whitney nesse deep roots

“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell - as though nothing bad could ever happen in the world.” 

—   E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web)

More than once these words have stopped me in my tracks — stretching my mind far into my youth, bringing me back to the barns where I spent a significant amount of my childhood. I was fortunate enough to grow up on a livestock farm where my father and grandfather raised pigs and later raised feeder cattle. I also lived a stone’s throw away from my aunt and uncle who were dairy farmers until the early 1990’s.

From very early on, I was my father’s shadow. My father is a fairly tall man and I recall having to jog alongside him to keep up with his swift pace. We had a long, narrow farrowing barn with an attached nursery. It was red with white trim. On the south end of the building there was a large old elm tree with a tire swing hanging from a branch which stuck out like an old, gnarled, boney finger.

Upon entering the barn there was a small office which contained a desk. There was a calendar and a harvest gold-colored rotary dial phone on top of the desk. A few of the desk drawers were used to store brown glass bottles of different sorts of medicine and vitamin injections. There were pasty orange livestock markers; and every spring, housed a little family of mice whom I would regularly check on. They made their nest in a bed of chewed-up papers in the farthest reaches of the desk drawer. Occasionally, when the mother mouse was home, I would hold her (which Grandpa was never pleased with). 

My father would work at a brisk pace in the brightly-lit farrowing barn while I sat in a farrowing crate holding the piglets. Their plump, pink bellies were full of milk — continuously being warmed by a heat mat. Sometimes I got to be Dad’s helper. Standing in the crate, I would hand him piglets as he docked tails, clipped teeth, notched ears and castrated the males. 

I cannot recall ever being bothered by the noise or the smell of the pigs. I suppose at that time, I had never known life without those things. For me, being in the barn meant that I had a job and there was a possibility of learning something new. In our barn, I truly felt as if nothing bad could ever happen in my little world.

My parents and grandparents sold the pigs in 1993 when I was eight years old.  The memories and feelings, however, are as vivid now as they were 27 years ago. 

As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate enough to live closely to my dear aunt and late uncle.  It was in their barn that my love for the dairy industry began; and in my early 20’s, blossomed into full-time work in the dairy industry. For a number of years I worked as a relief milker, herdsperson, and artificial insemination technician in eastern Wisconsin and central Minnesota.

The sweet and sour smell of a dairy farm always fills me with nostalgia. My mind’s eye is ushered back to my aunt and uncle's barn, where the 30 milking cows stood in their stanchions tail to tail and the bright lights illuminated a white limed center aisle.  The hum of the vacuum pump and the gentle pulse of the milking units seemed to be keeping time for a symphony of intense labor. 

The cows had kind eyes trimmed with long lashes as they patiently waited to be milked. I would be armed with a stiff long-bristled broom, whose handle would tower above me as I swept feed into the mangers. Time had worn the manger with a mixture of acidic silage and licking by sandpaper-like tongues. Repairs were attempted with a smooth green epoxy liner. 

In 1991, my aunt and uncle sold their herd. I was only six years old; and still, the memories are as if it were yesterday.

As an adult, raising my own feeder cattle, I find there is nothing quite as peaceful as a barn full of cattle in the mid-afternoon. The chores are done, the cattle have eaten, and an afternoon of ruminating is the only thing on the agenda. The barn is quiet and all is at rest. I usually find myself lingering in the barn during those hours, watching my cattle.

As I watch the cattle calmly lying in their deep bed of cornstalks, chewing their cud, eyes only half opened, I breathe deeply — soaking in the peaceful atmosphere. I don’t believe there is a more pure form of peace than the peace which is given by the Creator to the caretaker in these quiet moments.               

Whitney Nesse is a sixth-generation livestock farmer who is deeply rooted in her faith and family. She writes from her central Minnesota farm.