Chelsea Kruse delivered this talk at the National Farmers Union convention in Wichita, Kansas, in March.
My name is Chelsea Kruse, I’m a member of New England Farmers Union and a student of the 2014 Beginning Farmers Institute. I grew up in a very rural and unknown corner of New Hampshire, but I have no beginning in agriculture, no familial ties into farming. My introduction to animal husbandry really was when I was young, I used to help my dad train search and rescue dogs for emergency response. That’s kind of my real beginning, knowing that I could and liked working with animals. But I don’t think many introductions into agriculture really happen without at least a little bit of so-called tragedy.
When I was around 12 years old, my parents divorced. Because I was such an introverted and quiet child, apparently it was concerning enough that I was sent to talk to some of the teachers’ aids. One of them talked to me over lunch about my then pre-teen obsession with horses. She had a farm and she bred quarter horses, so she invited me to visit her farm and hang out. So I went.
Before I get into that story, I want to share a little about what my formative years were like, because that’s also helped me in the whole love for agriculture department. I grew up very, very poor. I still don’t feel comfortable sharing specific details, but I can guarantee that I was the poorest kid in high school. I know what it’s like to be hungry. I know what it’s like to feel left behind socially due to monetary inabilities. I never once attended a dance or prom. I couldn’t afford it. My senior year of track and field, the one that’s generally supposed to be the best, I had to ask my coach to buy me a pair of running shoes, and I forfeited the championship meet to work my job instead.
I was lucky enough not to feel isolated in high school, but sometimes I was anyway. But it’s made me a softer person, and it’s shaped me to be compassionate and to look at other people’s points of view before my own. So continuing on about going to the horse farm…
It turns out we had to do morning chores on the dairy farm first, so I learned how to use a milking machine and how to feed a calf, and really, to this day, I’m couldn’t tell you what happened, but I kept going back, again and again. I joined the 4-H club on the farm and learned how to exhibit dairy cattle. Something happened at that farm, because I didn’t go there searching for anything, not to ask questions or wonder about answers, or look for relief from anything. It all just kind of made sense to me immediately and settled into me; it turned me into a dairy farmer quite accidentally. And this very, very lucky experience has helped me with a lot of things, with developing leadership and communication skills and a lot of general skills that have led me to become a highly functioning member of society.
And it’s through 4-H that I became emotionally attached to farming, to my mentors and to cows – which is super corny, but very much the truth. Brenda Kelly was my first mentor, and she taught me everything I know about cows, and I really owe her basically everything since she’s the one that helped me to push myself in the beginning, to learn better and to be better. She works a lot with troubled and at-risk kids, so she knows how to be empowering in the right ways, how to make people feel validated.
I worked at a day camp as a counselor that she created herself for about 4 years, and it was outreach to at-risk pre-teens. We did some chores and learned about horses and did arts and crafts, but we also learned how to make basic home cooked meals and how to mend clothing and other basic life skills that would come in handy in a synch. It was exposure to a real world that showed kids how to be functioning, that they could accept themselves even if no one else really did. It validated them.
Now, as for cows and the whole dairy farming aspect, it’s the second cow I ever showed that really taught me how to speak cow. Apparently she didn’t like anyone else but me, and apparently she really liked me a lot, because here was a scrawny 13-year-old leading around a 1000-pound powerhouse like it was nothing. Even when she was over 1500 pounds, she was very patient with me. There was one day I visited the farm when I hadn’t handled her in a year, and I led her around like nothing had ever changed. And the most compelling thing cows have ever showed me is this next part. When I let her out into the field, she turned around and stood toe to toe with me, watching me, waiting for something. I patted her a little bit and told her to go graze and then walked back down to the farmhouse to sit in the kitchen and eat dinner. I looked out of the open door and she was still standing there at the gate, waiting. She waited at that gate and watched after me for half an hour before the cows came from over the hill, and she joined them to eat. Now I don’t mean to brag, but this is the kind of love that they write songs about.
So she was the first of a line of cows that I showed for 4-H. I ended up buying her granddaughter as my first investment into agriculture. I still have her, at six years old on March 1. And in January, she gave to me a 4th generation heifer calf named Arizona. I waited six years for my first heifer calf. It was worth it.
And it’s little things like that, really, your first heifer calf, your first successful harvest of crops, first time using a piece of farm equipment, first, first, a whole line of firsts, that show you that it’s not only finding farming, it’s finding out that you are a farmer. It’s being validated in this way that suddenly makes you a bit more whole, worth a tiny bit more, maybe makes you feel that this is it; this is what you need to be doing. Nobody starts farming in one day. You’re continuously learning, and that’s a good thing because agriculture is continuously changing. And a lot of that learning is through other people, is through networking.
I’ve been lucky enough, really in basically almost every way imaginable, to have amazing mentors. And nothing’s really more empowering to me than the fact that they’re all successful women in agriculture. This farm I worked at for two years, up until last November, Echo Farm Puddings, run by sisters Beth and Courtney Hodge, is where I landed on my feet and actually got to be a real farmer. Beth was kind enough to let me do whatever I wanted, green out of school, so I did. I got to tattoo calves, write up operating procedures and take care of sick cows, and it was amazing what they did for me at that farm, how much they empowered me and how much I learned about farming and people. Through them I’ve been able to attend several leadership programs, through our milk cooperative, through NFU, and through a few local organizations that hosted classes for beginning and small farmers.
Beth was also the person who introduced me to Farmers Union, when she dragged me to the 2013 DC Fly-In and I immediately fell in love with the community of NFU and what they stand for. If it weren’t for the people that I’ve met through NFU, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today. Sometimes it’s really hard to find people with similar ideologies as you, especially in the same industry, but here it is. I’ve found that if you stick to your guns and don’t let people push you around, you find yourself surrounded with people who have good ideas and working minds, people who help shape you and inspire you. As Amy Poehler said, “As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”
NFU and its education programs have really helped capture that essence, which is really, really good, because guess what, there’s no one right way to farm. If you’re producing food, congratulations, you’re a farmer. It’s important to take that label and own it, to show the diversity and true sustainability of agriculture: the people. A farmer’s a farmer, no matter how small. This helps perpetuate agriculture in a relatable way, and it helps expose people to our industries. Without exposure, we lose the influx of fresh minds and bodies to farming. Not all farms are going to continue in the family. Eventually someone’s going stop and say, “I’ve had enough.” But that’s okay if everyone stays honest and connected, if we continue to educate and reach out, stay connected with each other as an industry and continue to share ours stories as individuals, but also as an industry. We produce food. You need food. Congratulations, you made me a farmer.
So if there’s anything that’s helped me “find farming” it’s that I like it, I like working with my hands and seeing things visually, I can communicate with the general public about the diversity of agriculture, and I can reach people with my message and stories about supplying food for a hungry world, and maybe incidentally recruit some of them to join our hodge-podge of agricultural production.
Currently I’m located in western NY, near Erie, PA, on a 120-cow dairy farm. I’m working with a friend from college and her dad to pass on the farm to the next generation and to create a partnership. We’re looking into diversifying in the future and going into value-added dairy products. We recently got approved for a small business plan development grant that will allow us to bring in professionals to advise us on development and growth to become more sustainable and to have the farm meet our needs. I have a mission statement I’ve had for myself for a couple of years now and I’d like to share it, because I think everyone will like it and it’ll help make it concrete for me.
“Our mission is to pursue dairy farming as a business, a lifestyle, and a sustainable means for the future, providing wholesome dairy products to customers and high quality genetics to the industry. One day to become a prominent leader in agriculture for the purposes of education and community.”
I want to thank NFU for letting me be here, and also all of you, since at the end it probably started to not make as much sense, but it was weirdly inspirational, and you’re all still listening, so….
Thank you all.