A Family Affair With A Labor Of Love

 

Published in Farmland News, June 12, 2018

A Family Affair With A Labor Of Love

By Tim Churchill

 

One never knows what will happen when you do a “cold” interview, meaning you’re never personally met the interviewee beforehand. Such was the case when, in late April, I visited the Sam Bok family farm in rural Defiance, Ohio.

When I pulled into the driveway, a black and white medium-sized dog trotted toward my car. Trust me, I’ve seen lots of “friendly” dogs become “not-so-friendly” when the car door opens, so I opened my door with caution. Not to worry… this dog, Skip, was really friendly. He greeted me with his tail wagging and a “please pet me” look on his face, and I knew right away all was right with the world.

A few seconds later, Sam’s wife, Julie, approached and we exchanged introductions; then Sam and Julie’s daughter, Wendy, came from the milk house. However, still no sign of Sam. In fact, I didn’t see Sam until quite some time later, he was putting down fertilizer on his soon-to-be corn fields. However, Julie and Wendy, along with Wendy’s daughters, Sara and Renee, who had just gotten off the school bus, took up the slack, and made me feel right at home.

 

From A “Townie’s” Viewpoint

Okay, I’m just going to put this out there: I am a “townie,” and my experiences on farms are extremely limited. And, my experiences on a dairy farm are even less common. My confidence, not to mention my less-than-adequate knowledge of the dairy business, was put to the test when I was given this assignment. However, once I set foot onto the Bok farm, met Skip and Sam’s family, all that trepidation disappeared. The warm, friendly greetings were genuine, and that set my mind at ease. They all made this city slicker feel right at home.

While standing there chatting with the ladies, I noticed all the different bells around the farm… school bells, church bells, and a variety of other large bells, so I asked, “What’s with all the
bells?”

“It’s kind of Sam’s thing,” Julie said, “he has a hard time passing them up.”

More on the bells later. Let it be said, Sam is more than just a dairy farmer.

 

The Milking House

Anyway, Wendy then took me for a walk through the milking house where the afternoon milking operation was in full swing and appeared to be a perfectly choreographed situation. This townie, again apologizing for his lack of farm knowledge, asked Wendy about the milking process.

She informed me, “Our 370 head of prize Registered Jersey cows are milked twice a day with a Herringbone Double 12, which means the cows are lined up in two rows of 12 with their rumps aimed at a pit between them where two hired hands hook up the cows to the milking machines.“After about three to five minutes, the milkers are removed.

“A cow will give up to 50 pounds (that’s a bit over six gallons) at each milking.”

The milk is then transferred to storage tanks until the trucks from Arps Dairy come pick it up for processing.

 

Very Sociable Animals

What amazed me almost as much as the technology involved in the milking of cows was the sociability, curiosity, and boldness these animals showed, even around a stranger. Wendy cautioned me, “Don’t leave your notebook lying around.” “They’ll lick anything,” she chuckled.

I kept my notebook with me the rest of the day.

Wendy really does know her Jersey cows, for two years in a row, she raised the national top producing cow and has been named the “Young Jersey Dairyman Award” winner in 2018 for
the American Jersey Cattle Association, and will be awarded at the National Jersey Convention in Canton, Ohio. She comes by that honor honestly, as Sam also won the same award when he was a youngster, and her daughter, Renee, a third grader in the Defiance schools, is also on her way to becoming an award winner.

With a hint of love and respect in her voice, Wendy said, “I love the farm life… I will probably be here forever.”

When I first arrived at the farm and met the ladies of the family, I noticed a newborn calf was lying on a concrete slab outside the calving building. Not having the slightest idea, I asked how old it was. Julie told me the calf was born “a couple of hours ago,” not long before I had left home to head to Defiance for the interview. I also noticed three other very young calves, one a couple of days old, the other two just a tad older. All of them were very curious about this stranger in their midst.

As we entered the calving building, Wendy pointed out, “This building holds the cows that are about to deliver their calves.” With some of them, it was obvious that they would become moms in the very near future. When asked about “calving season,” she replied, “Our calves are born year-round. “It’s better that way as it avoids overly-frantic binges on the part of the mother cows.”

 

Sam Shows Up

It was about this time that Sam came in from the fields, apologizing for keeping me waiting, (which he had not). He went on to tell me, “The corn he would be planting soon was to use on the farm as feed and silage for the cattle, not as a cash crop.”

We chatted a bit, then he soon directed most of the attention, as well as the majority of the conversation, toward his granddaughters, Renee and Sara. He asked Renee to put a halter on the Jersey she had purchased in a contest and walk her out to one of his bells for a photo op. So, we walked across the driveway to a flower bed, which was “guarded” by one of Sam’s many bells, I counted about 20 bells, each one different from the others.

Anyway, Renee and Bossy – yes, that was the cow’s actual name – posed like a couple of veteran models. After that, we walked around the side yard to pose by another bell of Sam’s. We took more pictures, and learned more about bells.

Did you know that every bell has a different sound when tolling? I never thought about that before. Many of the bells in Sam’s collection were made in Washington Court House, Hillsboro, and
Fredricktown in Ohio. “Notice the ‘7’ on this bell,” he remarked, “that means it can be heard for 7 miles.” Something else I didn’t know. The next bell had a ‘4’ on it, another had a ‘5,’ and so it went.

“No two of my bells are identical and each has a unique sound,” Sam continued.

He’s always looking for bells to add to his collection, however they are getting harder to find. After all, like Julie said, “This is Sam’s thing.”

 

Sara And Harvey

Once our photo ops with Bossy were done and our visits to many of Sam’s bells completed, Renee went to get her future 4-H show calf to take for a walk, so of course there were even more pictures.

While she was getting the halter on her young Jersey, some unexpected guests appeared. It seems that Sara, a kindergartner in Defiance, has a special dog named Harvey (named after Hurricane Harvey), and Sam thought that would make for a good picture of his farm and family.

Once more he seemed to take himself out of the limelight and steered it to his grandchildren. Sam shared how he became interested in the dairy business. “I got my first jersey cow in 1970 when I was nine years old and from that point on, I was smitten. Of course, growing up on a farm, I fell in love with the lifestyle. Our first farm was a rental,” he continued. Sam purchased his current farm about 21 years ago, and with the help of Wendy, her brother Andy, who does much of the feeding of the cattle, and his granddaughters, he has himself a highly successful operation.

When I asked Sam about the calm mannerisms of the cows, he quietly said, “Our cows are never abused, in fact they are pretty much pampered.”

“Pampered” is not a word often used when talking about farm animals, but it’s an appropriate one when observing what happens on the Bok farm.

When asked what a “typical” day is, Sam chuckled and said, “There’s no such thing as a typical day on the farm, each day is different.”

Apparently, that’s just one of the things he loves about his farm.

 

Connection To Delta

While we continued our visit in the calving building, Wendy returned and told me, “Renee plays basketball in Toledo and when we drive home each week, we stop at Smith’s Twist-TFreez in Delta for an ice cream cone.

“Do you know if they buy their ice cream mix from Arps?”

I replied, “I have no idea, but I could find out.”

When I asked “why”, she replied, “because it’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and it’s not expensive! However, sometimes there are rather long lines while waiting to be served. Why are they so busy?”

The best answer I could give her was, “It’s the only ice cream stand in town, and as you commented, it’s the best and inexpensive.”

Before we wrapped up our visit, Sara and Renee, neither of whom is camera shy, asked me, “Can we have a picture taken with our sheep, which we plan to show at this year’s Henry County fair?”

In spite of the girls’ best intentions, the sheep was totally unwilling to pose for a picture, however with Sara and Renee’s determination, the picture was successfully taken, and they were thrilled.

 

Final Impressions

So, it truly is funny how things work out when getting an assignment. I had anticipated a long conversation with Sam, with a few side comments from other family members. However, the majority of the talking came from his daughter and granddaughters, along with input from his wife.

It did surprise me when he offered, that he was the national director of the National Jersey Cattle Association, representing Ohio and West Virginia. “I don’t know how many dairy cows West Virginia has, but I understand it isn’t many,” he said.  Once again, Sam attempted to live on the edge of the limelight rather than to bask in the glow of the spotlight.

Sam, Julie, Wendy, Andy (even though I didn’t get a chance to meet him that day), Sara and Renee left quite an impression on this reporter. They truly love their farm, the farm life, AND their animals. Why else would someone weatherize the buildings for the calves, keeping them warm in the winter and cool in the summer?

It truly is, a family affair with a labor of love!

 

Tim Churchill lives in Delta, and he served as a teacher and counselor for more than 40 years. He lives by the motto of “Live well, Laugh often, Love much.”

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