Former farm kid reminisces how rural lifestyle could be the best (and worst) of times

As a former farm kid, I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard to find a better place to grow up. Fresh air. Nature. Access to puppies, chickens, horses and calves. Tom Sawyer-scale adventures right out your front door, as you foraged for chokecherries, discovered the latest batch of kittens or caught tadpoles. An early sense of self-reliance and contribution as you pitched in to help with the many chores.

But as I sat through a recent Minnesota Department of Ag-sponsored workshop on farm stress in youth, something else hit me for the first time. Farm life could also be very hard, and kids weren’t immune from the stress.

As the presenter, Monica Kramer McConkey, listed the various stressors, I was amazed how many scary, sad or traumatic events I could recall from my own childhood. Yet I had always shrugged them off – as something that wasn’t that big of a deal or something I should try to “walk off.” Even back then, I was a world-champion worrier, but I realized that some of that anxiety stemmed from my own parents, whose livelihood hinged on a world filled with things they couldn’t control. Farm prices. Weather. The global economy. Uncertain income. Equipment breakdowns. Illness, for which you didn’t get sick days or PTO.

It’s not like they even shared their worry. Like many parents, they tried to protect us from their fears. Even so, kids have a way of picking up on the tension. They know.

The same characteristics that we loved about farm life – the independence of our neat, little, self-contained farmsteads, hemmed in by tall trees – were the same things that made it hard to see our struggles. In fact, you learned early on never to talk about poor crops or sick cattle or misfortune. Much like an injured animal who survives by hiding its injury, you learned to hide anything that could be seen as weakness or vulnerability.

After all, your neighbors were also your competition, and you didn’t want to be seen as the family who wasn’t doing well.

During the three hours I sat in that session, so many memories and images reared up with surprising clarity.

I remembered seeing a dead calf for the first time, when I was just 3 or 4 years old. Squatting down to touch it and being shocked by how strange and cold it felt. You learned about death early on the farm. You had to.

You also learned about injury. There was the summer my cousin Jake worked for us. He was driving a farmhand up a pile of silage and it flipped backwards, injuring his back and breaking numerous bones. I’ll never forget the worried look on Dad’s face as he sprinted across the farmyard with a door, which would serve as a makeshift stretcher for Jake until the ambulance came.

I remembered tornadoes and flash floods and hailstorms with hail stones as big as ping-pong

As kids, we always searched for this water tower on the horizon as a sign that we had almost reached Elgin. But within a matter of seconds, this landmark became yet another casualty of the F4 twister.

balls. Especially vivid was the memory of a deadly twister that hit the nearby community of Elgin in the 1970s. As the air grew frighteningly still and the sky grew so dark that it felt like twilight, Mom hustled us down into the root cellar.

In this earthen bunker, which smelled faintly of dill, potatoes and damp dirt, we struggled to hear scratchy reports on the transistor radio. My oldest sister sat and calmly played Solitaire on a TV tray, but I was filled with fear and terror. Was the tornado coming our way? Would it destroy our house? Would we all be killed?

My main tornado reference came from the twister scene in the “Wizard of Oz,” and I wondered if it would pick up our house and twirl it around as easily as a doll’s cottage.

Although we've sold the machinery and no longer farm the land, our western North Dakota farmstead has thankfully stayed in the family.

The next day, we heard little else but stories and news reports on the storm. Houses cleaved neatly in half, with the twister demolishing one side while leaving the other half so unscathed that a glass sat unscathed on the table. Letters driven into fence posts as if someone had sawed a horizontal slice there and stuck the envelope into it. Several people were killed, and we heard terrifying stories of people unsuccessfully trying to outrun the twister in their vehicles.

For several years afterward, I was terrified of storms. If there was even a hint of storm clouds coming, I would beg my parents to stay home, because I knew they would always know what to do and would keep us safe.

At the time, everyone called me a worry wart and wondered why I was so fearful. But in retrospect, those fears made perfect sense.

Just remember: Kids see, feel and sense so much more than we even know. It’s time to pay attention.

Click HERE for specific tips and resources on how to help farm kids and families navigate through these stressful times.

– By Tammy Swift

Note: A version of this column originally ran in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

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