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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


Visit the Washington County Fair with Carla Panciera, author of BARNFLOWER


[background conversation]

Speaker: Don't eat your neighbor's pie. It wouldn't be helpful to your neighbor, but I wouldn't recommend it. Don't put your hands in front of the other competitors, number eight, you will be disqualified.


Dave Bartos: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. Hi there. Dave Bartos here, coordinator of Adult Services at the Cranston Public Library and Rhody Radio team member. For today's episode, I'm talking with Carla Panciera, author of Barnflower, a Rhode Island Farm Memoir. Carla was born in Westerly, Rhode Island and raised on her family's dairy farm. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English and has a graduate degree in poetry from Boston University.

In addition to Barnflower, she has published two collections of poetry, One of the Cimalores from Cider Press and No Day, No Dusk, No Love from Bordighera and a collection of short stories, Bewildered, which received the 2013 Grace Paley Short Fiction Award from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her short stories have appeared in the New England Review, the Clackamas Review, Slice and other magazines. Her short story, The Kind of People Who Look at Art, was chosen by Junot Diaz as a distinguished story in Best American Short stories for 2017.

With Barnflower, Carla returns to her childhood where she spent years with her father and his famous herd traveling from county fair to county fair and answering the same questions, "Is that Aldo Panciera," and, "Are you Aldo's daughter?" This memory book is based on the real man and his very real effort to make a living at what he loved and a testament to the bond between a father and a daughter and their love for the kind of life they shared. A kind of life that is both critical and a vanishing part of our history.

[00:02:00] I caught up with Carla at the Washington County Fair in Richmond, Rhode Island on August 17th, 2023, where she gave me a behind the scenes tour of the livestock shows and what's going on beyond the concession stands and carnival rides. Then we went to the Clark Memorial Library to talk more about her book. You'll know I'm at the fair when I start speaking in hushed tones.

Carla Panciera: Hello.

Dave: Hello.

Carla: Hi, Dave.

Dave: Lovely to see you.

Carla: How are you?

Dave: I am well. Very nice to meet you.

Carla: Welcome to the fair.

Dave: This is lovely.

Carla: Have you been here?

Dave: I've never been here. I grew up going to the Canfield Fair, which is in Canfield, Ohio. It's where I grew up. It's bringing back all the memories.

Carla: This one hasn't changed since I showed here 20 years ago.

Dave: Oh, fantastic.

Carla: All right. Papa, I'm going to leave this with you. There's more books under the table, and I have more in the car if, I don't know, anybody comes by. We're just going to walk around here, and I'll tell you before we leave.

Dave: You were talking about how it hasn't changed much since you showed here.

Carla: Yes, the fairgrounds have not changed. The way it works for 4-H kids, is your parents drop you off the night before the fair starts with your cows, and they say goodbye, and you are with all kids your own age for however long the fair is. The only time you see your parents is when they come to watch you in the ring. Other than that, you're on your own.

Dave: Wow. It's almost like summer camp then.

Carla: It's funny that you made that analogy because I never went to summer camp or overnight camp, but I've heard about the bonding experiences, and then how you get home and you're homesick with that experience, and that is exactly what it's. Because you have all these kids together at the same time, and we are responsible because we have to care for live animals.

Dave: Of course.

Carla: That's our first responsibility here. We're also kids, so we got free tickets from the carney.

Dave: I was going to say. [chuckles]

Carla: We had Del's Lemonade before anybody knew what Del's [00:04:00] Lemonade was.

Dave: Nice.

Carla: I do recognize all of the different food booths and all of the different things that we would try to save our money to buy. This livestock area is pretty much the same. It's great because today, especially, one of the things I've noticed is when I was showing, there were both young people showing, like our 4-H, but then our parents were also showing. There were older people showing. Today, I would say 80% of the people who have been in the ring have been young people. That's wonderful to see because there's three working dairy farms in Rhode Island right now.

When I grew up, there were four working dairy farms in my town. I know it's a small state, but so many people here have tried to farm and have come from farms where they were milking, and they just can't sustain that anymore. It's nice to see that they still have their children connected in some way-

Dave: Doing that.

Carla: -to that kind of lifestyle.

Dave: Exactly. I'm from Ohio originally, and this is just wonderful how Rhode Island is such a microcosm. It's I drove here from Cranston, which is the city, and then now I'm in the farm and I could drive another 20 minutes and I'd be at the seashore. In Ohio, you couldn't get that. I lived in the farm, and that was about it. There was a city an hour away.

Carla: Yes, it's very different.

Dave: It's really great to have all these things and to sustain all of these things.

Carla: As a friend of mine said, who's been coming every year. I've had huge gaps between my visits. She said to me, "You're going to recognize the names. It's just a couple generations later." She's right. She's here with her grandchildren. We were here as kids together.

Dave: That's awesome.

Carla: I can show you. You want to see the cows?

Dave: Yes, absolutely.

Carla: There are all different breeds here today. There are six major breeds of dairy cows. The kind of cow I show is the black and white one. There, that's a Holstein. They make up [00:06:00] more of the dairy cows than any in the country because they milk the most. All of these boxes that you see here, they're all kids' boxes. They have all their supplies in them. Their halters, and their sprays, and their shampoo, and all that kind of stuff. You have to have a specific box with a specific color if you're a 4-H member.

Dave: I'm curious because you said it's like a week-long affair, you get dropped off. Do you do multiple fairs or did you do multiple fairs the summer?

Carla: Yes. Last night, all the young kids showed in a class called Showmanship. Showmanship is all about how you control your animal, how you present your animal to the judge, how clean your animal is and fit. They have to be clipped a special way. Their hooves have to be clean, their ears, all of that. That went on last night for all different age groups. Kids as young as five years old were in the ring. They're so cute.

Dave: Wow. That's awesome.

Carla: Then today, we have-- these are confirmation classes. What the judge is looking at today is a cow has to have a certain kind of a body to produce a lot of milk for a long period of time. There are things that they look for. That is why you see some adults showing today, too, because they're just judging the cow for sale. Is this a cow you'd want in your herd to keep breeding future generation?

Dave: I assume one of the reasons for the showing in the fair is exactly that.

Carla: Exactly, yes.

Dave: For breeding and maintaining dairy herds.

Carla: Because it's partly advertising for your own farm, but now it's a lot of advertising for bulls as well because most of the cows you see here, in fact, I'm going to say probably all of them, are conceived via artificial insemination. Those bulls are things you pick out of a catalog, so online. If you go to a fair and you see these animals that you like, you'll go and get that bull to try to work in your herd. People buy and [00:08:00] sell the cows all the time as well. They now take cows and flush their embryos if you get a championship cow. Flush her embryos out and you can get several different-- people will come and say, "Oh, I want an embryo from that cow."

They won't even buy a calf. They just buy her embryo and fertilize it. It's very genetic. All of the genetics and fertility stuff that human beings go through were practiced first on cows because cows have the same gestation period. They have a nine-month gestation. They had test tube babies long before we did, and they're trying it now.

Dave: Wow, that's fascinating. I never would've known that. How long has that been going on, in other words?

Carla: Artificial insemination I think started, if I'm not wrong, in the late '40s. One of the issues was they couldn't transport the semen very far because they didn't know how to store it. Once they found liquid nitrogen in, say, the early '60s, then you could raise a bull in Rhode Island and his offspring could be born in California, and they could be born in Europe, whatever. Then as far as the embryo transplants in cows, I don't know when the first ones started, but we bought an embryo in probably 1989. By then, it was well established.

Dave: It was just the thing that you did. Yes, absolutely.

Carla: It was started with farmers who had a lot of money, a lot of businessmen who then have farms on the side. That's kind of where it started because you really needed money. I was with a friend yesterday, and he goes every year, and he buys two embryos to breed for the next--

Dave: It's part of the workflow, in other words.

Carla: Yes. Anybody here can probably go buy an embryo if they wanted to. These are beef cows. They're also here. Then also, you asked what we did all week, I think. We would have the Showmanship shows, we'd have the breed show, and then on Friday, they had a special 4-H show. Then all the other cows go home and some of the 4-H kids keep their cows here, so when people come to the fair, they can see animals.[00:10:00] We can answer questions about them. Again, it's partly for entertainment, but again, we want people to know about farming and what's happening. Get them out.

Dave: Keep that culture alive. It's fantastic. I think being a not farm kid and knowing the fair as being the midway, and the rides, and the food, that was my entrance into going to fair. There's so much going on here that is the true purpose, it's just really, really--

Carla: They are all agricultural fairs, that's [unintelligible 00:10:30] To get everybody in, you bring things that most people want to see. That's why, again, you see all of these animals, they're judged, but they stay here for days because we want people to interact with them. We want people to see where their food comes from. You're looking at small farmers, like Pam said, these cows are very well cared for. These cows still go out to pasture. A lot of the milk that you buy in the supermarket, those cows have never stepped foot on a pasture. They don't graze, and cows love to graze.

When they go out the first nice day of the year, they run and their tails go up in the air, and it's clear they express joy. In so many farms now, they never get out of a stanchion, they never get out of a barn. Not these cows that you're seeing today.

Dave: Yes. You were talking about the number of family farms in Rhode Island and how it's changed from when you were coming up. I would assume it's the economics that have made that change.

Carla: Yes. This is about passion. You have to want to do it because when you have a dairy farm, you milk twice a day every day. On our dairy farm, eight hours a day was just milking, and then there was everything else. If you don't really get paid for that, you can't pay-- What most farmers have done now to stay in business is they've diversified. They might have beef cows as well, they might have corn mazes. When you see those corn mazes by dairy farms, they're trying to keep dairy farms in business. [00:12:00] They have wood lots, they have vegetables or pumpkin patches, or whatever. We did not do that as a dairy farm, we just have cows. We couldn't do anything else. Too busy with that, but we lost our farm. [laughs] You still have fun at fair.

This is the end of the day. These are Ayrshires, these are red and white cows from Scotland. Rhode Island is known for the Ayrshires of breeds, we've had really good Ayrshire breeders over the years. The cultural homestead in West Kingston, Rhode Island has been around for over a hundred years. They still have Ayrshires. They don't milk them anymore, but they have calves and heifers. You can see how gentle the cows are. They weigh upwards of 1,500 pounds, but you can put them on a lead like that, and they'll do what you want them to do. [chuckles]

They're supposed to keep their heads up nice and tall like that. They look nice and tall. They stop them a certain way where the legs are always placed to make them look nice and square. We get judges from all over the country. To be a cattle judge, you have to go through a whole series of classes, and tests, and qualifications, and you get prize money. You get ribbons. You get a that and a hat. Today they're giving out caps, which is really cool. I got a lot of useless trophies. The first one is always thrilling, and then after that, "What am I going to do with all these?" A baseball cap have been [inaudible 00:13:29]

Dave: Something practical. Makes me think of what is the golf where they get a jacket.

Carla: Oh, yes. The Masters?

Dave: It's like you win that, and then you have a jacket, and it's like that's a practical thing, you wear a jacket.

Carla: A big like Super Bowl ring?

Dave: Yes. That's what it should be.

Carla: Yes. Another difference between when I showed and now is when I showed, again, I showed Holsteins, the black and white ones. Wednesday at the fair, all day was the Holstein show. [00:14:00] All day was black and white cows. The next day was the Ayrshire show, these cows, all day were the Ayrshires. Now, the good news is we have Guernseys Jerseys, Brown Swiss, and Milking Shorthorn also showing, but the bad news is we don't have enough of any breed to do a breed show, so they mix them all in. This has been a really long day.

They started showing at 10:00, and every breed comes in. There are different age group, classes, and so you have to go through these six different breeds and all of their breed classes and all the championships. That's how you have to do it when you just don't have enough animals to compete. If you go to something big, like the Eastern States Exposition, The Big E, they'll have a full day of breeds. Brown Swiss has their whole day, and Holsteins have their whole day, and then 4-H has a separate day. You can see how much work there is involved.

These cows are body-clipped. They have no hair. Their hair is clipped on their bodies, but it's left on their bellies. Because you want a cow to appear that she has a lot of depth because the more food she can eat, the more milk she can produce. We want her to look like she's got [laughs] a barrel of a body. That's different when I was a kid, we couldn't clip them. We had to blanket them and make sure they shed out their hair, and they look good, but a little easier. We could see that you want the cow to have a really straight top line, so they tease up all that hair along their spine, and they spray it. If you touch it, it's like serious hair gel.

Dave: Oh, wow. I never would've guessed. In that way, maybe something else people see on TV more often is a dog breed show. There's this is this kind of cow and these are the standards for judging. Yes.

Carla: There are people who can do this professionally. There are people who do a really good job fitting their cows, and there are other people who don't do such a good job fitting their cows. At a small fair like this, [00:16:00] it's not such a huge deal, but at one of the big fairs, it could be the difference for you. If the cow's not fit right, she doesn't look as good as the cow next to her, and that's not a good thing.

Dave: Yes. Here, this one has the ribbon on.

Carla: Yes. The blue's the first-place ribbon. She's now waiting to go in. Once you get first place in your classes, at the end, all the first-place and second-place winners go in for a champion and reserve championship of the breed. It's a nice cool day. A lot of times when we come to these fairs, I've never shown on a cool day, always been hot. Obviously, there's no shade out there. Cows like cool weather. They don't like the heat. They don't milk well in the heat. It's a long day for them, they like to be with their herds, they like their own barns. That's why you see them--

Dave: Just like any of us, right?

Carla: Right.

Dave: Yes, absolutely.

Carla: You see them finally lay down. It's like, "I'm done. I've been standing, and I'm holding 1,500 pounds here, I need to lay down for a little bit." When you bring a cow into the ring, she has to have a leather halter on. Normally, if she's tied somewhere, she's going to have a rope halter. They have to have special gear.

Dave: Yes. Really right here in the ring to describe it for listeners, it's all ages of people showing cows right now. Like you said, it's really neat to see people continuing this to be passing on this knowledge.

Carla: You missed the five-year-olds. [laughs]

Dave: Yes. I can't even imagine it. I got a six-year-old and just imagining him leading a cow.

Carla: They had very small calves, but still.

Dave: Yes, but still. I'm thinking about my six-year-old, he could do with a little bit of that responsibility.

Carla: Yes. You know what, when you work around large animals and you learn to control them, you do gain a certain confidence and competency. That's one of those skills. I know a lot about cows, and I don't have to use those skills in my normal life, [00:18:00] but I do think it made us more confident kids. We weren't intimidated by any--I talked about this with a friend of mine yesterday. We really could do anything you asked us to do. You said, "Move that truck," and we were 14 years old, we could move that truck. If you said, "This cow has to have medicine, she's going to have a shot, she's got to have a bolus," we did that. We didn't call a vet. We called vets only in emergencies. We could deal with a lot of things on our own. It just is a different world, but that you don't think about it, you just go, "Oh, okay."

Dave: It's like, "It has to get done. I'm here, I'm going to do it," right?

Carla: Yes.

Dave: Yes. That makes sense.

Carla: I think our parents weren't worried that we wouldn't be able to do it. I was a tiny kid, a skinny kid, and we had bags of grain weighed 50 pounds. I fed the calves in the afternoon, and if the grain was empty, I had to go get the bag of grain. I didn't call my dad. I was like, "Okay." I didn't know how much a bag of grain weighed.

Dave: Exactly.

Carla: I just picked it up.

Dave: You knew you needed to pick it up and move it to a place.

Carla: Yes.

Dave: Yes. You found out it was a 50-pound bag of grain, and you're like, "Whoa."

Carla: Much later in my life, and I was thinking, "I don't know. Probably didn't weigh 50 pounds when I picked it up."

Dave: Exactly.

Carla: I needed more grain. God forbid, I stopped my father in whatever he was doing and asked for help, he would've been a little impatient with me. Just went and got it, and I would've had to wait, and I wanted to go inside and do my homework, or watch cartoons, or something. I didn't want to be out in the barn for another hour waiting for my dad. They do work together. They compete against one another, but you learn so much from one another when you're in 4-H. I saw one of my friends yesterday. I haven't seen him in probably 25 years. We were together five and a half hours, and we never ran out of things to talk about.

It was just so great to see him. We also knew all of our families. We knew everybody's parents, and we interacted all the time with everybody's parents. All of our parents knew each other because they were here all the time. You know what I mean [00:20:00] When they came for shows or we did fundraisers or we did field trips or something like that, our parents were very involved in that and they knew each other as professionals. People came to our farm and bought calves from us. My dad was one of the people who established 4-H in Rhode Island, so he was always very into helping out youth. We would go to different farms.

They would have us there to judge their cows or clip their cows or practice on their herds. We just had an intimate understanding of all the other farms and how they were run. This is such a tiny state. There was not a farm that we really didn't have access to or a farm family. It was great.

Dave: That's fantastic. That sense of community. Again, it's continuing with the younger generations here. It's continuing with you as you run into people. It feels like that family reunion atmosphere. Here we're all at the fair again and just seeing each other and doing this thing that we love together. There's competition, but that's almost secondary, or it's almost like it's the cow that's participating, that's competing, and you're escorting the cow.

Carla: We know. If you've been in the ring a lot, you know that cow is going to beat me. [chuckles] It's not a secret. My dad had such an eye for cows. When you show at the Springfield Fair, there might be 45 cows waiting outside the ring to go in for, say, the four-year old class. I'd be standing out there with my cow and my dad would go, "He's going to beat you. She's going to beat you." I'm like, "Are you kidding me? You already placed the class. Why should I even go in?" You just know that, but you're out there to be part of something.

Dave: You're out there to do the thing. That's more important.

Carla: You worked all year on it. This is not what farming is. This is like the prom. You know what I mean? The prom is in high school. High school is a lot of drudgery and work and dealing with drama. [00:22:00] Fair day, everybody gets pretty, and everybody's out here showing their best thing, and that feels like a relief, too. It's just a nice break, and it does fill you with some energy to go home and do the real work of farming, to come here and see that everybody else has a steak in it, too. I talk about this in the book a lot how some people don't have a stake in what they do for a living and some people don't even have a steak in their farms.

These big conglomerates. We milk 3,000 cows a day. You don't have a steak in an individual cow the way these people do. It meant something to us that we were producing good cattle because that's the way that we fed our families, and we preserved our land. You couldn't shirk work, you couldn't do a second class job because there was something at stake. These people still feel it. Maybe even more acutely because there are so few farms left. Even I heard today one of the ones that's up and running right now may not be running much longer.

Dave: That's a shame.

Carla: Then what happens to that land? I'd love that some families, even though they don't milk anymore, they preserve their land because if you don't do that, that's a whole separate issue that happens. Whether it's development, my property is 76 houses on a Home Depot. It's not pretty anymore.

Dave: I don't want to take up too much of your time. If we wanted to head out and do a little sit down at the library, I'm just going to hit stop.


Dave: Just to say on air, I really appreciate the walk through the fair. That was a wonderful experience, and I appreciate having had it.

Carla: I was happy to host you. I think everybody should have a host to the fair, especially the livestock section.

Dave: Somebody to really let you know what you're seeing because otherwise, I would just [00:24:00] say, "Oh, cow. That's really nice," but there's a lot to see. That was wonderful.

Carla: I think it is. It is partly about passion. It's partly about history, and it's important to know where your food comes from.

Dave: Yes. That reminds me of the story. My sister-in-law and her family do a meat CSA. A long time ago, when their kid was five or six, they actually got to go to the farm and get a tour of the farm there and see where their food comes from, as you just said. This little five-year-old was hugging a pig, and her and her husband were like, "Oh, no. What if she doesn't know?" Then they leaned in and she's going, "Thank you for being my pig." It was like, "Okay, I think she knows." Everything comes from somewhere, and we're a part of it, I think, is really what that comes down to. It's good to be reminded of that.

Carla: When I was growing up, we culled our cows, and we did once a year so, we would send one to the butcher. We always knew the name of our steak. We knew what we were eating. I don't eat meat anymore. I think part of that is because I don't know where it comes from, so it makes a difference.

Dave: Let's turn to your book. You've written Barnflower, which is a farm memoir. Why don't you tell us what led you to write a memoir about growing up on a farm? What was the germ of an idea there?

Carla: It was definitely a germ of an idea. The reason I wrote a memoir is because I was really trying to write fiction. That's my first love. I had joined a writing group, and I was trying to write short stories, and I was really struggling. I went to the University of New Hampshire as an undergraduate. Once a week in both freshman comp and sophomore composition, we had to write a five-page essay. It became this genre that was a security blanket for me. I knew I could bang out something non-fiction pretty quickly. I thought, "We have this cow," her name was Darcy. Darcy had been loaned out to a 4-H-er so that he could show her at a fair like Washington County, where we just were.

At two years [00:26:00] old, when she had her first calf and she started milking, he couldn't milk her. She came back to our farm for us to milk, and he got to keep her calf as his next 4-H project. Darcy didn't want to be home, so she broke through fences again and again and again. I thought she was breaking through fences because the 4-H-er who had raised her was absolutely beautiful. I was 12, and he was 16, and I had a crush. Years later, I realized she was trying to get back to her calf. I thought, "I can tell the story. I can't write a piece of fiction, but maybe I could tell this story of Darcy."

When I did that, I had a little piece of paper beside my computer, and I thought, "If I could tell a story of Darcy, I could tell a story about 29. Then there was Penny, then there was Kitty." In all this farm I hadn't thought about actually mining the farm stories. That's how it started.

Dave: Wow, that's fantastic. Then you've put it all together in this book.

Carla: I guess in the beginning, I thought there would be chapters dedicated to different cows. I've never seen that before. I thought, "Oh, that would be fun." Actually, my husband is also a writer and when I get stuck in a project, he always says to me, "Remember, there's supposed to be joy involved in this." I do need a reminder of that. I was really looking forward to writing the pieces. By the time I sat down to write Darcy, my dad had been dead for probably 10 years. The farm had been gone for a little bit longer than that. I realized I could go back there, and that was magical.

The more I wrote, the more the stories became not about the cows, but about the life and especially about my relationship with my dad. Then it did take me 30 years to write the book, but I didn't care because every time I sat back down to it, I was back with him, and I could hear his voice, and I was in that place that I love so much. At the end, it was hard to let it go. I never intended it to be the book it is. I'm happy that it is the book it is, but [00:28:00] I guess I didn't have a fully, completely thought-out plan.

Dave: Do you mind talking a little bit about your father? I know it ends up being about your family and about your relationship with your father. Can you talk a little bit about him?

Carla: Yes. My dad, his name is Aldo Panciera. He grew up in Westerly. His family, my grandfather and his brother and my grandmother and her sister, they were two married couples from the Dolomite region of Italy. They bought a farm in 1911, and in those days, they would have what we call grade animals. They didn't have papers or registrations. We didn't know their bloodlines. They ran a dairy. They ran Panciera's Dairy. My dad went to World War II. He was in the Army Air Corps, and he stationed the bombers that flew missions. When he was there, he thought, "I want to go back and farm, and I want purebred Holsteins."

We had 100 acres, very rocky, swampy acres. We were not a wealthy family, and he had this idea that seemed outlandish to his parents. We already had animals. Why would he want supposedly better animals? He did start buying purebred cattle, and he wanted to buy this one cow. Her name was Gay, and he went to a sale to purchase her. Gay sold for $1,320 or $1,350 and my father didn't have that kind of money. A couple of years later, he was touring farms. He was looking for some calves to consign to a sale for one of the Holstein associations at the time. Gay had just had a bull calf, and it was a scrawny, scraggly calf, and the person who was supposed to buy the calf didn't want the calf.

My dad's like, "I'll take this calf because he loved her dam. He bought an interest. You would buy an interest in a bull. You couldn't afford to buy the whole bull outright. The bull's name is Osborndale Ivanhoe, and Ivanhoe is one of the foundation sires of the Holstein breed. My father and his little dirt farmer in Rhode Island became known all over [00:30:00] the world for his bull. Still, if you know anything about the history of the Holstein breed, you know the bull. You may not know my father's relationship to him, but he came to our house and his calves and his daughters were really what sold that bull to the world.

My dad was a very humble man, but he was a savant in his own way. This is one thing he knew and he became the best at what he did. He's one of the only people I've ever met who actually became the best at whatever his field was. I happened to spend a lot of time with him. I always just wanted to be with him, and because I grew up on a farm, that was built in. That's the story of where his love of the animals came from, and I was inspired by that, but he was also my dad.

Dave: It's a combination of you wanting to follow in his footsteps with taking care of the animals because of your relationship with him but also because you were on the farm, and that was an expectation. I would imagine.

Carla: It's in you, it's innate. You don't know when you learn certain things, you just know certain things. It was my dad's idea for me to join 4-H. I was shy. I was a quiet kid, and I didn't want to. It was tough for me in the beginning, and then I met some really wonderful people, some of whom we've met today. It changed my life. I was able to do something that my dad loved, but I made my own thing from it as well. It was a bond that we had. My mother wasn't particularly interested in the cows. My siblings did a lot of work on the farm, but they weren't interested in showing. This was something that I shared with him.

Dave: 4-H is how you got into the showing aspect?

Carla: I showed with my dad on fairs, just his cows with him and other adults. This was a great meeting of that life [00:32:00] with also other kids my age, and that was really important.

Dave: How long, as far as your age, how long were you showing cows?

Carla: I went in the ring the first time when I was six years old. My dad stood outside the ring for a couple of years. Because I saw some six-year-olds go in today, and they got to bring little calves. I did not get to bring a little calf. [laughs] My dad wasn't known for showing his calves. He was known for showing his older animals. I went in with a senior yearling. She probably would've been about 900 pounds at the time. My mother was a town girl. She was terrified. My father's like, "She'll be fine, she'll be fine," and I was I did that until I was about 11, and then I started showing with 4-H.

I would do five fairs through the course of the season, including the Washington County Fair, Rocky Hill Fair in Rhode Island. All of my fairs were in Rhode Island, except one which is in North Stonington, and then all of us went to the biggie in West Springfield, Massachusetts in September.

Dave: Wow. You had been talking about that being the week away, the sleepaway camp with 4-H. That's five weeks of sleepaway camp, basically.

Carla: Somewhere only long weekends. Like I said, we got dropped off. The boys slept in bunk houses right on the fairgrounds, and the girls, we either stayed at somebody's house. We all got in the back of a pickup, and we got dropped off at somebody's house. One time we stayed in a camper on the grounds. Some parent would actually make sure we were in for the night, that's where we went. I don't know what we lived on. Del's Lemonade. Definitely Del's. Maybe some French fries and that's about it.

Dave: Memorable experiences that stand out from that time?

Carla: From the fairs?

Dave: From the fairs and the 4-H fairs thinking about that?

Carla: I think what we did was we figured out how to spend our days. Remembering that we had live animals in our care, and we were expected to be responsible [00:34:00] for those. We were responsible for those animals. There was no adult looking over our shoulder. We did things depending on the fair. We showed in Newport, and we jumped off this pier into the Sakonnet River. When we were at one fair, there was a trailer full of hay, and we did hay wrestling. Those are the days of the big, like André the Giant and all those, I didn't know any of these wrestlers but the boys did. They would teach us these wrestling moves. We would always find an empty field to play football or softball in.

We would troll around the midway, of course. We went to the concerts at night. We partook in the fair life, but we also partook in the just normal life of teenagers. We spent a lot of time just hanging out in the bunkhouse talking and laughing. Obviously, we didn't have phones. We didn't have any contact with our parents. You would never go to a pay phone and call your parents [laughs] unless it was a bone protruding through your leg. There's no reason to call your parents. We just bonded, and we didn't fight. From what I remember, it was all very sweet and funny. I think that's tested when I see the kids, I was in 4-H with 45, however many years it's been years ago, we all have the same feeling. Like, "Oh my gosh, thank God we did that. We were so lucky."

Dave: I don't want to minimize it to say work colleagues, but you had the animals, and the work, that was the thing that brought you all together. You were also just kids but had to be responsible kids for these animals. That's thinking about the summer camp experience. I keep going back to that, trying to find a corollary for myself. I know the trouble that my niece and nephew do in summer camp to say nothing of my own children. [chuckles] It seems like it was that, "We have a job to do. We're going to have a wonderful time together, but also we have this job that's very important."

Carla: [00:36:00] You know what, I think that did for me as a kid who couldn't make small talk very easily, I could talk about cows, and the work was what we did together first. That was the icebreaker. After that, as you're doing the work, you begin to have these conversations, and part of them comes out of this thing that we share. Then you begin to know about these other kids and their different lives. A huge percentage of the kids I was in 4-H with were not farm kids. They were kids who lived in the neighborhood where there was a farm. If people know about Escobar's farm in Portsmouth, for example, there was a whole street full of kids who just hung out. They called themselves Escy's crew, and they hung out with Louis Escobar in his farm, and he taught them about 4-H.

Then these kids who wouldn't have had anything to do with cows ended up at the fair with us. Again, it would've been very hard to just step into a room full of those kids, say, at a junior high dance, and talk to them. At the fairs, when we were dividing up chores and we had these shared interests, that just gave us a base from which to grow. Some of them were so social, they didn't need it, but I did.

Dave: My oldest who's 12 now has been wanting to do something like 4-H because we see the kids at the local one. This is up in Mass. We see the kids taking that level of ownership and pride in the work and that you had talked about confidence, the confidence that that builds because you have this to ground you basically.

Carla: You can control a very large animal, and you can see to the needs of that animal largely on your own. I have children. We have three cats, and we have two dogs, and we've had all kinds of pets in our house. My husband and I do probably 96% of the care. I don't know. You don't have to leave instructions when I go away about how to feed the cat or whatever it is. [00:38:00] That wasn't the case with us. It's not the case with farm kids. We have to be part of the work, and we were. Those of us who were from farms were from small family farms. It was our parents, and it was us. That was it.

Dave: Our average listener probably has very little contact with or understanding with farming and farm life. I'm curious if you have any, aside from reading your book, any other books or things that come to mind to just get a sense of what it's really like.

Carla: I have not read another book entirely about dairy farming. Dairy farming is very different. We talked a little about this because cows, no matter what, have to be milked twice a day. Christmas morning, they have to be milked. When we had the blizzard of '78, the cows had to be milked. You might have to milk them by hand, but you have to get the milk out of them. That sets up a very different world. I read a book when I was a kid, my favorite book. Of course, I read Charlotte's Web. That was a farm but a different kind of farm. My mother actually had to take Charlotte's Web away from me because that's the only book I would read.

I read it and read it and read it and finally, she's like, "Let's try something else. Then my second favorite book was a book by Robert Newton Peck called A Day No Pigs Would Die. In that book, in the first scene, there's a Holstein cow who is trying to deliver her calves, and she can't. This kid, my age, finds her in the pasture. It's this neighbor's cow, and he helps her deliver these twin bull calves. I thought, "Oh my God, that is my life." I had never seen it anywhere. The book wasn't necessarily about those cows and dairy farming, but at least it had that lead in. I'm so thrilled that the kids that I knew in 4-H and other dairy farmers that I've heard from across the country now have read the book and have responded to it.

I have also heard from people who say, "I'm a city girl, and I loved this book. I had no idea this was what life was like." Yes, I was [00:40:00] a farm kid, but I was a kid. Like I said, I was a loner. I was trying to fit in. I felt like an outsider. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It's a love story about that way of life and the love story about my relationship with my father. I think that's something other people can relate to as well. I wish I could say specifically, "Oh, so-and-so's book about dairy farming, read that." The books I've read mostly about farming have been about people now realizing that locally grown and produced food is important, so they leave their life in the city, and they go to Vermont and they start this vegetable farm or they start farming.

I wish I could remember the names of these, but I read another memoir about a woman who lives in Oakland, California, and she found a vacant lot, and she raised pigs and everything else on this vacant lot so that she could grow food in the city. Again, that's a very different experience than dairy farming on a small family farm.

Dave: Is it different just because of the having to milk and having that, "I have to do these two times," just that clock?

Carla: Yes. It is the milking definitely. I have a friend who's a vegetable farmer. He pretty much does work all year, but he has slower months. You don't have that when you're dairy farming.

Dave: Maybe to give people a sense of the book, is there any story or vignette that you would want to share just to give people an understanding of the kinds of stories that they'll find?

Carla: I'll give you a story about maybe what's unique about being a farm kid. I just retired. I was an English teacher, high school level for 27 years, and we were at a faculty meeting, and we had an icebreaker. My principal wanted us to turn to the person next to us and talk about a moment of failure that we had. The woman next to me said, "I failed my permit test." I said, "Oh, I once had to shove a garden hose down a cow's throat to keep her from choking, [00:42:00] and she didn't make it." She said, "You intubated a cow." I never thought of it that way. I was 16 years old, and I was doing this via landline talking to my dad.

I think if you think about that story, that's what it's like to grow up on a farm and be a kid on a farm. There is some of that in here. There's some of those kinds of stories in here. There's some humor in the book as well, but we are dealing with live animals, and so there is some stuff to maybe know about and brace yourself for.

Dave: Is there anything else that I haven't thought to ask that you would want to make sure to share with people, either about your book or yourself?

Carla: I'm a short story writer and a poet. I have other books. I have two books, poetry and a book, short stories. I didn't intend to write a memoir. I won't speak for all writers, but for me, I never really think about who's going to read this ultimately. With a memoir, the stakes are so high. It was a very different book to put out into the public because my sisters are in the book, and their husbands are in the book. My parents are both deceased. Some of our hired hands are in the book. The boy I had a crush on all of my life is in the book, and everybody is reading it.

That's been very different for me. I hope I never write another memoir. I'm glad I wrote this one. If I could only have published one book in my life, this would've been the book I wanted to publish, but it was a little bit of a nerve wracking experience. A high school friend of mine showed up to take me out to dinner one night, and she had all of these Post-Its in it. She's like, "I want to know who Jimmy Riga is." I was like, "Wow," fiction writer, you cop out and go, "Oh, no, I made that up." You know what I mean?

Dave: You can't do that when you're calling it a memoir.

Carla: Very different.

Dave: It sounds like you changed some names, so it's like, "Who is this person really?"

Carla: [00:44:00] I did change names and a couple people are composite people, but when people know your story, and they sit down with you with this book, it's like, "Oh, right. Everybody does have a stake in this." That's very different, and something I hope I treated with care.

Dave: Speaking as an Ohio transplant, I think there's nothing more true than the three degrees of separation for Rhode Island. Now that I've been here long enough it's like, I feel that happening to myself for like, "Oh, I know that person," or, "Oh, you really shouldn't have done that because I know the person."


Carla: I grew up in a town full of [unintelligible 00:44:39], which is what my mother's family is. Anytime you even wanted to date somebody, you had to go home and check with your mother and the family tree because it's a small town, and we came from a small section of Italy, and you just had to be careful.

Dave: Of course.

Carla: It's true. You just don't know. My publisher got a call from somebody in Florida who had read about the book in one of the breed magazines. He said, "I have to get a copy of that book. I worked on that farm. I knew that family. I knew that bull. I used that bull. I need a copy of that book. I need to see what she wrote."

Dave: Oh no.

Carla: It's been very interesting to hear how things are received.

Dave: Of course, Barnflower is available at your local public library here in Rhode Island. Where else can people find and get in touch with the book?

Carla: The book was published by LoomPress, which is a small press. It's been in business for over 30 years in Amesbury, Massachusetts. You can get it directly from the publishers. It's on major online book sellers as well. I'll be all over.

Dave: You're on book tour right now? Absolutely.

Carla: Yes. I'm on a self-produced book tour. My three sisters, Barbara Ann, Jeannie, and Patty show up. They're my roadies. They always bring food, so if they're there you're going to eat.

Dave: Any upcoming stops [00:46:00] that you want people to look out for?

Carla: I'm going to be in Ipswich the first Saturday in October. They have a book festival going on there. Ipswich, Mass. The next day I'm going to be in Connecticut at Fort Hills Farm. They have a dairy farm, but they also have diversified, which many dairy farms have, and they have-- I think it's apple picking that's there and some other stuff going on. I'm going to be at the University of Vermont in October. I'm going to be meeting with some ag students and some Vermont farmers. That's what I can think of at the top of my head.

Dave: That's three states right there in the weekend.

Carla: I know. It's been great. It's a dream come true. I'm good. Zero complaints.

Dave: Fantastic. Carla, I really appreciate so much of your time today. It's been a delight for me. I hope everyone picks up the book and is equally delighted. Thank you so very much.

Carla: Thank you.


Dave: Thank you so much for listening. Barnflower is available now from LoomPress and at an Ocean State Library near you. Also, Carla will be at the Cranston Public Library on Saturday, October 14th at three o'clock PM. Visit for more info about this event. I'll also put links in the show notes. I'd like to extend a huge thank you to the Washington County Fair and Clark Memorial Library for hosting, and especially to Carla Panciera for taking the time to walk me through the fair. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and is brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State.

Rhody Radio is made possible with support from the Office of Library and Information Services. The project has been funded in part by grants from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Library Association. You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Instagram and [00:48:00] Twitter. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and rate or review us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to help us reach more Rhode Islanders. Thanks again for listening.

[00:48:18] [END OF AUDIO]

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