In June, 2012, I knocked on a farmhouse door in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to ask for permission to photograph a recently harvested hay field. Little did I know then that over the course of a year I would return many times to the Hawkins family’s property to photograph life on their farm. And little did I know that Bob and Doris and their family would become valued friends.
Midway through the year I was invited to exhibit my work at the Carlisle Arts Learning Center. This was my first solo exhibit, and I learned so much from hundreds of hours spent bringing photographs together to tell a meaningful story in an artistic fashion. Narrowing down a couple thousand images to a few dozen was quite a task. Perhaps some day I will publish a book with more photographs and a bit of the knowledge I gained from many long conversations and participation in everything from birthing cows to spreading manure!
The photographs selected for the exhibit appear chronologically in the slideshow, beginning with summer (including a collection on the birth of a calf) and ending with spring. Following are the comments that appeared in the exhibit brochure to describe each seasonal collection. Additional comments about each photograph are accessible through the website gallery.
Lazy days of summer. . . not on a farm! Bob and Doris’s work begins with the 5:30 alarm and continues until supper is served at 9:00 or later at night. Morning and evening milking and feeding (including bottle-feeding young calves), chopping hay, harvesting corn and soybeans, mucking stalls, maintaining equipment, ordering supplies, growing and preserving food for the family, and doing custom fieldwork for other farmers, are just a few of the items on the to-do list. Their children, Joel and Joann, have their own families but are an integral part of the farm. Neighboring farmers pitch in too, especially when weather is threatening to ruin a crop. On Sundays, milking and feeding the cows are the only chores, but otherwise there is little down time. A week-long vacation-- never. But there are few complaints. Farming has been part of both Doris and Bob’s families for generations, and (most days) they would not trade it for anything.
A Calf is Born
Breeding cows is an essential part of the dairy farm operation. A cow that is not breeding once a year and producing milk is a financial drain. Calves are called heifers when they are first bred at a little over two years of age (with the help of the resident bull or by artificial insemination performed by Joann). After nine months’ gestation, normally a calf is born without any assistance from the farmer. On the hot July morning when Doris called to say that Mona was likely to give birth soon, I was warned that this could be a difficult birth because the calf was turned in the mother’s womb. No problem. Like an expectant grandmother, I changed clothes, packed my bag, and raced to the farm.
Bob made several attempts to move the unborn calf into position before calling Dr. Don Sunday for assistance. Soon Dr. Don, Bob, and farmhand Matt were giving their all to ensure a safe delivery for Mona and her calf. Mona was quiet and cooperative, except for deciding to stand up just before delivery. My contribution, besides photographing and keeping my stomach in check, was to stroke Mona’s head and say a few words that I hoped would be comforting to a cow. I could relate, on some level.
About an hour after the vet’s arrival, the calf was born and all was well. The three men left Mona to care for her newborn and went on to other chores. I eagerly accepted the invitation to stay a while in the quiet barn with mother and baby and onlooking cows. Having delivered her first calf, Mona’s status changed from “heifer" to “cow." For five milkings, Mona’s milk is used exclusively for the newborn. After that, the normal routine resumes and the life cycle repeats.
Autumn is commonly known as harvest season, and for the Hawkins family it means long days of up to 20 hours of chopping and storing hay and corn. Joel is largely responsible for “custom work”- harvesting other farmers’ fields. This year’s frequent rains extended the work into December, even requiring Bob and Joel to eat their Thanksgiving dinners in the field. Meanwhile Doris sells hundreds of pumpkins grown by another farmer. The extra income comes in handy, but Doris especially enjoys visiting with families who return year after year.
The pace does slow some in winter, but not by much. Supper may be as early as 8:00. Farm repairs (including new barn roofs) and a machinery repair side-business keep the men occupied. Joel and Matt are trained mechanics who are very much at home in the clutter of equipment and inventory that have accumulated for decades. Outside, the fields are quiet and the cows are enjoying the preferred cold weather. Inside, Doris spends the days catching up on housework and paperwork for reports and taxes. And everyone enjoys having a bit more family time.
Many people are eager for spring to arrive, but farmers are especially so. Before the workload gets intense, Bob and fellow farmers enjoy the annual State Plowing Contest held at his brother-in-law Jay’s farm. Strict rules and friendly competition blend well with plenty of laughter and grilled donuts. Meanwhile, the minute the ground is thawed and dry enough for tractors, the sequence of real field work begins: spread 400,000 gallons of manure, plow their 200 acres (plus 2000 acres of custom work for others), plant corn and soybeans, and pray for good weather. Before long, the corn has sprouted, and the wheat and barley seeds planted last autumn are transformed to amber waves of grain. Doris plants the kitchen garden and hopes for a good harvest for summer meals and next winter’s spaghetti sauce. Everyone does his part as the cows are bred, fed, milked and cared for in the continuous cycle of life on a family dairy farm.
This exhibit was presented in sincere gratitude to Bob and Doris Hawkins and their family. A special thank you also to John Wright for top-notch printing service and countless hours of mentorship, and to Cathy Stone, gallery director, for inviting me to present this exhibit and walking me through every step.