Old Barns and Broken Silos

We live in a rural area with lots of farms, and many farm ghosts. Evidence of where a house once lived. Old pump houses standing alone. A garage by itself. A tattered swing hanging from the limb of a dead tree.

Crumbled barns make me sad. I think of the families who worked terribly long hours in the fields harvesting crops. I imagine rows of cows slowly chewing, staring. I can see an old horse standing, one leg bent.

On M-53, midway up the “thumb” of Michigan, there is a once-proud farm. In 1976 when the United States celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary, the family painted “Happy Birthday America! 1976!” on the barn. The faded sign remained until the barn collapsed several years ago. The fractured house is covered by vines, weeds, and memories.

I see mile after mile of rusted balers, combines, discs, rakes, and the tractors that pulled them. I think about the people who drove those tractors in the open air, eating dust, baking in the midday sun. Farmers in 1950 could not have imagined monster tractors that almost operate themselves while the driver sits in the air-conditioned cab watching a computer screen as GPS guided machinery applies nutrients to the soil.

I wonder if a farmer faithfully milking fifteen cows by hand twice each day could ever have foreseen a dairy farm with thousands of cows that wander to the milking parlor by themselves and are milked automatically up to three times every day.

In a recent conversation about a huge dairy farm I was told, “The cows learn they get grain when they come to the parlor, so they’ll try to come in just to eat. A computer scanner reads their tag and they are not allowed in if they have already been milked. Eventually they learn when to come in for milking.” Amazing.

I think about conversations that happened in those old barns.

“Don’t let those calves out of the pen!! What is wrong with you?!”

“Get over! Move over! Get!!” the farmer yells as he attempts to push an unwilling heifer into a stanchion.

“Get out there and load the spreader!! Can’t you see the pile is higher than the roof?!”

“Grab that bucket and clean the cows before I come over there and kick your can!!”

“Ben!! Are you up there?!! What’s taking you so long!! Get that hay thrown down here!! They’re not going to wait all day just because you’re lazy!! Ben!!!!”

“I’m coming!!!” Ben yells, mumbling to himself about how he’s not going to have cows when he owns his own farm.

“I want you boys to fix the fence on the outer forty by noon! I’m turning the cattle out at twelve o’clock sharp! If that fence isn’t done and any get out of the field I’m going to take it out of your hide!”

“Which one of you two bent the drive on the baler?! Speak up!! Who did it!!”

I think about farm moms making huge amounts of food. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, beans, corn on the cob, jello, and homemade rolls, with hot apple pie for dessert. And that was dinner at noon. Supper came later when all the chores were finished.

A broken silo stands alone in a field. The last load was pulled out decades ago. I wonder if any calves were ever in that silo.

I worked on a farm when I was in high school. As I was shoveling silage my boss yelled, “You be sure to lock that door tight when you leave for lunch. If you don’t, the calves will get in there!”

“Sure they will,” I mumbled to myself.

I locked the silo door. At least I thought I did. When I came back from lunch the door was lying on the ground. I looked in the silo and there were three black faces staring back at me. My boss walked up at that moment. He said something I don’t recall and climbed in the silo with a stick and started yelling. Three big calves came scrambling out.

The farm where I worked is gone. Factories took its place.

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