Growing up with six older siblings on a 176-acre hillside farm in the Copper Country, my childhood consisted of running through wooded gullies, building forts out of dead branches racing my brothers’ Tonka trucks up and down the rows of the corn patch and herding up the 22 Holstein dairy cows every day after school for milking chores. I rarely sat in front of the television, except for rainy Saturdays when my father and I would tune into Public TV 13 to watch Bob Ross paint exquisite landscapes.
When I was eight and could reach the floor of my grandpa’s Allis-Chalmers WD tractor, I spent the early moments of spring mounted in front of a manual steering wheel, driving a dumb wagon behind where all my older family members would throw rocks into the back.
Each spring came “rock picking,” where my father would till up the fields and then at the crack of dawn on Saturday, Mom would holler up the stairs for us to crawl out of bed, throw on our rubber boots, grab a slice of toast and mount up on the tractor/dump wagon to spend the next few hours scavenging the fields.
Once the fields were filtered of pumpkin-sized rocks, my father would plant the seed each field crop-rotated from the previous season. Some fields were hay, others were barley and one reserved for field-corn to feed the livestock in the later stages of summer.
Once June came along and school was out, chores on the farm was like clockwork. By sixth grade, my parents taught me to prep cows for milking by thoroughly washing the udders and teat ends.
Within a few months, I was working alongside the rest of the gang, milking 1,300-pound cows with a milking unit where that milk would shoot up a vacuum pipeline into a large cooling bulk tank. Summer chores also entailed harvesting the hay from the fields and loading them up into the barn. But it wasn’t a one-step process.
After my dad cut the hay down and baled it into small-round bales, all of us would hit the fields with our work gloves, turning over each bale so the hay would dry properly and then tucking the long loose strand of twine inside the bale. Each field would have roughly around 1,000. Each of us kids would have a few rows, my dad and uncles would cover more rows and we’d spend around two to three hours in the rising summer sun, hoping to beat the 85-degree peak of the day.
When we weren’t in the fields, we were in the garden, picking ripe strawberries, weeding carrots or killing potato bugs.
When August came around, it was 4-H time. From third grade until I was a freshman in college, I led pristine, showcase-worthy cows—young calves and heifers to full-grown milking machines—and displayed garden and artwork exhibits at the county fairs, hoping to win a blue ribbon and add to my savings account.
By the time the leaves began to lose their chlorophyll, the workload gave way. Though the cows still required to be milked every day, twice a day, I could explore a little more in my free time whether it was riding our Shire draft horse, Big John, or singing in charity shows to help benefit music programs across the Copper Country. Each season presented a test of strength, endurance and intuition, but in the end, it made me a much more determined individual with a strong work ethic.
My childhood wasn’t spent at Disneyland, but it gave me something more than any kind of amusement park could ever give a child, and that is the gift of appreciation and passion.
Though I left the farm at the age of 19 and moved to Marquette, aspects of my childhood and teenage years stick with me as I finish up my last semester at NMU. Long nights spent at The North Wind compare nothing to the exhaustion I felt turning and tucking those hay bales.
Farm life has shaped my life and personality. I ain’t afraid to get my hands dirty.