By Chad Nelson
For 18 years, from when I was three-years-old, until we sold the farm when I was 21, I grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm outside of Spencer, Wisconsin. My parents never sheltered me, as a matter of fact I was involved as much with tractors and other machinery as the rest of my sighted brothers and sisters, although I didn’t drive tractor when baling hay or other field work, but I did have enough useable vision to drive tractor on a limited basis, and also owned a small all-terrain vehicle (ATV). I did help with caring for the cattle, in all respects, from feeding them to cleaning up after them, and keeping the barn neat.
During the summers I helped bale hay, this involved being on the wagon, throwing baled hay onto an elevator, (this is basically an electric or gas powered conveyor that takes the bales from the wagon into the barn). Our elevator happened to be electric. I also spent a fair share of time in the barn, stacking bales as they came off the elevator. As the summers progressed, the stacked hay reached up to just under the roof of the barn, which was about 40 or so feet above the floor. Generally, most barns have two levels; the ground level houses the cows and young stock, milking equipment and related machines to milk and feed the cows. The upper floor, commonly referred to as the haymow, is one big, open space with roof supports and ladders to access stacked hay that gets stacked up from the floor to under the roof, as I stated earlier.
Other things I helped with were filling silos with corn or chopped hay. This is done by having a machine called a blower that is run by a large 100 horse-powered tractor, or larger. The tractor that runs the blower has to be run at full throttle to give the blower enough punch to blow the material into the silo. The tractor and blower are connected by a power take off (PTO). This is turned by the tractor, and the shaft moves in a circle, similar to taking a paper towel tube, laying it on its side and rolling it on its sides. And, there is another tractor that is parked next to the blower, which pulls the wagon (otherwise known as a chopper box) storing the material blown into the silos. The wagon is also run by a PTO, and this tractor that unloads the wagon, is usually run at idle. Farm machinery is something that I came to really respect, especially the PTO. If I would have gotten my sleeve caught around that shaft, it would have wound my arm around the PTO and well, I don’t need to go into graphics to make the point of what would happen.
My parents were always drilling into my head when I was a small boy how dangerous the equipment could be, so by the time I was working with it regularly, I had a healthy respect for it. I was never kept away; I was always involved in everything and almost every aspect of farm work.
Being legally blind presented some barriers and precluded me from doing some farm activities, but I worked with the cows, even some of the wild cows whom nobody else could touch, trusted me and let me lead them around the barn. I remember one instance when a cow got out and I couldn’t read the number on her ear tag to cross reference where she belonged, so I talked to her, walked up to her, and gained her trust. She didn’t have a collar, so I put my hand on her neck, and walked next to her front legs and brought her into a stall. I then grabbed an extra collar, put it around her neck, and chained her in the stall. I told my dad later that day what I did and when we went down to the barn later to milk the cows, he saw what cow it was, and he asked “How did you get her into the stall? She wouldn’t usually let anyone else come near her.” Part of that trick was bribing her with some corn.
All the years growing up on the farm, I never had a serious accident. I did have my share of smashed thumbs from missing a nail with a hammer or not seeing a pitch fork in a pile of straw, but for the most part I had no problem even though I didn’t have anywhere near full vision.
Looking back on my farm experience, I remember that I didn’t like living on the farm because I felt it held me back from life. In hindsight, I realize it helped me enrich my life by teaching me responsibility and a hard work ethic. I would not change my childhood for anything. Growing up on the farm, being around nature, fresh air, and putting in an honest day’s work really means a lot to me now. Farming is a very rewarding way of life and it means even more that my parents trusted me and didn’t keep me from doing everything I was capable of.
The family farm is something that I wish everyone could experience. I remember a lot of fun times when I was a child and have fond memories of those 18 years, and am also very proud to be called a “farmer boy,” even to this day.