The bridge over our creek washed out again, but rebuilding it was out of the question with our finances. We discussed the problem around the dinner table as we often do. Over a meal of homemade bread and soup our four children contributed plenty of suggestions. In fact they came up with the best solution. The next weekend we dragged rocks from the woods with our trusty 1942 Ferguson tractor and shored up the bridge. Sweating, grunting, and laughing as we rolled rocks into place together was a bonding experience more powerful than any vacation could be. Not that we’ve ever really had a vacation.
Or have we? I’ve seen glossy brochures advertising “farm vacations.” These are offered by working farms that also offer accommodations and meals. Their paying guests have the opportunity to do “real down home chores” like gathering eggs and milking cows. A day or two of these packaged experiences cost thousands of dollars. When the lucky vacationers return to their harried lives they have fond, although brief, memories of living closer to the land. These fancy advertisements help me realize that my own children are developing much more than memories. They are benefitting from rich life lessons gained here on our little homestead. All around me I notice examples of life lessons easily found on the farm. Take chickens, ponds, and chores for example.
Lessons via Poultry
Our chickens have always ranged freely. They have favorite areas for shade, foraging, and dust bathing. Some gravitate towards the pasture with the cows, others towards the house, still others prefer the woods. When we order day old chicks we raise them carefully ourselves, waiting to introduce them to our flock till the poults are eight weeks old. But each summer we’re fortunate to have a hen or two raise chicks she’s brooded. The mother hen brings them out with her soon after hatching. She shows them each day which foods to eat, clucks at them to stay safely nearby, and shelters them under her wings for warmth.
We notice a stark difference between the naturally raised chicks and the young ones raised in confinement with other chicks. Those raised by their own mothers, ranging outdoors with the other hens and roosters, are hardy, clever and able to fend for themselves at a young age. Those we have raised with their age mates are weaker and less adaptable. Sitting on a log with one of my children watching our chickens can’t help but lead to insightful conversations on behavior, science, and culture.
Lessons via Pond
Our pond needs dredging. We haven’t had the funds or equipment to take on the task for years. Meanwhile our once deep swimming hole is getting shallower. But when we mention this our children ask what will become of the pond’s creatures when heavy equipment scrapes away layers of mineral rich silt and algae. Won’t oxygen in the water be compromised by the particulates stirred up? Will the fish and salamanders die? Good questions.
So we give up the dredging idea, knowing the pond may eventually become boggy wetlands. Already different plants populate the edges and a greater diversity of creatures inhabit the area. We see dragonflies, huge bullfrogs, great blue herons, kingfishers, and snapping turtles. Meanwhile all around us acres of farmland have been sold and the fields paved over. Farmyards with old plantings of roses, grapevines and fruit trees are giving way to new houses with careful landscaping. Many of these homes have ponds with water in unnatural blues and greens due to chemical treatments. For our children, the contrast makes the exuberance of life flourishing on our pond seem ever more precious.
Lessons via Chores
Our woodpile is neatly stacked, although there are always more logs waiting to be split and moved. Most farm chores are labor intensive—hauling water, moving hay, checking beehives, and weeding the garden. Our offspring can clearly see that their youthful energy and strength are necessary to run the place. The sheer fact that we need their help for the benefit of the whole family strongly affects their growing years. They are marvelously imperfect as we all are, but they are a far cry more responsible, caring and mature young people than many are at their ages. Could the fact that they’re needed on the farm have anything to do with this?
What’s fascinating is that researchers have studied the long-term effect of childhood chores. They found that adult success in work, relationships, and health habits is strongly associated with regular chores in childhood—starting early on. This is a win-win. Chores help out the entire household while letting young people know that they are needed.
All children have inborn inclinations to learn by working alongside adults, gaining worthwhile skills and gradually taking on real responsibilities. That leads to a sense of true purpose and belonging that no entertainment can provide. Working on our little farm together provides us with warmth, food, pleasure and learning. It provides us many opportunities to say to each other, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
I have few illusions that my children will choose a farming life. But I do know that they see themselves as capable people who are able to surmount any challenge. And I’m convinced that that the laughter and learning they find on our little farm helps them grow toward the best possible future.
First published in Countryside & Small Stock Journal