A ride in the back fields is good ol' farming fun!

All Work And No Play?

by Constance Breese

All Work And No Play?

Martin Gee

Andre Previn is a Grammy award-winning composer and a world famous conductor, and also a Vineyard summer resident. His home is across from a bucolic cow pasture. Years ago he personally chose some Swiss-made, carefully tuned cowbells for the cows residing across the road from his house. Usually when livestock wear bells it is a practical matter, the sound of the bells locates cows or can alert the farmer when an intruder gets the animals running. But in this case the cows, owned by Margaret White of Edgartown, were to be fitted with collars and bells just for the enjoyment and melodic sounds the bells would make. The day we outfitted Bobby and Millie and the rest of the herd with their new “cowture” was fun. I was onsite in case one of the cows reacted poorly to having a bell put on. Although there was a potential for injury, this group of cows—part pasture pet, part herd animal—did fine with the handling and collaring. It is a fairly rare vet call for me when no blood, needles, scalpels, or injections are involved. Recalling that farm call prompted me to start asking farmers what’s fun about farming. Is farming all work and no play?

Ruled by the weather and physically demanding, farming is definitely a challenging line of work. Conversations with farmers on the topic of what is fun about farming quickly morphed into what is rewarding or satisfying. But, of course, there is also a lot of fun involved.

Clarissa Allen, owner of Allen Farm Sheep and Wool Company, took me for a fast ride in her new all-terrain vehicle over the back fields of her farm. We talked about work versus play. Imagine a mini crossover between a tractor and a truck. “Driving this is a blast! We can ride out to check on our spring lambs; we can load up feed and deliver it to our sheep. It even has heat for driving out to the animals in winter.” Clarissa also added a description of the merriment her lambs cause at the stage of life when they first feel secure enough to leave their mom’s side. They scamper up hills and climb on top of the rocks that punctuate the Chilmark fields. “The lambs play king of the mountain and knock each other off the rocks—great fun to see healthy play.”

Grey Barn Farm Co-owner Molly Glasgow recently gave a lecture at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on farming, in which she told stories about her childhood love for animals. She drew and sculpted cats, dogs, and ponies and daydreamed about owning lots of animals one day. At the conclusion of the lecture Molly told me what has been the most fun so far on her new farm. With a smile she described the day a truckload of Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets arrived on her farm. Childhood wishes granted. Molly and Eric, the other owner of the farm and her husband, also shared that farming allows them to blend work and family life. Hours of work can quickly change into a special moment of play with children in the barn.

Most farmers and farmhands thought birthing animals was the most enjoyable facet of their work as animal stewards. Months of planning, feeding, housing, and anticipation all lead up to delivery time. When all goes well, it is a tribute to the farm’s good work and to mother nature.

I have rarely, if ever, attended a normal, natural birth of a domestic animal. I am typically only involved in the dystocias (the medical term for difficult birth). Suited up in an over-the-shoulder glove, I extend my hand through the cervix and sort out front legs from back legs, heads and tails. Veterinary obstetrics is a physically demanding job: to haul on and haul out a newborn calf or untangle a set of triplet lambs inside a ewe. But however they arrive, healthy newborns give all in attendance a life-affirming boost. So from my point of view I agree with my clients that birthing animals is at the top of my list of veterinary work that is both work and enjoyable.

From backyard farmers with small numbers of animals, my inquiries about fun gave me answers about therapy. The hobby farmers shared feelings about their time in the barn or chicken coops shoveling poop or dishing up feed as therapeutic. Barnyard chores can offer the time and quiet to mull things over, figure things out, and get some fresh air. Therapists are increasingly using farm animals, plants, and gardens to aid patients in coping with stress and improving communication skills. So through all the hard work, there is lots of play to be had.