When we started looking for a farm of our own here in Stearns County, I had only one request (other than a house and a place to milk our cows) - a long driveway. Partly so I wouldn't have to worry about children and pets playing too close to the road. Partly so passersby wouldn't be privy to the color of my bloomers hanging on the clothesline. And partly so the neighbors wouldn't have to wonder, "Are Glen and Sadie ever going to mow their lawn?"

We won the lottery when we found this farm, but I wasn't lucky enough to get a long driveway. Nope. We're so close to the road - and a highway, no less - that I can read the cars' speedometers as they speed by. I appreciate all the honks and waves from the people who pass our place, but I could do without the constant scrutiny.

I have enough to worry about without needing to worry about what the neighbors think. I know, I know. What the neighbors think isn't supposed to matter - and it really doesn't in the grand scheme of things - but it's hard not to think about what the neighbors must think. Especially when I know they're watching.

I was out for a walk the other day and as I came up to the intersection that crosses into our driveway I saw one of our neighbors driving by. I waved big. Gertrude* never even saw me - her head was turned looking into our yard until she was way past our property line.

Now I know this behavior is not limited to Stearns County farmers, although I think there are more field-watchers and yard-watchers here than anywhere else. Maybe because there are more fields and yards to watch.

Dairy farms are few and far between in the counties where I was raised. Dairy farmers there rarely had opportunities for drive-by evaluations of how their fellow dairy farmers were doing. I never once heard, "Ophh. It's time to plant corn - Harvey's in the field," or "Holy cow, look at the bugs in Bob's alfalfa."

The standard joke in our neighborhood - and maybe in all of Stearns County - is that the neighbors know which of your cows are in heat before you do.

Dairy farmers around here tend to spend a lot of time talking about other dairy farmers - and most of it is conjecture about what was observed while driving by. I'm just as guilty as everyone else.

It's partly curiosity and partly a need to know that our farm's performance is measuring up. There's a lot of competitiveness in dairy farmers and I'm no different. Competition is good - it drives progress - but every once in a while we need to stop and realize that we (and the people we might happen to be passing judgement on) are all doing the best we can with the time, labor, financial and motivational resources available to us. We all value certain measures of success differently. We might judge our success by our profit per cow or our pregnancy rate. You might pat yourself on the back for a corn field that bushels well or a high rolling herd average.

We try hard not to compare our farm to our neighbors' farms. But, every once in a while I hear Glen say, as the rain is falling on our hay, "Dang it. Mr. Timely over there always knows when to cut his alfalfa." We check our SCC average after every DHIA test to calculate our odds of "making the list." And I find myself thinking, "Geez, how can they be in the house already? I still have half-an-hour of chores left." I guess it's just human nature to compare.

So the next time you find yourself comparing your dairy to your neighbor's, cut a little slack and give yourself a pat on the back. Even better, give your neighbor a pat on the back for something he or she has done well. We all do things our own way, but we're all in this together.

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 50 cows near Melrose, Minn., with help from their two-year-old son, Dan and their three-month-old daughter, Monika. When she's not farming and parenting, she's writing for the Dairy Star. She can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.