A bestseller in the author’s country of Ireland, John Connell’s The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm recently debuted in the United States. The major threads of John’s story will ring true to any farmer, no matter where they are. And whether you farm or not, from the first page, The Farmer’s Son pulls the reader into the sights, sounds, suspense—and stress—of a farmer’s life.
John Connell, was not meant to be a farmer—at least not if you’d have asked him when he left his home in County Longford, Ireland, more than a decade ago to pursue his fortune and fulfillment in another field in across the world. In the third paragraph John makes it clear, even as he’s elbow-deep in the delivery of a new calf, that he may still not be a willing participant in this new experiment. He writes, “I’m home again in rural Ireland, back from being an emigrant, here to write a novel, to try and make it as a writer, and in exchange for a roof over my head, it’s been agreed that I will help out on the farm.” Help out and mess up (at least in the eyes of his tough-to-please father) he does, all the while recovering his own mental health and working on his difficult relationship with his dad.
“The weather is beautiful and the country is a riot of green; there is life everywhere.”
If you’re looking for a good farm read, The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm is it. If you seek a classic story of father-son strain, The Farmer’s Son’s got that. If you want a story of going home to rediscover the roots you thought you didn’t need, The Farmer’s Son’s got it. If you’d like a history of the close bond between humans and cows—one that goes back 10,000 years—The Farmer’s Son’s even got that too. But weeks after reading it, I still think of the ways it so clearly shows—and immerses the reader in—the constant worries, stresses and fears that farmers face every day, and how those add up.
“The weather has turned once more. For several days now, it has been wet and hailing, and the wind fierce. We have four sheep missing. I counted only forty lambs today. I returned with the dog, but he too cannot find them. We are not sure if it was foxes or dogs that took the lambs; perhaps it was the weather, but we can find no bodies. Da and I are both tired. The nights have taken their tolls, and I am walking like a zombie around the yard. I am so tired that I no longer care about the rain, though it pelts my face and stings in its fierceness.”
Thankfully, John’s story also shows the incredible beauty and interconnectedness that makes a life in farming so valuable: “The weather is beautiful and the country is a riot of green; there is life everywhere.”
The book is especially timely now, as the issue of farmer mental health has come into focus in the agricultural community, the health community, and as a concern of the general public.
Ironically, it was depression that drove John back to farming, an occupation known to have a high rate of depression and suicide. But it was also farming that helped him climb out from his depression. As he puts it, “Working with our cows and sheep gave me a new-found lease on life.” As journalist, John wrote an article about his experience and, he shares, “I ended up on national radio in Ireland, talking about my journey back to the light.” As it happened, there was a man considering taking his life that morning who happened to turn on the radio. That man later wrote in to the radio show that he decided not to die by suicide after hearing John speak of his experience. John has become a spokesperson on the issues of mental health in rural and farming communities in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. This was the inspiration for John’s book, so that he could share the whole story of his return to his rural, agricultural roots to find hope and happiness.
A deeply personal journey, The Farmer’s Son is also an inspiring reflection on the value of agriculture to our lives and a powerful reminder of the important decisions we make that shape what that agriculture looks like. The last topics of John’s look at the history of cattle examine industrial farming practices and the idea of lab-grown meat—“whether we want a cowless world.” By the closing sentence of The Farmer’s Son, it is clear where John stands: “It is the end of calving season. We have all our stock, we have each other. It is all we need. It is all we want.”
Ask for The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm by John Connell at your local library or bookstore.