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The Milk House: Measuring the value of work

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 August 2019

A significant proportion of my childhood happened in the silence of a tractor cab. There was a brisk manner in which the morning moved from milking to feeding calves to feeding cows, but the afternoon fieldwork was where the day would start to settle out.

One has to be alert at first because, whether mowing or ploughing, the edges of a field always require attentiveness. Soon, however, after going up one end and down the other, my hands and eyes would find a rhythm to what they were doing.

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Without me realizing it, my mind and body would cleave, and my thoughts would wander on their own.

When trying to determine what made us what we are, it makes for a better story to point to the grand moments: the death of a friend, a parents’ divorce or finding a book that was meaningful.

In thinking through it myself, I try not to underestimate the small things. As a teenager, in the field, I had time to think. To put it more accurately, from the time I climbed the tractor steps to when it got dark I had nothing to do but think. 

I thought about novels, the Chicago Cubs, girls, things I wanted to do and the person I wanted to be.

Some thoughts were naïve, some pure fantasy and some childish – but I had them all the same as I reached the headlands, turned around and made another pass. There was something integrating about doing fieldwork.

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It is both easy and difficult to judge society. I don’t know how to measure the way we as a group of people behave compared to others throughout history other than to say the easy thing: Whether one era had it better or worse than another, it has always been different.

Still, I feel like a curmudgeon every time I see a young person unable to walk or sit without a smartphone in front of them. I worry that we have lost the ability to be alone with only ourselves.

I know most farms are large now, and large farms do fieldwork differently, a parade of equipment rolling in to get the valley cultivated, seeded and fertilized in one go.

I don’t doubt the adrenaline of being part of a system or the possibility of camaraderie, but I wonder if that type of work offers the same selfhood that comes from being in your own company.

My girlfriend hates routine. If she experiences three days in a row that are similar, she becomes angry and depressed. I, on the other hand, mind it less – maybe even like it. Sometimes I feel the most comfortable and productive when I can slip into a pattern.

I suspect it is for the same reasons religions have specific rituals built into them: The repetition can be freeing, allowing part of the spirit/consciousness/soul to break away. Or to say it in other words, it can be useful to go around the field again and again.

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In the end, though, I suspect it comes down to what effect that routine is put to. Like most rural children, I grew up lectured on the value of hard work.

Hard work was necessary to run a family dairy farm, so there was no reason to question the adage. As I left the farm, however, and saw how other people lived, it became apparent not all work was the same.

In some jobs, like teachers and counselors and care providers, the value of what is done is obvious and inherent in the way it serves the communities around them. Other employment, whether a blue-collar spot on the factory line or a white-collar place behind a desk, has the final outcome of making someone else wealthier.

I worked in a box factory for six months to get enough money to pay for a deposit on a master’s degree.

It’s not that I think money shouldn’t be earned, or that I couldn’t handle the work. Rather, it was a lesson how defeating the routine can be when you’re not enriched by what you’re doing.

Farming has come upon some tight profit margins these last years. When I was 19, I met a farmer’s son who told me his aim in life was to be a millionaire by the time he retired. I don’t know how close he is to reaching his goal, but I don’t think he went into agriculture.

For those who farm, the compensation is (and often has to be) nonfinancial. It is easy to find meaning in what a farmer does, whether it’s feeding the population, working with animals or making independent decisions. Come to find out, in some ways that puts us in a privileged position.

According to a Gallup poll taken several years ago, 85% of employees across the world do not like their jobs, describing it as a source of frustration rather than fulfilment. Forbes magazine found that the number one reason people hate their jobs is because “They are not respected as people at work.

They are viewed as production units rather than valued collaborators.” Employment for most people is only a means to an end – and one that takes more than it gives. Over the entrance to Auschwitz was the slogan “Arbeit mach frei” – Work makes you free. As it turns out, that was a lie.

I think it is worth amending that old maxim. It is important to recognize, as individuals and society, that the value of hard work is not simply working hard but the value it adds to your life and those around you.

I felt pretty lucky in that tractor cab.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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