Life in a pandemic

Navigating the new normal as a farm mom

Heather Hampton+Knodle farms just 70 miles northeast of St. Louis. She and her husband Brian raise corn, soybeans and cattle, along with four school-aged kids. Last year, she talked about balancing it all as a farm mom under normal circumstances. So, we caught back up with her to see how her family is navigating life in a pandemic, on top of the farm’s ongoing needs and demands.

Friday, March 13, was the day our world changed. The dishwasher broke, and the schools sent a message to all parents that students would be leaving school early and bringing all their books with them due to COVID-19.

What followed felt like a roller coaster as we adjusted to life in a pandemic: joy at being home from school, uncertainty whether to gather at a family member’s funeral, near panic at times when we could not find our usual cleaning supplies or some fresh meat products. I felt like the hunter gatherer sent out from our family’s shelter to bring home food while my husband Brian was working at the farm to prepare equipment for what we hoped we would be able to plant. There were moments of anxiety due to the unknowns surrounding income, workflow that was dependent on suppliers and market outlets staying open, what to do if anyone in our household or whom we knew tested positive. We questioned whether to visit grandparents – and did not for the first month.

With all the uncertainty and the damage to most of our local businesses and the fear that was driving so many of our community members into seclusion, my jaw would tighten as I thought, “Curse that bat.”

Another bitter irony was watching dairy producers the past few years suffer and go out of business at the rate of more than 10 per week in several states, having a surplus production of milk, and yet milk prices soared to more than $4 a gallon during the peak of the pandemic.

Closer to home, my entire family questioned me as I decided to let the horse and goats graze our yard for a few weeks. It was odd to see them on our front porch and peering in the house. But when they crossed the road into the recently planted bean field, their liberty pass was revoked.

The experience of sheltering at home ultimately served us well to unplug from being overscheduled and to spend time as a family over meals that were not out of a paper bag. We started new traditions, like Friday night takeout from a local restaurant and Sunday morning worship gathered around the table.  We try to do something as a family on Sunday night – call it game night or trash talk night – something that creates shared memories. It has also created some habits that we still need to break. For example; it was common practice in our house to not turn the television on all week until Friday night movie night. Now, we are trying to curb the serial watching of shows like “The World’s Toughest Race.”

Another plus was the uptick in customers for our local garden center. They ended up serving customers from a much larger radius because of 1) the interest in growing their own fresh produce and 2) their reluctance to drive to larger towns and big box stores. Long-term, I think there is another benefit as more people learn how hard it is to grow food. One tomato plant might yield several tomatoes three months after it is planted in a container. But learning that is not enough to feed an entire family for a year is priceless.

As summer drew to a close, we watched and waited along with so many other families to learn what our school district’s reopening plan and procedures would look like. They offer virtual learning that approximately 9% of the students are using full-time and in-person learning for the rest. The other 91% have their temperatures taken as they walk through tents before entering school each day. They wear masks and are limited in their hall time. The course schedule has shifted to a block schedule with A days and B days. Frequent hand washing. No water fountains. I still smirk at the irony of schools saying BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) and banks requiring us to wear masks.

With school comes a more structured routine. But I have modified my work day to pick the younger children up from school that now dismisses 45 minutes earlier for the first quarter so teachers can tend to specialized needs of distance learners.

One take away is that we human beings can only live and function by fear for a limited amount of time.  At some point, we will either break down or we alter our perspective with data, or anecdotes, or some form of information that allows us to stop running or cowering and assess the situation. A third response is to become belligerent or event militant, probably the “Fight” response that psychologists refer to in a “Fight or Flight” choice of options.

What concerns me is that we all could cite indicators and guidance, but we collectively have not asked, “What is reasonable?” In our core, each of us may feel uninformed or of two minds about how to approach our daily interactions. We feel a responsibility to loved ones who may be vulnerable, yet we have the urge to continue to live on our terms – not those dictated by an ever-mutating disease. Some of us respond by finding every piece of data and every study available to feel in control of the situation.

But most of us find comfort in the familiar. For our family, at least now we can attend church – with an advanced reservation, masks, no music and two open pews separating each family or person at worship.

Like so many other businesses, we have bought additional Personal Protective Equipment for our seasonal employees as we started harvest. Each employee was presented a “gift set” of a canvas tote with their own set of supplies.

What does the future hold? More uncertainty.

But while our dishwasher remains a prop under the counter, our bonds as family members are stronger as we navigate life in a pandemic together.

Heather Hampton+Knodle

About Heather

We grow corn, soybeans and wheat and raise a small herd of Black Angus cows as well as goats in Fillmore, Illinois. We have four children who are very active in helping in the field and with livestock.

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