. I’ve found a nice balance. I love that I know some of the milk truck drivers from my previous life on the farm and that I know what goes into producing quality raw milk. I also love the technical and regulatory aspect of what goes into making milk products for grocery shelves. I am the resident “dairy farm expert.” Of the current population in the United States, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation and about 2% actually live on farms. Using that factoid and knowing that there are approximately 375 employees at my current place of employment, that means about eight people at my work grew up on a farm. My boss from my previous department is originally from Brooklyn. He’s a great guy with a lot of knowledge, but when he was on vacation and drove past a field of “Oreo Cookie Cows,” he excitedly called me and wanted to know what they were. (For those of you scratching your head and wondering what an Oreo Cookie Cow is, look up the Dutch Belted or Belted Galloway).
Every year I take at least two days of vacation to spend at the fair. Each year as I drive there, my heart starts pounding faster as I near the thruway exit that will lead to a most magical place filled with memories of hard work, bonding with others, winning some, losing some, harmless pranks and falling in love for the first time. The years melt away as I pick up a pitch fork and hoist manure into a wheelbarrow. Ah, yes. That is what a vacation should be.
So now you know for sure that the saying is true. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.