What are we doing differently during this pandemic? Not much, really. We are still milking and caring for our cattle every day. I am whittling down on the surplus garden produce and hamburger in my freezers. We are being pretty self-contained in our own little world between the house and the barn. We have missed a few things. We have missed going to winter meetings and co-op dinners. We have missed saying a proper goodbye to neighbors and family members who recently died.
    I understand this is a serious situation with the virus, but we still need to laugh at the absurdity of our human nature or our lack of common sense. Hoarding toilet paper? I am down to my last three rolls and dread going to town to stock up and look like “one of those crazy people.” Mark and Austin said we could confiscate some cow towels from the barn if we were desperate. I suggested we could even use old issues of the Dairy Star or the single, mismatched socks from the dryer.
    Since I was a little girl, my mother taught us kids the importance of not touching our faces and always to wash our hands when we got home from town. She is a very wise woman. Whenever I forgot her words, I would inevitably pick up the latest bug spreading around town. Of course, how clean your hands are means something completely different when you are in the barn. When we have been running hard all day and need a burst of energy to get us through the last milking, a quick peanut butter sandwich or a handful of cookies would hit the spot. Before we touch the food, we make a quick assessment of how dirty our hands really are then proceed to wipe them off on the cleanest spot on our dirty pants. If our hands and pants are both too dirty, then we use the underside of our sweatshirt to provide a clean surface. My mom cringes at the thought of us eating in the barn, but at least we wiped off our hands before we grabbed the food. I figure our immune systems are so stacked and buff after years of fighting off everything we have been exposed to in the barn that we should be able to fight off this virus too.
    We have picked up a couple of new words from the media which describe things we have been doing on the farm for years. For some people it means a whole different routine. For us, it is just another day on the farm.
    Social distancing. It sounds like an archaic social British dance done on a documentary. People keep their distance from one another, never touching as they mirror each other’s movements in rhythm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have asked us what we do to keep newborn calves healthy. We have been social distancing calves for years in calf domes or hutches to prevent the spread of scours and other viruses. Now maybe people will have a better understanding of why we keep calves apart until they are old enough to mingle without sharing every virus. What we need to do is take a break and put some space between people to help prevent the spread of germs.
    Self-quarantine. We have been doing this every winter and did not know there was even a specific name for it. We generally called it January and February. After fighting biting winds, frozen fingers, broken equipment and anything else that can go wrong on a sub-zero day, who has the energy or desire to go to town and mingle? We stay home. Our winter travels take us from the back door to the barn door. If we take a trip, it is to the end of the driveway for a couple of days’ worth of mail. I do not need to go to the grocery store. The basement storage is filled with jars of summer produce. The freezers are full of Illinois beef and plenty of hamburger from a cow who split her hips last summer. We have all the milk we can drink. I have not had to make my own butter yet, but I am baking lots of bread. Luckily the neighbor sells eggs, but she is starting to ration her supply.
    As things shift and change around us in a dark and unfamiliar way, life continues. I saw my first robin of the year in the flowering crabapple tree outside my office window. Al and a limited number of friends are cooking down maple syrup outside in his yard. The last remnants of snow and ice remain on the north side of the buildings, waiting for the first soft spring rain to wipe them out. Beef calves are bouncing around their pastures with tails swinging in the air, full of vim and vinegar. I know the sun will rise every morning in the east even if clouds obscure the moment.
    Right now, many people may feel like they are in a cartoon running across the wooden planked bridge over a deep ravine. The rope has been cut. The planks are falling like dominos underneath your last step as you try to stay one step ahead to the other side. The seriousness of the situation hit Mark when he hauled a couple of cull cows to the slaughter plant last week. He said they were limiting the number of people who could be in the gathering space to one. Pens and countertops were wiped down every time someone touched something. Mark joked with the gal behind the glass counter. She could not laugh. If they have one positive test of the virus in their work force, they would have to shut down the plant for 30 days. They process 1,200 head of cattle a day. That is a sobering thought. The impact a temporary closure would have on our local economy, in town and on the farms would be felt long after the battle with the virus is won.
    The gospel reading in church this week (thank you, internet) was about a man who was born blind. Was his blindness due to his sins or the sins of his parents? Jesus replied, neither. He was born this way to provide God a chance to show his mercy and grace so others may see. May we open our eyes to see his miracles around us in this dark uncertain time.
    Natalie, Mark and his brother Al, farm together near Rice, Minn. They milk 100 registered Holsteins under the RALMA prefix. Their four children are grown up and all involved in agriculture with hopes of someone returning to the farm. For questions or comments, please e-mail Natalie at mnschmitt@jetup.net.