Farming As Therapy My Personal Story

This is my brother in the barn, how he always was.

This is my brother in the barn, how he always was.

November 10, 2006 was a beautiful fall day. I had finished my afternoon chores early so I hung Christmas lights on my house. I was set to move in the next day. All summer my family and I had been renovating the house that had been my Grandpa Dewey’s, and were proud of the work we had accomplished. Especially my brother Tom.

We had both taken over the family dairy farm from my dad and uncle. It’s been in the family since 1817. He had just finished delivering a load of green chop for my cows and we were getting ready to go up to our mom’s for supper. On the way we stopped to let his cows across the road.

I offered to send my border collie Maggie after the cows but he said no. They were meandering down in groups and he didn’t want to rush them. We had just about finished getting them across the road when a pick-up truck crested the hill.

Tom was standing in the road, waving his arms, trying to alert the driver that the cows were coming but he never stopped. I was standing a few feet from my brother when he was hit. The truck killed him, and then crashed through the fence. The driver was not injured.

My whole world changed in an instant. Family and friends rallied around my mother and me immediately. Especially my best friend Debbie Vanderbosch. Over the next few days and weeks many difficult decisions had to be made.

I wanted to keep my brother’s cows but I was over-ruled by my sister and mother and to add insult to injury I was forced to help load them on the trucks. People thought they knew what was best for me but they didn’t. Lucky for me I had a working relationship with Cornell Cooperative Extension educator Joan Petzen. She knew how much the farm meant to me and helped set me on a path to recovery.

We contacted NY Farm Net and worked some with Don Peterson on the business and also a counselor to help with the grief and other issues. It helped to talk to him but it became apparent to me that I had a much bigger problem so I contacted my county’s Department of Community Services and began seeing a counselor there.

I was depressed, guilty, confused, angry, anxious — especially when outside about the time of day Tom was killed — sad, lonely, frantic, had trouble sleeping, lost my appetite, lost interest in doing things I used to love, was weak and shaky and couldn’t stop crying. I was diagnosed with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and we began my journey of recovery.

I was offered drugs to treat my condition but I declined because I don’t like using any chemicals on or in my body and I felt it was important for me to learn how to deal with the problem, not cover it up with drugs. Lucky for me, I still had my farm.

I would have liked to have curled up in a ball and stayed in bed all day but my cows and my dog needed me. It was hard getting through that first winter, but thanks to all the people who helped me, I made it.

The world always starts to look better when spring comes around. Farmers always look forward, especially in spring. The world starts to awaken from winter and the new year holds so much promise. The plants green up and the summer birds come home and there’s fresh maple syrup to be made and it just feels good to shed your winter clothes and breathe the fresh air and feel the warm sun and sink your fingers in the newly turned soil while you plant the seeds that will feed you with delicious vegetables in a few months. Pretty soon new babies both wild and domesticated will be born and hatched and you realize that life goes on.

Joan helped me keep my business going and together we worked on my future plans. She told me it’s important to hold off on major decisions until the shock wears off so you don’t do something you may regret later. Unfortunately, I had to sell most of my cows and get an off-farm job — but now I also have the opportunity to re-invent myself and my farm.

I started going to workshops and pasture walks that I never had time to do before and it has opened up a whole new world for me. I have met so many new and interesting people these past few years and learned so much. I have learned to manage my depression and PTSD without drugs and I don’t have to go to counseling anymore.

I have learned a lot about survival from observing my cows. When they lose a calf they acknowledge their grief and then after a few days they let it go. They don’t dwell on it. Life goes on. The important thing is to let yourself feel. Let yourself grieve. Let yourself be angry. Don’t let it consume you.

Be a survivor, not a victim. Don’t obsess over what happened and realize that people grieve differently and at different stages and rates. Some people never get past the anger. Some people can’t forgive. I have forgiven the driver that killed my brother but that doesn’t mean I will ever forget what happened.

Make a list of how you feel now and look at it from time to time. You’d be surprised at how far you’ve come. Don’t always look at the mountain you’re climbing. Look back sometimes and see how much you’ve accomplished. Set measurable goals for yourself no matter how small. Just getting out of bed in the morning is a reason to pat yourself on the back.

Don’t feel guilty that you’re alive. My strong Quaker faith helped me to see that God has a plan for everyone and when your time is up, it’s up. The driver was just God’s instrument in his plan for my brother’s life. Celebrate life. Take time to enjoy nature’s beauty all around you. It’s ok to play sometimes.

Explore your options. Surround yourself with positive people. Use a bad experience as a chance to grow. I wasn’t happy to have to get another job but I have many new friends I would have never met without it. There really is a silver lining around every dark cloud. You just have to look for it.

Dare to follow your dream even if everyone seems to be against you. Joan sent me a story about a little green frog that I often think about. A group of frogs decided to climb a tall building. A crowd gathered and all the people said they couldn’t do it. One by one they fell off except for one little green frog. When he reached the top, a reporter asked him how he succeeded when everyone else failed. It turns out he was deaf and couldn’t hear people say it couldn’t be done. He accomplished his goal because he believed in himself. I picture a little green frog in my mind every time I run into an obstacle.

There is nothing that can’t be worked out. The impossible just takes longer. Make a list of positive and negative outcomes for every major decision you need to make and you might be surprised. I’m still not where I’d like to be but at least I’m still moving forward.

Being a farmer is the best therapy there is. I am a part of the land and the land is a part of me and I am so grateful for it. My dad had a poster that said “I share creation, kings can do no more.” We as farmers are so lucky to share creation. We understand so much more than the people who have become disconnected from the land.

You can survive life’s obstacles. You will survive. Remember that just when the caterpillar thought her life was over, she became a butterfly.