Gimme The Dirt… On Farm Kids
In the classic 1945 holiday film Christmas in Connecticut, actress Barbara Stanwyck is cast in the role of Elizabeth Lane, a popular magazine writer with a column titled Diary of a Housewife. In one of the opening scenes, Elizabeth sits at her typewriter and speaks aloud the words she’s writing. She describes the bucolic scenery outside her farmhouse windows, the food she’s preparing for her husband and baby, all of it created from animals she’s raised and the produce she’s grown. There’s just one problem with this scenario: Elizabeth is sitting in a tiny New York City apartment, she’s not married and has no idea how to cook. Her column is based on a complete lie.
Cut to the present day, and me. It only seems fair to be honest about this place we call home, Hilltop Farm. In a world of “Instagram-ready” and misleading social media content, it’s important for us to be truthful in advertising. Unlike Stanwyck’s character, I really can gaze out the kitchen windows to my sweet red chicken coop, the Catskill Mountains in the distance, as my farmer starts the second cutting of what looks to be some really beautiful hay. The heady scent of it is being carried through the windows on a blissfully cool breeze, along with the sounds of a young rooster who hasn’t quite mastered the art of crowing. Through the living room opposite I can see the cow pasture and this year’s batch of calves taking a rest together in a big heap. Their tails are whisking flies off their neighbors, and their ears twitch occasionally to keep the pests off their sweet faces. Beyond the pasture is the hill from which the farm gets its name, and beyond the hill sits the Shawangunk Ridge, with Mohonk Mountain House perched on the edge of the rocks like a fairytale castle in the sky. If I were to walk down the farm lane toward the main road, I’d know exactly where to stop to spy the fawn who rests in a clump of tall grass next to the hay wagon. Every morning and evening its mother comes to find it, feed it, and move it to a different place, but it always finds its way back to that one spot – maybe like human creatures of habit it seeks the comforts of the familiar. This farm is a paradise for wildlife and domesticated creatures alike, and it certainly is that for us mortals living side-by-side with them.
For children, the farm is a singularly special place of unique magic, equal parts mud puddles and blackcap pie, hard work and meandering play, noisy chaos and gentle rest. In our minds, farm kids have better childhoods than any of their peers.
Studies from around the globe confirm that children raised on farms have stronger immune systems, in statistically significant numbers. Science supports what we see in our own lives.
My farmer husband grew up wandering and working the very fields he farms today. In a gang that included cousins, neighborhood kids and his brothers, hard work and rambunctious play overlapped. There were no computers, cable TV, or Xbox, so once hay was brought in and animals cared for, fun could commence. Often barefoot, and seldom in spotless clothing (those were saved for school and church), Barton ran wild through this farm. He milked cows and drank the milk raw. He was in the barn with his dairy cow Daisy Bell before other kids, me included, had even rolled out of bed. He made butter at his mother’s side, and ate fermented foods like homemade pickles she put up each year. As an adult Barton is seldom sick. In the 17 years we’ve been together I can count on one hand the number of times sickness has slowed him down, and I’m counting minor sniffles. The same cannot be said for me. I, too, had a country childhood, and ate preserved food grown right on my parents’ property, but unlike Bart, farm animals weren’t a part of my daily life.
In all the studies that have been done, exposure to livestock holds the key to the immune health of farm kids. Interestingly, a 2019 study by Ohio State’s Department of Animal Science revealed that the gut microbiome that develops during early childhood plays a major role in the respiratory health of children raised on farms. All the foods Bart was eating alongside the animals he was caring for anecdotally confirm this study. Swiss research from 2002 posits that kids raised on farms have a significantly lower incidence of asthma and respiratory allergies compared to their more urban counterparts. I spent an enormous part of my childhood outside and barefoot, but we didn’t have a farm. I am not unhealthy, but if there’s a sickness running through the community, it’s likely I will catch it. And it pretty much always settles in my lungs. I should have begged a little louder for those goats I wished for as a child.
Physical health is only one part of the equation with farm kids. Resilience, problem solving, and a hearty work ethic are part of a childhood surrounded by livestock. We each have children raised among large animals: Barton’s with his cows, and mine with her beloved horses. What we see in our own children compared with their generational peers is not just us as proud parents: it’s also confirmed by research and science. Child labor laws notwithstanding, a family farm is run by everyone in the family, including the kids. Safety always comes first, but children living on farms are working alongside their parents, and they perform invaluable tasks. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 degrees outside, if there’s hay to be brought in, all hands help to do it. A line of hay wagons filled with bales would take one person a full day to unload and stack in the barn, but add two or three nimble young people to those wagons and the time is cut to just a few hours. Bottle feeding calves isn’t simply fun for children on farms, it’s an important job. Caring for a calf means observing the health of that baby creature, building a relationship of trust, and keeping its living space clean. The personal responsibility learned on a farm starts young, and carries through a person’s entire life.
My horsey daughter was a working student on the farm where we kept her horses. She wasn’t the typical barn girl dressed in perfect riding clothes, with a groom tossing her the reins of a spotless, tacked-up horse, ready to head into the riding ring. Instead, she mucked the stalls of the 12 horses who lived at the farm, picked their feet clean of dirt and stones, cleaned and oiled every piece of tack, and served up their hay and grain. She exercised them when their owners couldn’t get there to do it themselves. She unloaded the wagons when hay was delivered, and all five feet of her turned them out into their paddocks and brought them back inside again for mealtime. The horses were huge, including her own, and watching her manage them often intimidated me. But she learned more important lessons from those beautiful beasts than any classroom could provide. She learned to be observant and persistent. She became a stellar problem solver, and to be resilient in the face of heartache. She learned to think on her feet, to change gears depending on the personalities of who she was dealing with, and above all she learned compassion. She learned to get right back up and try again. As an aside, she also learned to ride like no one’s business, galloping through fields for no other reason than joyful connection with her horse, to leap over jumps that made me cringe, and to savor the quiet times after a ride while currying her horse.
Bart’s children grew up on this farm in a childhood much like his own. With him they picked blackcaps for pies, raised beautiful calves to show at the county fair, and brought in hay side-by-side with their daddy on the hottest of days. They learned to safely operate farm machinery, and they learned to drive in the farm lane before they ever hit the roads. They made forts in the haymow, and held barn parties there when they grew old enough. They ran free in the fields with a gang of cousins and friends, with the Catskills and Shawangunks the backdrop to their childhood story. They’ve grown into adults who know the value of hard work, who don’t turn away from life’s challenges, and who are as resilient and hearty as their father.
All three of our children are adults now, and two of them are raising children of their own. The eldest of these grandchildren are farm girls in their own right, and when they come to stay with us, we see the results of their life with chickens and cows. They are up with the sun and in the barn with us, feeding, watering and caring for our cows during morning and evening chores. The chicken coop hasn’t been so clean since the day it was built. “What else can I do?” is asked more frequently than the sisterly spats (yes, those happen, too!). The best feeling in the world is hearing the question “Becky, could you ask Papa to go up on the hill with us tonight so we can see the sunset from there?” Papa’s knees don’t make it up that hill as easily as they used to, but he’d do anything for those girls, and I can confirm that the sunsets are never as beautiful as when shared with them. The littlest of the grandchildren is only three, but he’s got a tiny electric John Deere tractor with a wagon he fills with hay, and he has been known to drive it up to the dairy cows’ pasture to toss them a little extra if he notices they’re running low. It looks a lot like play, but even at that young age he’s taking responsibility for the animals that depend on us. For the sake of truth in advertising, I need to admit that it took him a while to master the art of steering, and once he understood there was a speed setting, he frequently drove faster than he was ready for. One time he plowed headlong, full tilt, into his father’s truck, and then nearly drove over the edge of our stone wall. Wow, can his mother move fast! And my goodness, it’s true what they say, “Nothing Runs Like a Deere.”
We live in a world where small farms are disappearing at an alarming rate. We know how fortunate we are to have had the childhoods we had, to have provided our own children the same, and to now witness another generation come into their own as farm kids. All science aside, the pleasure we’ve had watching our farm kids grow up into strong and healthy adults makes all the hard work worth it. We make the case for spending a life outdoors, getting hands dirty in both work and play, and spending time with farm animals whenever it’s possible. Science proves it’s the way to be most healthy, and we can attest to the fact that it makes for people who are sturdy and strong in adulthood. Maybe the way things used to be should be the way the future looks: going back to the land, cows dotting the fields, chickens clucking around the yard, pigs rooting in the dirt, and alongside them children learning the value of meaningful hard work and the deep pleasure of joyful play.
Rebecca Collins Brooks is a writer and farmstead cheesemaker on Hilltop Farm in Accord, NY. She is the creator and founder of The Meeting of the Milkmaids, a gathering of women working in the cheese and dairy industry. In addition to a small herd of dairy cows, she and her husband Barton raise Wagyu beef, selling meat to customers directly off the farm. Her best friends are two terriers, Winston and Molly; and Sylvie, a truly brilliant barn cat. You can visit the farm by appointment to see where truly good food is grown.