Teenage farm hands (and younger)

My parents practiced hands-off parenting. While my mother helped my dad with the evening milking on the family dairy farm, she would look across the yard into the mirror on the wall behind the piano in the living room. She readily saw the image of any child sitting at the old upright piano. She always recalled with gentle laughter our astonishment that even though she had been in the barn, she knew which child had not practiced.

A family farm promotes early assumption of duties, a strong work ethic and independence. Long before the state would allow my brother to drive a car, my dad spent many hours teaching him to back the manure spreader into the barn. So several years later, when illness kept Dad in the hospital and out of the fields, he assumed his five children: ages 16, 15, 14, 12 and 11 could take over the family farm – especially the important task of cutting and putting up hay into the barn’s loft to feed the dairy herd in the winter.

Under the patient leadership of my 16-year-old brother, we did it exactly that.
I mentioned that summer to him, recently. He e-mailed me that, “the hardest part of that summer was not getting the bales in the barn, it was doing the baling. We had an old, round baler that frequently broke down and an old tractor that did not have a hand clutch. The tractor had to be stopped, put in neutral, install the string, wait for the bale to eject from the baler, re-engage gear, move forward until another bale was ready for the string to be installed and then ejected. A tractor with a hand clutch meant you just stopped and waited for the sting to be applied and ejected. The worst part was that after ever so many bales, the baler would break and required all the strength I could muster to repair it.

“The routine of loading the hay was: You three girls stacked the hay on the wagon or rolled the bales closer to the wagon. Burnie drove the tractor and I threw the bales on the wagon,” he wrote.

With no adults around all day, a bunch of kids took over the farm work that summer.
During the day, we worked by ourselves, while Mom went to work in the nearby community. From his hospital bed, Dad provided long distance direction. My mother did not panic about the danger of us working with hay hooks or the erratic baler. She pulled out the family movie camera and captured her daughters hauling rectangular bales over to the hay elevator, lifting them with the hooks and – with a kick of the knee – heaving them onto the elevator which carried the bales to the loft, where our brothers, using their hooks, snagged them off the elevator and built a stack to the barn’s ceiling.

At the end of the film, we always laughed that our older brother, 16, came dragging out of the barn, dripping with sweat, while our younger brother, 11, bounced out dry and smiling. Obviously, big brother shouldered the bulk of the work and we respected him as our field boss.
A year later we moved away from the farm that had adversely affected my father’s health and settled in Utah. Right after we arrived, my parents began three weeks of 12-hour workdays at the sugar beet receiving center by the railroad tracks. They expected us to unpack, set up the household, register ourselves at school, come home, make supper and get our homework done – all without Mom’s magic mirror reflecting our progress.

She didn’t need it – she and dad had done their job of parenting. They could confidently step back and trust their children to do what needed to be done, when it needed to be done – without mom and dad watching every move.