Bob and I have just finished unloading from the farmers market when Kate, our summer intern, clomps by in her barn boots carrying a dead chicken. Dad is driving up to the house from the back fields and Kate walks head-on toward his moving vehicle. He stops. She waves the chicken in the air at him.
I’ve disemboweled chickens because a good farmer should know how.
“Cuz I just gotta know!” she hollers over the sound of the engine. He cuts the motor and slowly peels himself from the bench seat. We all know he is in pain. But the excitement of Kate’s question overrules the pinch in Dad’s sciatica. Kate pulls her jackknife from the back pocket of her Carhartts.
They lay the stiff chicken breast-side up and Kate runs her fingers over the belly of the bird, asking without words where to make an incision.
“Do we have coccidiosis?” I ask, peering over their shoulders and noticing the bloody stool around the bird’s anus, a sign of the parasitic intestinal disease.
“We found the blood in the stools this morning,” Dad answers. “We’ve started treating with probiotics.”
“Yeah, but I gotta see,” Kate says. Dad reaches forward and makes an imaginary incision line with his finger. Kate traces it with her blade, and with one slice is able to pull free the intestine and begin the autopsy.
I am in awe. I am ashamed. I am in love.
I’ve disemboweled many chickens in my time. My well-trained fingers can find just the right spot in the skin where a simple slice will free the entrails. But I don’t do that anymore. And I never did it like this. I’ve disemboweled chickens because a good farmer should know how. Not because I wanted to. Kate’s eyes are intent and her awareness is exclusively on that animal. She’s unaware of everything else.
I do not share her fascination. I’ve worked with Mom and Dad for 19 years now, and this lack of curiosity has been like a slow-growing boil under my skin. And now, as we get ready to meet with a business planner to outline the transition in ownership of our farm, as I review sales, pay bills, and try to figure out how to bring the farm forward as my parents prepare to step back, that boil is about to erupt.
Farm transition planning has put all of us under the microscope.
Farm transition planning has put all of us under the microscope. I’ve been forced to scrutinize my parents’ past business decisions. They furrow their brows each time I crunch numbers and draft financial plans. We’re all waiting for Bob to evaluate whether the price of the repairs and improvements he recommends can be justified.
And I feel like my lack of aptitude for being a herd manager is the biggest glaring flaw in all of it.
How can I be a farmer, and not have a burning curiosity to study the bloody stools that have backed up inside a chicken’s intestinal tract?
What Mom and Dad passed along to me is a understanding of the power of community and the importance of growing clean, wholesome food in harmony with the Earth. But when it comes to tube-feeding lambs or identifying parasitic diseases, my parents have passed along only ability.
The passion that burns in Kate’s eyes is simply not in my genetic coding. And for 19 years, I’ve been guilty about it.
I’ve tried to find it. I’ve attended classes, read articles, and listened to other knowledgeable farmers. But never, in all my history on this land, have I looked at an animal, reflected about the biology inside it, and said those magical words that pulled my Dad from his seat: “Cuz I just gotta know!”
My ‘Cus I just gottas’ turn more toward grilling steaks than understanding cattle rumen; or teaching customers about meat cuts; or, as the soft tapping of my keyboard implies every morning, spinning stories that bring people closer to the Earth that feeds them.
I cannot help but wonder if my parents are making a mistake, putting the reins of this business into my hands, when I lack a drive for animal husbandry. I wonder if I am making a big mistake accepting those reins.
I cannot help but wonder if my parents are making a mistake.
A few days later, the girls and I are upstairs at home on a rainy afternoon. I am making a pair of socks from our wool to bring to the farmers market. Saoirse and Ula are quietly playing on the floor beside me as rain pelts the windows.
“You know, Mama,” Ula’s voice cuts through my ponderings, “there aren’t enough women superheroes.”
I put down the yarn and look at her over my glasses. “What do you mean by that?”
“Batman and Robin. Superman. They’re all men. All we’ve got is Wonder Woman.”
I nod, and turn my head back to the socks.
“I mean, they made up Bat Girl and Super Girl, but there are no stories about them,” Ula continues, bouncing on the bed next to me. “They just stick them in underwear. I’m going to make a book about woman superheroes!”
“I’ll help!” Saoirse volunteers. Ula runs downstairs to find clay and begins sculpting three-dimensional models. Saoirse takes out some pencils and paper.
“This is Forest Girl,” Ula says, showing me her first prototype. “She can communicate with all the creatures, plants, and trees in the forest.”
“And this is Stockinette,” Saoirse has drawn a powerful woman bearing two oversized knitting needles. “She can defeat anyone with her knitting needles, and she can knit up anything she needs.”
“I’m going to make Super Ula,” Ula cuts in. “She can imagine anything and bring it to life.”
“And this is Needle Woman!” Saoirse has made a second drawing. This one has a barbed sword. “She has superpowers with wool. She can needle-felt anything she needs, plus she uses her needle as a sword.”
“And next, I’m going to make Super Shanny.” Ula grabs some more clay.
“Super Shanny?” I can’t imagine what powers that woman could have.
“Yup. She gets a pad of paper and a pen and can do math and rewrite any story to make things work out.”
A farm transition requires re-visioning around the strengths of the next generation.
I don’t know how to respond. But suddenly I see this family farm in a new light. We are not a bunch of farmers who have the same skills. We are all superheroes, each of us endowed with some extraordinary talents, and some extraordinary weaknesses. Superheroes depend on each others’ strengths to make up for their weaknesses.
If I try to run this farm the way my mother and father did it, I will fail. I can’t carry our family business forward relying on my weaknesses. A farm transition requires revisioning around the strengths of the next generation. That doesn’t mean the skills my parents built the business on aren’t needed. It’s just that I don’t have to be the one to master them.
I can be Super Shanny, but I don’t have to do it alone. I get a team of Super Friends—Super Bob, with his fix-it powers, and Super Kate, ready to diagnose and treat any sick animal. I’ve got Super Ula, who can imagine all the possibilities, and Super Saoirse, who can make wondrous things come from her hands. And then there’s Super Jim and Super Adele, my parents, who can offer their wisdom to all of us as we muddle our way forward.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.