RAISING KIDS ON THE FARM

“WHEN EVERY DAY IS BRING YOUR KIDS TO WORK DAY—MAKE TIME FOR PLAY.”

When my wife Andrea and I decided to start our own farm, we thought the whole project would be pretty straightforward. You raise the animals, you process the animals, you sell the meat. I suppose our initial attitude towards parenting was the same. How hard could it be?

Any of you who have tried your hand at running a farm know there is absolutely nothing straightforward about it. The same goes with raising kids. Just as we didn’t anticipate that in addition to being farmers we would also have to be butchers, accountants, marketers, salespeople and distributors—there were many hidden job titles in the roles of “Dad” and “Mom” that we didn’t realize.

Primary school teacher, first aid medic, sibling arbitrator and field trip coordinator are just a few of the roles we found ourselves occupying when we became proud parents of Sam (now 7) and Eliza (now 5). Our farm is located in a very rural part of Arkansas, so homeschooling has made the most sense while the kids are young. When the doctor’s office is over an hour away, you handle all the run-of-the-mill childhood injuries yourself and learn to keep calm if something more serious comes up (which it does).

With Father’s Day around the corner, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned raising two kids on the farm, which isn’t the typical environment for children in America these days—when you consider that the average age of the American farmer is 60 years old.

Here are my 3 tips after lots of trial and error as a #FarmDad:

1) Give them Space — And be Ready for the Consequences

Climbing trees. Chasing lightning bugs. Running around barefoot. These are things most kids feel the urge to do—but when you grow up on a farm, the opportunity arises every day. And when farm chores keep Andrea busy from dusk til dawn, and frequent road trips for Grass Roots’ business needs draw me away from home, the kids get lots of time to explore and play with “minimal supervision,” shall we say.

Overall, we’re big fans of letting kids be kids, and encouraging their natural curiosity. Sam and Eliza have developed self confidence and the ability to entertain themselves younger than perhaps some kids do. They naturally push their own boundaries, inventing games and exploring new corners of the farm as the seasons change. The farm is generally a very safe place (no strangers to be had!), and we haven’t had too many issues.

But once in a while, all this freedom can rear its head in the form of a sharp lesson. Take this thorn that Sam lodged in his foot this spring. It’s enough to make anyone gulp!

We had warned Sam many times about the dangers of running around barefoot. And like any good kid, he regularly flouted these warnings in favor of the sensation of fresh grass under his toes (we don’t blame him). But he surely re-evaluated this behavior after the thorn.

Part of our jobs as parents is to let our kids learn their lessons, however painful they may be. We surely can’t keep Sam indoors and “protect” him from every danger (natural and otherwise) that is present on the farm. Instead, we try to set clear guidelines for their behavior, and prepare ourselves for the inevitable mishap that may occur. And yes—Sam *mostly* wears shoes now! ;P

2) Entrepreneurship is a Natural Teacher

Most kids are expected to do chores growing up, and ours are no exception. But we’ve also encouraged our kids to develop ways of earning extra income on the farm by starting their own small enterprises. Sam, our eldest, embarked on his venture last summer by procuring his own flock of laying hens. Sam is responsible for collecting and washing the eggs each morning, and being sure he has a way to get them to customers (the fact that his parents drive helps). He checks the hens’ feed and water on the days he is home, and his mom steps in on days he’s away (in exchange for eggs, of course).

Sam is learning about how to keep customers happy. Recently one of his regulars had a bad egg in one of her dozen. After much discussion, he finally decided to give her a dozen to make up for for the negative experience. It’s hard to replicate this kind of lesson without a real-world scenario to drive the conversation and give Sam the chance to decide the right course of action.

Sam’s chief motivation for his egg business is being able to buy things he wants. He saved up enough for a tablet, as well as half of a kayak. We require that he put half of anything he makes into his savings account, so he’s learning the value of building value over time. Andrea and I got into farming and entrepreneurship much later in life—it’s gratifying to see our son embrace it so early. The lessons he’s learning now will serve him no matter what career he chooses down the line.

3) When Every Day is Bring Your Kids to Work Day, Make Time for Play

No matter what your job is, there’s always a pull to tackle the never ending to-do-list instead of carving out special moments with your kids. On the farm, especially during the peak summer months, chores and projects can keep us up from dusk til dawn. And because the farm is both our home and our livelihood, there is no “away” from work — and almost never a day that is truly “off.” Our kids have no choice but to join us in the daily rhythms of the farm, which can get a bit monotonous when you’re a young tyke. So what’s a farm parent to do?

Integrate play into the workday, that’s what. In the hot summer months, we cool off by swimming in the various creeks close to the farm. We find time to go horseback riding once or twice a week, which helps the kids appreciate the areas around the farm throughout the seasons. Fishing is a fairly frequent activity in our ponds in the evenings together if we finish chores early enough. And now we can go kayaking as well (or the kids kayak while we drink beer and watch 😂😋).

Instead of weekends free and weekdays focused on work, we blend a mix of work time and some play time throughout each day, which ends up balancing well for our family.

I hope my little post here gives you a glimpse into our lives as farmers and parents. Maybe some of these stories ring true to you. We’re grateful to raise our children in a natural setting, up close to where real food comes from and in sync with the natural processes around us. I wish the happiest Father’s Day to all the fellow dads (and moms) striving to be the best parents we can be. It’s not exactly easy to be a farmer or a parent—but boy is it rewarding.

—Cody Hopkins, General Manager and Founding Farmer, Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative