On an old desk in the milkhouse at my barn, there’s a fence tensioner, gestation calendar, cans of lag bolts, screws and nails, a hammer and other tools that I use around the farm.
There’s also a notebook and pen, and those are tools as well.
As a farmer and a writer, I’ve often felt the two occupations mesh well. Farming and writing both take a lot of time, commitment and patience.
And a few tools.
That’s why, in addition to the notebook in the milkhouse, I keep others in the machine shed, tractor cab and pickup truck. There’s even a notebook hanging from a nail in the hay mow of the barn.
While the tractors, discbine, hay wagons, balers, rakes and tedder are tools for my farming occupation, a notebook is the primary implement for my job as a writer. Since farming and writing are both time-consuming affairs, I often have to do them both at the same time.
That’s why I keep notebooks at strategic spots around the farm — you never know when the phone will ring and you’ll have to do an impromptu interview for a story. As long as the tools are handy, it’s not a problem.
Still, wearing two hats does have its challenges.
The people I need to interview for stories often return my call when I’m busy doing something on the farm. In an instant, I have to switch from farmer mode to reporter, and drop what I’m doing.
It’s not uncommon in the summer for the phone to buzz while I’m doing hay. If it’s someone I need to talk to for a story, I quickly shut everything down and do the interview from the confines of the tractor cab.
Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking, though, especially if there’s dry hay to bale and rain is moving in, but you need to stop and do an interview for a story that’s due later that day. In those instances, it’s like facing two deadlines at once.
It’s actually not bad doing an interview while parked in a hay field — it sure beats working in a stuffy office — and I’ve been doing it long enough that I have a routine.
If I’m expecting a return call, as soon as the ringer sounds I methodically shut down the discbine or baler, idle the tractor down and turn it off, then calmly answer the phone like I have everything under control.
Except sometimes there are factors outside of my control — those instances when the elements of a farm are just too pronounced to hide.
Once, I was doing an interview in the machine shed when the air compressor kicked on.
I remember to unplug it now when the phone rings.
Most of my “on-farm” interviews are done in the milkhouse, and on several occasions, while I asked questions and took notes, the cows loudly mooed in the background.
It usually just takes a brief apology and explanation — “I’m in my barn” — and the interviewee on the other end of the line is understanding, albeit sometimes confused.
There was one instance, a few years ago, when I was interviewing a state senator for a story that had nothing to do with farming.
As he talked, a few cows walked up to the doorway that leads from the milkhouse into the barn, leaned their heads over the pen and stared at me while I sat at the desk, taking notes. Sure enough, they began to moo. This time, however, I didn’t say anything, hoping the cows would stop.
Each time they mooed, the senator would pause for a second, then keep talking. The cows persisted and the mooing grew more intense until the senator asked, “Is that a cow?”
Since then, I learned that when the phone rings, it’s a good idea to quickly throw a few bales of hay to the cows in the barn, just to keep them content.
Yes, there are times when things like boisterous cows, clanging headlocks, crowing roosters and loud ventilation fans make it difficult to do interviews while I balance the jobs of farmer and writer.
That’s why, when I have a choice, I do most of my interviewing and writing from the quiet confines of an office inside the house.
Yet even then, there are times when the elements of the farm are inescapable. In fact, I’m experiencing one of those elements as I write this: the scent of sweet, sun-cured hay floating off the hill on a cool breeze through an open window.
No, it’s not all bad juggling the jobs of a farmer and a writer, as long as you keep your tools handy whenever the phone rings.
Just remember to throw the cows a few bales of hay.