KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
POWNAL -- Raising three boys on a farm comes with challenges such as getting them to sports practice, explaining why family vacations have to be at home, and knowing there is a possibility one might get run over by a tractor or otherwise injured doing farm work.
Marilyn Gardner, 67, has three grown sons, and six grandchildren, the youngest of whom is in elementary school, while the oldest is a junior in college. On Thursday she sat for an interview with the Banner at the family farm on Mann Hill Road to talk about her experience being a mother and grandmother on a Vermont dairy farm.
In addition to the farm, Gardner works for the Dufour bus company, which provides bus services for many local schools. Her eldest son, Michael Gardner Jr., is her supervisor at the bus company while the other two, Matthew and Mark, have jobs on the farm along with their wives, Robin and Crystal, respectively. Gardner said given the close-knit lifestyle of farmers they would have no trouble seeing each other on the holidays but these days her sons have their own families to attend.
"That's part of being mom," she said. "They have their own families now."
Gardner said she and her husband started farming on Mann Hill in 1980 when they were also running "Gardners," which is now The Village Market on Route 7. She said her husband owned the place with his sister until 1987, when they sold the business and she and Michael "Micky" Gardner Sr. bought the farm from the University of Vermont, which purchased it from the Burrington family and put it in the Vermont Land Trust, thus ensuring it would remain a farm of some kind in years to come.
"I didn't know anything about a cow," said Gardner, adding that she raised chickens and pigs growing up in Woodford but was not a farmer. Her husband, however, can trace his family line back to the original farming land grants in Pownal. These days the farm produces milk, beef, mutton, maple syrup, and honey. Gardner said different family members own different operations and the bees are someone else's.
Raising children on a farm comes with many benefits. "They grow up with a real strong work ethic," Gardner said.
Things can get hectic when it comes to school and sports, she said. All of her sons played baseball and football, except Mark. "He got run over by a tractor when he was 13," Gardner said. "He wasn't allowed to play football."
Mark suffered a skull fracture from the accident, the sort of which were far and few between, Gardner said. "It was just a freak thing. Mark was putting a round bale into a pasture with dry cows and a brake didn't hold and it ran over him. Just a freak thing that happened," she said.
She said her family has been lucky in regard to injuries, most being minor in nature. The day of the interview Gardner said caustic soap used to clean milking machines had splashed into her eye, necessitating a trip to the doctor. No permanent damage appeared to be done, but she was not able to drive the bus that afternoon.
"It just happens on a farm," she said. "You just try to be careful."
One of her grandchildren, Tristan, 9, appears to enjoy farm life and is eager for when his feet can reach the pedals on a tractor. Gardner said she worries, but like with her own children she feels the farm experience is worth it.
"I worried about them in the hay loft and stuff but, you know, they've got to be able to play, too. They've got to go outside and do stuff," she said.
Gardner said her sons gave her little to no trouble growing up. They were good in school and behaved. She said sometimes she would have to explain why vacations and activities that drew them away from the farm for long periods could not be enjoyed like other families could, or why dinner would be at 7 p.m. some nights and 10 p.m. others, but her sons did not seem to mind in the long run, as most sought careers in agriculture.
"I don't believe in encouraging kids to do something, I think they need to decide it on their own," she said. "Farming is a hard life."
She said she was once asked by a staff member at UVM who was working on a program involving young women in agriculture if she had any advice for young women or girls in the farming business. Gardner said her advice for when stressful days happen is to take a walk.
"Walk away for a while," she said. "Just go out and walk away. Go for a walk, read a book. Just let everything stay where it is. No matter how bad it is just walk away, and just relax. Enjoy something different."
Gardner said her preferred method of relaxing is working in her vegetable and berry garden.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.