The Farmer's Spirit

It was a great day! But it was also an uncertain and scary day. It was April 16, 1997. Our cows walked out of the barn for the last time; we were no longer dairy farmers. We had just made a life-changing decision. Would it prove to be the right choice?

So, What Do You Do? book coverMy husband Joe and I managed our dairy farm and milked cows for 20 years. For the latter half of those years, we struggled with stray voltage, an insidious phenomenon that has destroyed whole herds and their owners. Our case wasn't quite that bad; it didn't kill our cattle or cause health issues for us. It did, however, cause health problems in our cows, which resulted in lower milk production. Because our income was based on pounds of milk produced, it hurt our bottom-line when any cow did not produce to standards. 

Several times we consulted with the electric company. We were first told we didn't have a problem. We knew better but didn't know how to prove it. We were later told we indeed had stray voltage but they didn't know how to correct it. Over the years, we also worked with several nutritionists. When we followed their suggestions, the cows suffered from diarrhea or swollen knees, were in pain, and produced less milk.  Our herd size and income dropped each year. Normally older cows are replaced by heifers when they give birth to their first calf, but many of our cows were leaving the barn years earlier than they should due to poor health and low milk production. We simply couldn't raise replacement heifers fast enough.

After years of guessing, we installed a water meter in the barn to determine how much water the cows were drinking each day. We weren't completely shocked to learn they were drinking approximately 1/3 to 1/2 the gallons a herd that size should be drinking.  We concluded some cows were getting a shock every time they took a drink from the metal drinking cup. They learned to only drink the minimum to stay alive, not enough for good milk production or health. It was devastating to realize we were subjecting our animals to this every day.

We were faced with a choice. We could re-wire the entire barn, which would substantially add to our large farm debt, or we could sell our cows. Joe and I were both tired of the day-to-day grind and stress of milking cows. We had been milking morning and evening, 7 days a week, with no vacation for 20 years. It was nearly impossible to take time off because cows know when someone different is milking. That alone can drop production. We simply couldn't afford a vacation.

What's more, in 1997 our children were ages 16, 14, 12, and 8 and were involved in many school activities. Milking often kept us from attending those events.

At the same time, Joe was presented with the opportunity to start his own construction business. It wasn't an easy choice, but we hoped we knew what was best for our family. Joe continued farming our 200 acres, selling the crops rather than storing them for feed, and worked construction when not planting and harvesting. I was half-way through a four-year term as Clerk/Treasurer for our local municipality. Along with helping on the farm and raising four kids, the Clerk job kept me busy. I saw myself as Clerk/Treasurer for many years to come.

That changed on October 4, 1998. I remember the day well because it happened to be my 40th birthday! The new Town Chairman informed me I would be replaced as Clerk/Treasurer when my term expired the following April. It was devastating news because I had worked hard, computerized all town records, learned a lot about municipal government, and thoroughly loved the job!

As the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens.  I had to find the other door, but I had no idea where it was or what it looked like. I enrolled in computer classes at Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC), not because I knew I'd find the right door there, but I had discovered my love for computers and I wanted to learn more. Sometimes it's the simple choices that turn out to make the biggest differences in our lives!

I didn't attend college after high school because it wasn't what I wanted at that time in my life. I wanted to work, save money, get married, and have a family. I was raised by a stay-at-home mom and that is what I wanted for my family. So with my first classes at MPTC, I had a lot to learn about college.

In the summer of 2000 I enrolled in two classes in MPTC's newly formed Web Developer program. I took HTML and Photoshop so I could make a website for my friend's business. I soon realized there was much more to Web development than I could learn in two classes and I enjoyed web design so much. I was hooked. By December 2002 I had earned a Technical Diploma and Associate's Degree.

In 2003 I enrolled in classes at Lakeland College to earn a Bachelor's degree but after just one semester, again I faced difficult choices. Was I wasting time and money when I could be working and bringing in a paycheck? I chose to take a break from school while working a temporary job to figure out the answers.

I was bouncing around the job world during these years, with some good and some very bad experiences. Every job taught me what I wanted and, more importantly, what I didn't want. I didn't want a job in retail. I didn't want a secretarial job. I didn't want a job I'd be bored with after six months.  Every job seemed to push me toward my own business. 

I went back to Lakeland College, and by December 2005, I was a college graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science! It was a lot of work for five years but I think it speaks to my tenacity and stubbornness. No one said I must. No one said I should. In fact, most family and friends probably thought I was a little crazy pursuing the degrees at my age. 

After earning my Bachelor's degree, I taught as an adjunct instructor at MPTC, where I started the Web Developer program years earlier. As fate would have it, I had many women students in their 40s and 50s who had lost their jobs. I gave them a bit of hope for the future. If I could do it, they could too!

I continue to study and learn to keep up with my rapidly-changing industry, and I have built a strong Website development business with loyal customers. For 20 years I expected I'd be milking cows until retirement. When we sold the cows and I lost my Clerk/Treasurer position, I faced the question, Now what? What would I do with the rest of my life?

Throughout those years, I was taken in many directions but I kept coming back to Web Development. Sometimes learning what you don't want is just as important as learning what you do want.

I know now the independent work lifestyle is the one for me. Perhaps it's the farmer spirit that became ingrained in my being. When I look back, there was never a definite plan. I just kept looking for the next door to open and pursued it to the end.

Written by Laura Wagner - Published in So, What Do You Do? Volume 2 by Morgan James Publishing © 2015

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