Compassion. It’s not just for mankind. Since I can remember, I have been surprised by the constant bad publicity and misconceptions of how farmers treat their animals. Things like, “They are just kept around long enough to make money” or “if they are sick they just send them to market” or “how can you consume something you raised” and finally, “you just pump them full of antibiotics and hormones so they are super animals.”
I personally know A LOT of farmers, and trust me when I say, that even though there are a few bad apples…the good ones sweeten the pie.
Let me tell you of an example of this. In 2003, a young farmer and her husband got done milking early on a Sunday evening to make a trip that was a little over four hours to look at a herd of Jersey cows that an older farmer was selling. When they arrived, they talked to the farmer who was already in his 80s and still milking. A short fellow in height, slightly bent over, but very tall in pride when he started talking of his girls. He was especially fond of an 8-year-old named Emilie. She was his favorite but she was getting a little tired he thought and maybe shouldn’t be sold to continue as a milk cow.
The look in the farmer’s eyes told the buyers that he didn’t believe that Emilie should be separated from the herd. The young farmer petted Emilie and she responded by looking over her shoulder at the face connected to this gentle hand and a connection was made.
Emilie was a “boss” cow. She was the first up and she wanted her feed first and she was the center of attention. Heck maybe in her cow mind, the center of the universe. She always got bred back right away. Always had bull calves, but milked like crazy and was always in that kind of moooood that you sensed she knew when you needed a pick me up.
However, when she was around 15, she had some complications and wasn’t doing very good and needed surgery. The farmer said to her husband, “Emilie needs to go” through teary eyes she continued, “she is in a lot of distress and I’m not sure the vet and surgery will save her.”
The compassion and sorrow in his wife’s eyes were too much. His reply back was, “Emilie is more than just a cow. I’ll call the vet. I’d rather see her pass here than to be with strangers.” The vet came and did surgery. Emilie was given the best chance she could be given. When the farmer (through teary eyes) whispered in her ear, “You have to fight and get well,” Emilie perked her ears and nudged her farmer, and a few days later she was up and walking.
For the next couple of years, Emilie was a queen. The vet advised against breeding her, so Emilie was allowed to roam the pasture at will. She came in the barn when she felt like it, and if you were out in the pasture getting cows and were walking anywhere near her, you had better pet her and scratch her ears or her head was under your arm and she was lifting and nudging you until you gave her some attention. A couple more years went by and she got slower, coming up to the feed bunk less. In the winter of 2011, she fell a couple times in the cow yard and had a hard time getting up. She was finally put with the dry cows on the bedding pack and she was quite content and quite spoiled.
A few days later the husband got a call from his wife and she was crying and sobbing and all he could make out was something about Emilie. Finally he caught it, Emilie had apparently been a cougar and had a romantic interlude with the bull and gave birth to a beautiful heifer calf. It was her first heifer, and her first calf in almost four years. Her name would be Mykenzie Fayth. (That’s a whole other blog by the way). Emilie was pretty wore out but she licked her baby clean and got up long enough to get the ever important and rich colostrum (or mother’s milk), out of her and fed to her daughter.
Three days later, Emilie passed.
It was a bittersweet time as you could see her momma’s eyes and spirit in her baby. The farmer cried. Her shoulders heaved in a pain and sorrow not seen in most. She petted Emilie’s soft coat, nuzzled her head, whispered in her ear, patted her head one last time and as she walked away said, “She deserves more than that truck to come get her.”
In the dead of winter, Emilie was buried in a clearing in the woods next to a young tree. She has been immortalized three times. First, by an engraved plaque and picture frame. Second, on a tattoo on the farmer’s strong shoulder with her beautiful sweet face surrounded by a heart made of braided barbed wire; and third on a cake pan that reads, “The only thing that gets as much love and attention as my cows is what I made in this pan.”
But even more, she has been immortalized by the lessons she taught. To never give up. To take time to cherish those close to you. That a few kind words renew the spirit of all those that breathe; and finally, that farmers aren’t in it for the money. That even in the cold of winter when it’s 30 below at 2 a.m. they will strip down to a t-shirt to save a momma and her baby.
Compassion can be taught by an 18-year-old cow and her farmer. I know this because I am the farmer’s husband who gets to see and hear the farmer tell Mykenzie (while being hand fed grass or some molasses covered corn) while scratching behind her ears, that her momma was amazing and that she taught her some of the most valuable lessons in life.
So to those that doubt, I challenge you to find a more compassionate people than farmers. Whether it’s their animals or their land or their families. Let’s not forget the millions of people who they don’t even know, yet they put food and fiber in the system to get from their farm to your plate…farmers care. Not about the money, but about those they provide for. It’s who they are and it’s what they do.
Compassion. It’s not a word. It’s a value.
Jeff is the Green County Farm Bureau President.