"If only you could walk a mile in my shoes." We've all read it, thought it and most likely said it, but how many of us have actually tried it?
Every day, each of us wakes up and tackles the day. Some of us head to an office and are inundated with phone call after phone call. Others don a uniform and ready themselves to help those in need.
Though it would be impossible for me to walk a mile in everyone's shoes, I am bringing the adage to life. From sweeping floors to farming, I am taking myself out of my comfort zone and being put to work like never before at businesses around Germantown and Menomonee Falls.
Germantown — A picturesque country home sits behind a perfectly manicured lawn in the northern corner of Germantown on Maple Road. A red barn stands to the right of the home, with a tall silo looming over it. As I pulled up to the driveway, the familiar scent I attributed to countless road-trips across Wisconsin hit me — the scent of a dairy farm.
I was greeted by the powerful bark of Lizzy, a medium-sized herding dog. Her bark was not a reflection of her tame demeanor. We were instantly pals. Out of the house came her owner, Charlie Jones — a 21-year-old dairy farmer. Jones restarted the farm on his parents' property when he was just 19-years-old. At that age, I was lucky I made it to one morning class on time while Jones was waking up with the sun, starting his own dairy farm business.
The 200-plus acres of land has been in his family since the mid-1850s. The family tradition of farming goes back at least six generations. That tradition came to a halt when his grandfather sold the cows.
In his blood
Jones, who helped in the fields as a young child, remembers coming home one day to find the animals were gone. By then, farming was already ingrained in who he was. Starting the farm seemed instinctive. Though he says he is not one for school, you would never know it when he talks about the science behind his career.
Over the course of two years, he has grown the dairy farm to about 100 milking cows. His grandfather had about 30 cows. His great grandfather cared for eight of them. Charlie said a dozen cows was considered a lot in those days. To make it viable now, a higher volume of cows is crucial.
Running a farm, I found out last week, takes a unique and admirable individual — a type of person that is rare to find. Jones works seven days a week, 365 days a year. He hasn't had a full day off in two years. He starts as early as 7 a.m., milking all 100 cows by himself, with Lizzy by his side. Aside from a lunch break, he usually doesn't stop working until 11 p.m. When I'm busy eating lots of food on Thanksgiving, Christmas or the Fourth of July, Jones is working, making sure his animals are taken care of.
He does have employees on the farm, but still, his days are long. His mom, Michelle Jones, and his girlfriend, Kristin Gudex, help him feed the dozen-plus calves twice a day. A task that winded me more than once.
Jones works harder in one day than I do in one month. When I stepped into the barn to help milk the cows at 7 a.m. last week, I was already tired. I don't think I have ever seen the 5:30 a.m. hour of day, which is when my alarm went off.
Having grown up in Milwaukee, my idea of milking cows is only what I have seen on TV. In my head I pictured sitting on a stool with a pail. I still regret saying that out loud to Jones.
Fear of trampling unfounded
It took me a bit to overcome my palpable fear of being trampled by the obviously tame cows. Wearing a red shirt, running from the bulls came to my mind. That was clearly not the case. The cows were more afraid of me than I was of them.
Before a cow's udders can be hooked up to a suction machine that rapidly removes the milk, you have to pull on the udder so it squirts out milk to prep the animal. Then you dip each of the four udders into a formula that sterilizes them.
As I grabbed my first udder, I couldn't help but say "I feel like I'm violating them." But, it had to be done.
It took me 10 minutes to actually get milk to come out of the udder. Thankfully, Jones had me milk the more docile cows. He knew each one's personality. Some were complacent. Others knew exactly how to kick the milking machine right off of them. I really liked one cow in particular named "Gloria." She had a curious demeanor and licked my hand a few times. I did jump out of my skin the first time one of the cows licked my arm when I was standing about a foot from the gate. They had a tendency to sneak up on me.
The stream of cows to be milked seemed endless. It's remarkable Jones milks all of them by himself every single morning. After a half an hour, I felt like a pro, though I was dripping sweat and my back was starting to hurt. It was only 7:30.
After milking the cows, I was charged with raking some of the cows' stalls to get the manure out of the hay. The only poop I ever want to deal with is my own, so you can imagine how I felt when I started raking. By the third stall, thoughts of manure were replaced with the realization of how out of shape I am as I felt the strain on my arms. At one point in the day, when Michelle had me fill buckets with hay to feed another group of cows, she jokingly said she didn't know why people paid for a gym when they could just come out and work on the farm. Truer words were never spoken. I think I used every muscle in my body that day.
I also watched Jones mix feed. He makes his own and grows the corn for the feed. Different cows, such as the pregnant cows and the calves, have specific diets so they are healthy and produce the highest quality, hormone-free milk.
Michelle showed me how to feed the calves, mixing the formula and switching out their water pails with the formula, then refilling their hard food and water. I carried two pails. Michelle, who usually carries six, grabbed four. When I tried to be a tough guy and grab two pails in one hand, I dumped them both.
Those cute little calves are strong. By the end of it, I was covered in calf slobber and sweat. For someone who doesn't like gardening because of the dirt, I was surprised how little I minded dairy farm dirt. I think it's because I considered my shirt compromised, so it didn't matter what got on it.
I trudged home in the early afternoon hours, more tired than I have been in a long time. With a nap in my near future, I realized that Jones had to do it all over again that night. I came out to work on an 80 degree day. I couldn't imagine farming in 100 degree humid heat or the frigid cold.
When I asked him what keeps him going, Jones humbly shrugged his shoulders. He started to discuss the science of farming, such as carefully breeding the cows every 60 days after they give birth to a calf so they continue to produce milk. His passion was unmistakable. He called himself "a farm dork," and explained to me the detail that goes into the many facets of farming. Much of it was over my head, but all of it was impressive.
It was an honor to spend the morning with Charlie and Michelle, two of the most humble, kind and hard-working people I have ever met. It was an eye-opening experience I will never forget.
WHY THIS JOB IS FUN
· working outside
· working with animals, including calves
· excellent exercise
WHY THIS JOB IS HARD
· long hours: seven-day a week, 365 days a year
· the work never ends
· heavy lifting; on feet all day
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