05 October 2007

Farm or Family?

One of the most valuable things about our rural lifestyle is the flexibility it provides in spending time with the family. Particularly with our children being homeschooled, I have opportunities to do things with them that many fathers wouldn't have.

However, as discussed recently, we're finding that we are simply too far away and too isolated from extended family. We're still looking for the right property in Michigan, and hopefully we'll be able to relocate there soon. Another excellent thing about small scale farming (and self employment) is that there is often considerable flexibility in deciding where "here" will be.

It's not always so for those engaging in large scale commercial farming, however --- and when a family has been farming for generations it can be wrenching when some members face the Hobson's choice of staying-nearby-with-another-job or farming-but-far-away. And as suburban developments and local regulations increasingly encroach on established megafarms, we're going to be seeing more and more of these situations.

Today's news brings a poignant feature story about one such family that had to make a 200 mile move from Western Washington to the other side of the state:

But that was before Travis left for the wide-open spaces of Eastern Washington. Now he works cattle in this tiny town, 200 miles from Enumclaw, with plenty of room to grow.

"I just see so much more potential here," said Travis, 33, who co-owns Thomasson Double T Dairy with his wife, Sasha, and his parents.

Dairying has always been a tough business to take on. But the rising cost of fuel and feed has made it worse for farmers in Western Washington. Not to mention the pressure of suburbia bearing down. Last year alone, 57 dairies shut down in the western part of the state.

More than 340 dairies remain, compared with 145 east of the Cascades. But with the fast pace of development, many farmers face a choice: leave family and head east, or hold ground and tough it out.

[snip - BTW, I remember well those dairies near where I grew up. Now they're all paved over into high tech office parks and subdivisions.]

Then came winter in a town with one grocery, a post office, and a population that, at last count, was little more than 400. There they were, a young couple, surrounded by elderly neighbors, 45 minutes from the nearest mall, in Kennewick.

Travis made friends through farm work. But Sasha worked only part-time. And when the children were born, there was even less chance to leave the house. Last year, they joined the volunteer ambulance service so Sasha could meet people. But she still makes monthly trips to play the dice game bunco with her Enumclaw friends.

"It's still hard," Sasha said, tears in her eyes, sitting across the kitchen table from Travis. "And it's been five years."

Family is what they miss most. Sunday breakfasts at the Enumclaw farmhouse. Saturday lunches at the cattle auction.

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