Sitters hard to find as farmers seek vacation time
It’s hard enough to find someone to feed the dog while you’re on vacation.
But what if you have 100 cows or a slew of goats, chickens and pigs?
That’s where farm sitting, or doing a farmer’s daily chores, comes into play — and it’s not easy to find qualified, reliable help these days.
It’s nearly impossible, said Mike Hellenbrand who owns City Slickers farm near Cross Plains.
He and his wife, Linda, raise several hundred dairy calves, with some of them selling for thousands of dollars because of their prized genetics.
With their livestock and livelihood at stake, the Hellenbrands would demand a high level of trust in someone before letting them run the farm for even a few days.
“If you do find somebody it’s for a day or a night,” Mike said.
He and Linda take separate trips from the farm so that one of them is always home. That’s quite a change from their earlier lives when they lived in New York, on the 17th floor of a Manhattan high-rise, and were married in Central Park.
Now they’re living their dream of being farmers, even with a few drawbacks.
“It’s impossible for us to get away together,” Mike said.
That sounds familiar to Dee Dee and Jeff Golberg who run Spirit Horse Equine Rescue near Janesville.
Their farm has 30 horses including some that need extra attention because they’ve come from wild horse roundups or abusive backgrounds.
Even with volunteers stepping in to help with chores, Dee Dee said, she and Jeff hardly ever leave the farm for more than a few hours at a time.
Once they left for three nights, only to return and find their live-in farm sitters ready to bolt.
The sitters, expecting that a few days on the farm would be a mini vacation, were exhausted from working morning to night.
“Earlier they had helped with chores. But they’d never done the full enchilada,” Dee Dee Golberg said.
Even a small herd of goats or a flock of chickens can change your life because it’s not so easy to find livestock caregivers for days or a couple of weeks at a time.
You plan your time away based on what’s happening with the farm, said Roger Sipe, editor of Hobbyfarms.com and Chickens magazine.
“A lot of people take their vacations in the late fall or winter when the work is less intensive,” Sipe said.
Stuff happens when you’re away, too. The goats escape, the chickens are attacked by coyotes, and farm machinery dies after you’ve turned things over to the temporary help for a few days.
You don’t know what you don’t know until it happens.
Like taking a trip to the moon
Some farmers with decades of experience, backed by family members and neighbors, still keep an eye on what’s happening at home while they’re away.
Things like a cellphone weather app make that easier.
“You don’t necessarily go into heart-attack mode when you see the weather’s changing, but you certainly pay attention to it,” said Darin Von Ruden, a third-generation dairy farmer from Westby and president of Wisconsin Farmers Union.
For some folks, getting away from the farm for two weeks would be like taking a trip to the moon. They milk cows twice a day, 365 days a year, so they probably only take some half-day trips.
That’s not a lifestyle Von Ruden necessarily endorses.
“It’s always good to get away for a little bit, so that when you come back you appreciate what you've got,” he said.
One of the main reasons that some farms have gotten much bigger is it allows a farmer to hire full-time help or to partner with someone else and not be so tied down.
“Young people are more likely to get involved in farming and to stick with it if they can get a weekend off and have a vacation,” said Mike Ballweg, a University of Wisconsin Extension agent in Sheboygan County.
“It’s been an age-old problem going back decades,” Ballweg said.
More trouble than it's worth
Some people have turned farm sitting, mostly for hobby farms, into a small business. Others have kept busy as temporary help on larger, regular farms.
But working on somebody else’s place can be more trouble than it’s worth. Every farm has its own peculiarities, some of them not even noticed by the owner, that can frustrate the farm sitter or temporary help.
Ivan Johnson of Barron spent about a year filling in on small dairy farms before getting out of that business. He said it was hard to find farmers willing to pay him what his time was worth.
“Honestly I got burnt out on it, always working on other people’s things,” said Johnson, who has since started his own dairy farm.
He still gets calls from farmers asking for vacation help.
“But I have my own cows and can’t get away,” he said.