My husband Tom and I bought a small herd of dairy cows ten years ago. Both of us college-educated, both recovering from devastating divorces, we were 37 at the time, living a simple life without telephone or television, hauling cord wood from the farm we were care taking with our draft horses to support ourselves. We had a savings of $5000 and no other possessions to speak of; yet a bank agreed to lend us the money for the cows.
Through the years the cows have remained the central thread of our lives, around which a tapestry, so to speak, has been woven. One puts one’s essence into them and they, thriving, return the favor. For me the simple act of milking has time and again dispelled my fears. For me it was the cows; for Tom it was more the horses, at first simply his relationship with them and later what they did together– the spreading of manure, the planting, the harvesting. And we are ever captivated by the idea of creating something out of nothing, the idea that through the act of creating comes your sustenance. We have learned that somehow, if we milk our cows work our horses and stay together, everything will be all right.
But at first it was just the struggle. We knew very little about cows and farming, and we were renting a farm in Massachusetts where, it seems, farming even with tractors has become obsolete. The barn was dilapidated and the machinery in varying stages of disrepair, so as we worked and slowly paid off our loan we looked for a farm to buy.
There is no rational explanation for the fact that we settled on a 110-acre farm in Western Pennsylvania previously owned by an old order Amishman. It simply seems that it was pre-destined. When at last we moved we had the strong feeling of finally being where we were suppose to be, and that we were suddenly protected from the onslaught of the raging and unfathomable forces which constantly besieged us and against which we had no defense.
From the beginning the Amish steadied us and helped us. We began to assemble the necessary horse-drawn machinery and learn the fine art of farming the simple way. Often it was a case of finding out how a neighbor was doing a certain task and doing the same thing. We have developed variations, often because we have less help available.
As we became more interconnected with our Amish neighbors we came to understand the basic premise underlying their philosophy; your own well-being and success depends on that of your neighbors.
It was a hot, dry windy October afternoon when our barn caught fire. We were preparing for our third winter in Pennsylvania by adding on a space to the existing barn for bred heifers. We had both been sick off and on for an entire year and felt over-burdened by the amount of work. Tom’s son, recently married, had decided against coming to live on the farm. My daughter, Denise, was doing her best to help out with the chores and all the work of making a dairy work but in the end there was too much stress and work, and something broke.
Within an hour the barn was down and probably half of the community had arrived. Our cows were gathered in a neighbor’s barn and trucked three or four at a time to surrounding Amish barns. Meantime, the eldest Amishman arranged for a rental situation for us until we could rebuild. The next day 20 Amishmen assembled at the rented barn to make things ready; the following day we moved the cows in and shipped milk once again.
The following Monday a dozen teams and wagons hauled away the debris and with the fire finally extinguished rebuilding started in earnest. Teams worked in the wood hauling logs for beams, and each morning a crew of 20 men showed up for work at the barn site. Tom and I took care of the cows mornings; silage had to be moved over there and manure had to be hauled; afternoons Tom worked with the crew and sometimes I had time to bake a cake or some pies for them. Evenings we returned to the rented barn to milk.
The barn raising took place exactly a month to the day later. Two hundred people (mostly Amish, although some English farmers came too), ate two meals here that day, and as the sun set the last of the metal roofing was nailed on. Three more weeks were required to finish the barn.
The Amish foreman could see that we still needed help and agreed to allow his teen-aged son David to work with us during plowing, planting and harvesting time. As David and Tom spend time together they learn from each other; our experience is truly an interesting blend of two cultures.
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