Down on the Farm

Something about me must read “loves cows.” Either that, or fate is trying to tell me that I have a future in dairy farming, a completely laughable concept considering my aversion to mud, muck, manure, and all things smelly and farm-like. Yet I find myself, for the second summer in a row, writing a story about dairy cows.

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The dairy barn where I spent my second Monday afternoon.

Last, summer, one of my long-term research projects was about the economics of dairy farming, which is far more complicated and jargon-filled than I anticipated. Before I even made a phone call to one of the many farming families I contacted over the course of those few weeks, I spent countless hours looking up statistics and definitions about the price of fluid form milk prices per hundredweight, the rising cost of farmland and coop farming business versus individually-owned farms.

I ended up pretty proud of my hard work on the assignment. Although I was initially uninspired by the subject matter, it was a story that not only needed to be told, but one that turned out to be more interesting than I ever could have expected.

Yesterday, I was back on the farm.

A local girl is working on the very first level 6 4-H Diamond Clover project in the history of her school. This is like the 4-H version of the Eagle Scout: It involves 75 hours of community service as well as packets of documentation and records.

And so, camera hefted around my neck, I headed off to Still Pond for the first time to take notes and photos of a high school girl and her cows.

I felt ridiculous pulling in to the farm’s gravel driveway in my shiny silver Beetle. The other three vehicles were dust-covered, giant-wheeled pick-ups, and here I was, I self-proclaimed city-lover equipped with a GPS, iPhone, digital camera, and butt-warming car.

And I was stupid enough to wear sandals.

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So much mud…Those are my interviewee’s shoes, by the way. I was trekking around in flimsy, plastic sandals.

To give myself some credit, I didn’t bring many shoes with me to campus for the summer. I didn’t think far enough ahead to consider that I might end up covering a story that involved sloshing through piles of mud and gunk to take good shots of cows. But here I was.

My interviewee was simply delightful. She drove me down to her personal barn, introduced me to some of her favorite cows (she owns 14 in all), and beamed as she recounted her favorite memories with her pets. After I snapped a few shots of her cooing over her cows, she dashed off to the milking barn. (she milks three days a week, and it takes a couple of hours total. She also wakes up at the crack of dawn to feed all her animals before school, then comes back for at least three hours after school for more feeding and work. Oh, and did I mention she’s president of the 4-H club, vice president of FFA, in National Honors Society, and is the Eastern Shore’s reigning Dairy Princess?)

Despite the copious amounts of research I did on the dairy farming world last summer, I never got the chance to immerse myself firsthand in what I wrote about. I talked about cows on the phone, but I never met one of them. I read about the skyrocketing price of milk and how it’s affecting farmers, but I didn’t actually drive to a local dairy farm and shake hands with one of the owners. At the Herald-Mail, there are photographers to go out and do the dirty work for us (I use the term dirty work literally in this case); all I had to do was fill out a photo request sheet and post it on the assignment bulletin board.

In Chestertown, reporters take their own photos. I’m not a naturally-gifted photographer, but I’m certainly glad I had the chance this time. I haven’t started writing the story yet, but I have a feeling that the the rawness of my afternoon yesterday — Prancer’s velvety nose, the vinegar smell of fly-spray from the milking barn, the soft squelches that the farmers’ crusty boots made in the mud — will find its way into my writing.

I talked about how hard farmers worked in my article last summer, but I didn’t really understand what I was saying. This time, I’ll go into the writing process with more than just facts and figures. This time, I have a real story to tell.

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I know this picture isn’t particularly relevant in terms of my blog, but…I had no idea udders could be this big. Wow.

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