Michael Rustad's Memories

Doing Farm Chores In Rural Humboldt

 

Beginning in the third grade, I had primary responsibilityfor taking care of the farm animals. We had a large herd of sheep, fiveor six cows, chickens, and an assortment of dogs and cats. During the winterwe would pump water into the barn. I was responsible for making certainthat the cows and sheep had fresh straw and cleaning the barn. Many daysthe barn door was frozen shut and I had to work on it to even get into thebarn. The weather was frequently 40 degrees below zero for weeks on end. I once carried a 10 ounce bottle of coke in my parka and it was frozensolid after only a 45 minute walk.

We would pump water into the barn to keep water freshand cold for the livestock. I was responsible for keeping the water containersclean. The cows would have a tendency to dribble hay into their water. Apparently, they would attempt to drink while chewing their cud. Chickenswould mistake the layer of hay for solid ground and drown in the cows tank. One day four chickens drowned one on top of each other in one cow's watercontainer.

The cows were fed grain from our own crop production andhay which was stored in a hay loft. We frequently would cut the grass onthe roadside and gather it for our hay loft. We had a mechanical rake whichwas pulled behind the tractor. When the load of hay got big enough theperson riding the rake would trip the mechanism releasing the bundles ofhay. We would then pick up the hay bundles by pitch fork after it dried. When I was very young, haying was done by a team of Belgian horses. Iwas very allergic to the hay and suffered throughout haying season. I frequentlyhad the job of heaving the hay from the hay rack to the hay loft. Therewas always a cloud of dust very thick in the loft. We made certain thatthe hay was dried prior to being placed in the hay loft because wet hayposed a serious spontaneous combustion hazard. We also grew timothy cloverto supplement the hay we gathered from the roadside.

One of my most traumatic moments as a farm hand was duringthe 1966 blizzard. I was determined to take care of my cows and sheep duringthe worst of the blizzard. I attached a rope to the kitchen door and usedit to find my way to the barn. I could not get to the sheep shed duringthe blizzard and was very upset about those poor lambs lost in a blizzard. After three days of intense snowing, the snow drifts were 3 feet higherthan the sheep shed. I was certain that I would find my herd decimated.I did not lose a single sheep or lamb. The sheep were snug as a bug underneathfeet of snow. They were hungry but unharmed.

Kids were an economic asset when I was growing up not aliability. One exception to that generalization was the day I flooded thebarn. When I was in seventh grade, I forgot to turn the water off in myrush to catch the bus to school. When I returned from school, much of thestock pond was in the barn. I did not lose any livestock because the dogand cats somehow got up into the loft. The sheep were beginning to becomewater-logged. We had the cleanest barn in N.W. Minnesota after the floodbut had to haul water in to keep the livestock the last several months ofwinter. My Dad did not say a word to me about my negligence in leaving thewater on despite the trouble I had caused. I think he had the wisdom toknow that I suffered from this mistake. I would sometimes call my Motherfrom school to check whether I had left the water on in the barn. I nevermade that mistake again and always double-checked the water and lights beforegoing to school.

One of the traditions I had with the livestock was to givethem special treats and care during the Christmas season. On ChristmasEve, I made certain that the cows had treats as well as the other animals. Jamie's lamb, Sparkles, was always fond of cream and I would give her aquart or more of cream during the Christmas season. I always treated animalswell. We had usually had 10 or more cats and I always gave them cream andmilk.

We had plenty of milk because in those days we were notselling it. One of my jobs was to separate the cream from the milk. Theseparator was a mechanical device that was very difficult to clean. Ifyou did not clean the separator well, there was a danger that you wouldsour all of the milk.

One of the real problems for a young boy was to keep thecows from kicking you when milking them. I learned to keep my nails shortand talk to the cows. I had one mean holstein that had a knack for kickingme. Another annoying habit of the Holsteins was to kick the pail of milkover. They would sometimes ruin a full pail of milk by placing their footin it. Those Holsteins were wild and crazy cows. My favorite cow was aGuernsey who was very gentle and came when you called. The Guernsey alwayscame to the gate when she was called. I always had to send a dog to summonthe Holsteins. My best herder was a Boston toy bull dog named Dottie. Dottie was from a litter of dogs owned by Don Brown. Dottie was an undersizedfemale Boston toy bull-dog and a tremendous herder. She could make theHolsteins mind and would nip them in the tender spot behind their hooves.

Dottie developed pneumonia after a botched operation toneuter her by a local Vet. She lingered for about a week and died. I tookDottie's death very hard. My mother tried to console me by reminding methat my sister Jamie nearly died from a flu but survived. Harold Borg gaveus his Boston toy bull dog, Joker after Dad told him how badly I felt aboutDottie's passing. I should also mention that Dottie was named after myMother's best friend, Dottie Boatz. Joker turned out to be a problem dogon our farm. He was an unneutered male that liked to return to Humboldt. He would disappear from the farm. We finally had to keep him inside agarage or on a leash. One of the rules my Mother had was that dogs or catswere never permitted in the house. It was not an option to make Joker ahouse dog.

There have been a number of psychological studies of massmurderers and other sociopathic personalities. There is a strong correlationbetween anti-social behavior and the mistreatment of animals. I believethat caring for animals tends to foster an empathy and a compassion. Ifelt a sense of personal responsibility to take care of the animals. Iwas responsible for caring for the animals even after basketball practicewhen I was exhausted. I was always the first up in the morning and changedinto my barn clothes to take care of the animals. I frequently had to crackopen the ice on the cow's water tanks so that they could drink. The manurepile on our farm was a mountain by the end of the winter. I reminded myselfthat I created the mountain. We would sometimes sled and ski off the manurepile. Spring skiing was not an attractive option!

When I left for college, my Dad sold the livestock withina year because it was too much for him to manage the livestock and the postoffice and the fields. My Dad purchased several horses for my sisters andthey had primary care for the horses. I think that Dad became more of agentleman farmer after I left home rather than a subsistence farmer. Hisprimary source of income was the Post Office and he made a decision thatthe price of wool did not justify keeping an extensive herd. All of themoney from the sale of wool was kept in a college fund for the four kids. I did all of the work with the sheep but it was split four ways. I thinkthat my Dad was beastly fair when it came to treating his kids equally.

I sometimes resented being the only one in the family totake care of the animals. However, I was able to impose some conditionson my farm work. One rule was that we would not slaughter sheep or eatlamb. My rule was that the sheep would live out their natural life andbe a source of wool. I never had to do the dishes so long as I did thefarm work. I think that my childhood was more of a 19th century childhoodin contrast to the way my colleagues in Boston were raised. I rememberbeing an associate at Boston's law firm of Foley, Hoag and Eliot and lookingout my double window commenting to Ralph Giffen: "I wonder how manylawyers in this firm ever milked a cow!"

Foley, Hoag and Eliot was the law firm of the late SenatorPaul Tsongas and one of the most prestigious firms in Boston. Ralph wasvisiting me from California where he was a manager for the U.S. Forest Service. ost prestigious firms in Boston. Ralph wasvisiting me from California where he was a manager for the U.S. Forest Service.