January 2011
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A Lesson Learned During Night Photography at the Dairy

It wasn’t an ideal time for taking pictures.

For one thing, it was dark. But co-worker Jim Brownlee and I had decided nighttime pictures were what we needed for a true-to-life and unique way to begin an audiovisual presentation (AV) about a family whose co-op membership extended over several generations. The multi-generation farm family had just added a dairy herd and milking facilities to what had been a grain operation only and, as everyone knows, dairy farmers often start and end their days in the dark.

In addition, it was cold. Low temperatures aren’t unusual in southern Kansas in late December and conditions were true to form as we pulled into the farm home driveway a few minutes after the evening milking had concluded.

Jim and I had been making trips to this farm for nearly a year as we documented the family’s grain production activities, their use of the cooperative system, and their past and current involvement in it. In that time, we had taken hundreds of photos and recorded dozens of comments from family members – a grandfather, son and his wife, and their 20-something, recently-married son – as well as the local co-op manager. However, we still needed the dramatic photos taken in the dark to illustrate the start of a typical day on the family’s growing dairy and grain operation.

Sure, we were getting the photos in the evening instead of the morning. But, after all, dark is dark, whether it’s X a.m. or Y p.m., and the evening time worked better for the farm family, as well as for Jim and me because the rural location was nearly two hours from our office.

The initial photos of a darkened farm house coming to life and the silhouetted figures of father and son walking to the milking facilities were quickly checked off our to-do list.

The next task was to get pictures of the new milking parlor and the fenced, concrete holding area around it. With those facilities illuminated by outdoor floodlights mounted on front corners of the parlor, that didn’t appear to present any problems either, and both Jim and I snapped shots from every angle. Well, almost.

After a brief huddle to determine what else might be needed, we decided I would go to the rear of the holding area and take some pictures looking at the rear of milking parlor, which was in dark shadow, toward the lighted front side.

A location at the rear of the holding area and outside the fenced portion appeared to provide the proper angle for the needed photos and I headed for it. My eyes tried to adjust to the gloom as I walked away from the floodlit space in front of the parlor, but it was a struggle.

The deepening shadows prevented me from seeing any detail, but I could tell the land outside the holding area sloped away from the paved surface I was on. At the rear side of the holding area, a quick downward glance told me the ground – at least what I could see of it – was at least two feet below where I stood.

Turning toward the milking parlor, I checked the desired photo angle through the camera lens and found I wasn’t able to get everything in the picture. My options were to switch to a wide angle lens or move farther away from the building. The latter would require me to hop from the holding area to the ground and go back a few more feet, but that seemed a better choice than walking back to the car where the wide angle lens sat in a camera bag.

I gazed into the dark abyss, judging again that the ground wasn’t really all the far down, and jumped off the holding area pad. It didn’t take long to realize I’d made a bad decision. Instead of hitting solid ground, I found myself in manure more than knee-deep. And while the manure was fragrantly fresh, the cold weather had congealed it enough to make any kind of movement next to impossible. Worse yet, I was facing away from the concrete holding area and unable to grab hold of anything solid.

In such situations, panicky thoughts arrive unbidden. Such as: Is the manure deeper than it now seems and will I slowly slip below the surface before help arrives? Or, will a tow truck be needed to winch me out of here?

"Brownlee!" I yelled plaintively to my co-worker in hopes he was outside where he could hear me and not inside the milking parlor.

After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the reply, "Where are ya?" I looked back over my shoulder and saw Jim at the front of the milking parlor, shading his eyes from the floodlights and looking back toward where I was. Clearly, he was expecting to see me standing somewhere on the holding area pad and I had complicated the situation by being much lower than that.

"Over here," I replied, relieved to see that Jim was headed my way.

"Whaddya doin’ down there?" he asked.

"I’m stuck, in a bunch of… (manure wasn’t the word I used)," I responded.

Instead of immediately coming to my aid, my trusty co-worker turned and called out to our farm hosts, "Hey, guys, you gotta come and see this."

At which point, he bent over in laughter, soon to be joined by the farm operators in a chorus of guffaws as they arrived at the scene.

"If we’d known you were thinking about going out there, we’d have told ya that’s where we shove the manure from the holding area until we have enough to load the spreader," the youngest of our farm friends said between gales of laughter.

A lengthy piece of 2-by-6 lumber was found somewhere and extended out to me. The lumber provided a stable surface and enabled me to brace my arms on it and try to get turned around.

As a struggled to lift and turn my legs, I felt the suction pull off one of my work boots. I resisted the urge to reach down and grope in the goop for it.

After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to turn and get pulled back onto the concrete. From there, it was a quick trip to the milking parlor pit where I was unceremoniously hosed off from the waist down to eliminate the remnants of my visit to the mire.

While I stood in front of a milking parlor heater trying to dry my jeans, Jim finished the photo shoot. Amid his continuing chortles and the laughter still coming from our farm friends, we finally climbed into Jim’s car for the trip home.

Had anyone been able to see us as we sped along the darkened highway, it would have been quite a sight – one person huddled on the passenger side trying to keep warm despite the heater being on full blast and the driver with his head out the window in the cold slipstream, doing his best to avoid the fumes from the other side of the car.

Jim Erickson worked for several leading agricultural cooperatives during his more than 40-year career in communications. This article tells of one of his many experiences.