Air-drying laundry

Someone recently asked me what the hardest part of being a dairy farmer is. I actually had to think about it for a while. I could say it’s the early mornings, but in reality, my husband gets up cheerfully every morning at 4:00 and milks the cows while I sleep. I could say the hard work, but to be honest, I enjoy hard work; it keeps me healthy and humble. I could say the inflexibility of the schedule… our cows have to be milked twice a day, every day… but for the most part, our schedule keeps us grounded.

So after some deep thought, I decided that the hardest part of being a farmer –at least at this point in my life – is the laundry.

One thing about dairy farming is that it ain’t the cleanest profession. My husband goes through a minimum of two changes of clothes per day, every single day, and often more. Those clothes are dirty – often covered with manure to the point that they stay in a pile on the porch until I load the washer, which is frequently.

For practical reasons, I try to keep my kids out of the barn if I know we’re going to be headed out somewhere. But at least a couple of times a week they escape to the barn or the pasture as I’m getting ready to bring them to preschool or to church. I go to collect them and put them in the car only to find that they’re covered with manure, and I need to change their clothes. In summer, I often need to put them in the bathtub as well.

Yet another complication is that we have only one family vehicle, a trusty 1992 Volvo station wagon that serves as both farm vehicle and family transport. I’ve been spotted driving the thing through a hayfield, pulling a hay rake along on many a haying day, especially if we’re having tractor problems. It’s a great cost savings to us to only keep and maintain one vehicle, yet it also means that we occasionally arrive at our destination… whether it be church, or the grocery store, or a meeting… only to find that there was manure on the car seat… and now it’s all over our clothes. At this point, there’s little that can be done.

Back in the early days of farming, we lived in a trailer and there wasn’t room for a washing machine (or so I thought). In between milking and farm chores and my off-farm jobs, I would drop off enormous loads of very dirty laundry at the local laundromat, running to switch them from washer to dryer on my lunch break, or at very late hours of the day, when the laundromat was inhabited by other sketchy characters like myself.

Sharon, the woman who worked there, was large and sassy. She began to dread my arrival. When I walked in the door, she would throw up her hands and sigh loudly: “Oh NO. I just swept.” It was a fair complaint, as in the process of loading the machines, I would have to clean out the pockets of our farming clothes.

By the time the machine was loaded, I would have a sizeable pile of rubber gloves, paper towels (which we use to clean the cows’ udders during milking), random fence parts, screws and nails, baling twine, thermometers, etc, all covered in a generous dusting of hay chaff, sawdust, and who knows what else.

One time she stood watching me for a full five minutes as I cleaned out the pockets and loaded the machine. When I pulled a perfect, intact chicken’s egg from one of my husband’s shirt pockets, her jaw dropped and she walked away, muttering to herself.

I eventually decided for Sharon’s sake and my own that I needed to invest in a washing machine and find a place to keep it in the trailer, which I did. I purchased a trusty used model, and I’ve kept it working just about every day since. When we moved to our current apartment, I added a tiny, apartment-sized dryer (this was right around the time we were also diapering a newborn and a toddler strictly in cloth). However, most of our family’s clothes get washed and hung on the line outside to dry which, though time consuming, is a satisfying chore. Most days when you walk into my small kitchen (which also serves as mudroom, laundry room, root cellar, pantry, and command central for our farming business), you can hear the happy hum of the washing machine. Hopefully the clean scent of laundry soap overwhelms the other strange smells that inevitably waft from the center of our home.

Farming the way we farm – which is to get out there and have fun and get dirty – means a whole lot of very dirty laundry, all the time. But there’s an old saying… that nothing’s certain except death, taxes, and laundry. Nowhere is that more true than on this farm, but I’ll take it over any other profession, any day.