Here in New England: Farm on Fire
Let’s start just before the fire. Just before flames tore through the hayloft stacked with 5,000 bales. Just before the smoke billowed through the barn, the cows terrified and men fighting back panic, struggling to get the herd out before everything burned down. Because to understand the loss of a single small family farm, it helps to see what was there before. It’s August 27, 2004. Early evening, about 6 p.m., dinnertime, except farmers don’t eat until the chores are finished and there was still the last wagon of hay to get in, and the cleanup after milking.
The farm is called Spooky View, named for the cemetery that abuts its land, and it’s one of only three dairy farms remaining in Epsom, New Hampshire, a small town east of Concord. A generation ago there were eight. It’s an old story — the decline of the family dairy, the land sold to developers for housing lots — but consider: In the 1920s there were more than 14,000 such farms in the state; as late as 1983, there were still 625. On this summer day, Spooky View Farm is one of only 135, and it is one of the smallest.
Inside the barn, Keith Bachelder has just finished milking his 35 cows and feeding an equal number of heifers. Keith owns the cows, having bought them from his parents seven years earlier, but everyone helps out — dad, mom, sister, brother, relatives, friends. It’s how small family farms have always made do. Only a few weeks before, he has finally paid off the loan to buy the herd. Outside, his father, Charles, along with cousins and friends, is throwing the last bales onto the hay elevator that trundles to the second-story loft. Charles and his wife, Ruth, bought this farm in the early 1970s when Keith was a baby. Charles is well into his 60s, and he’s spent nearly every day of his life on farms.
If you look around, you’ll see right away that this is no postcard dream of a farm. Four old tractors and parts lie here and there, ready to give life to another machine. The barn sidles against a garage — the garage to the main house where Ruth and Charles live — all of it useful, none of it especially photogenic. Across the street is the house Keith shares with Sarah, his sister, and just up the road, next door to the farmhouse, lives Brent, their brother. Family and cats are everywhere. A working farm. Home. Where they raised the animals they showed at fairs, and friends came over for Ruth’s home cooking and cakes and cold glasses of freshly ladled milk.
Ruth grew up on a dairy farm right here in Epsom. “We did all the milking by hand,” she says, “my brothers on one side, me on the other.” She and Charles started going together when Ruth was in high school. “He was a farm boy and I was a farm girl,” she says. They married in 1963 and built a home together, waiting and looking to find a farm.
“The first time I saw this land,” she says, “this fella had lost his wife, so he was selling. The house was half tore up, rain was pouring through the roof. A real mess. We went to the bank and said we’d like to buy it. They thought we were crazy. It was $25,000, and I thought, We’ll be in debt forever. We started with nothing. But this was going to be our future.”
That was in 1970. Every night when Charles got finished working at a nearby farm, he and Ruth came up here and stayed into the night fixing things up. “We’ve always been a couple,” Ruth says. “We milked together. Got sawdust together, hayed together. I only got mad at my husband once. I slammed the barn door and then went back and did chores.” They went to auctions together, too, building their herd one cow at a time. “November 12, 1971,” Ruth says. “It was Keith’s third birthday and we had cake and the milk truck came for our first shipment of milk.”
To pay the bills, Charles kept on at the neighbor’s farm and Ruth did the milking and chores at Spooky View, hauling 50-pound pails of milk across the barn. She came to the farm with two small children and soon had two more. By then, Charles was staying here at Spooky View. They joined a milk co-op and checks came twice a month. “Always on the 5th and 20th,” Ruth says. “That’s when you sat down and paid bills. Some years were awful lean. We just had to cut back then. It was just so hard to keep going.” But even while farmers all around them cashed in their land, they stayed. “I can’t tell you how rewarding the farm life is,” Ruth says. “Every kid had chores. Then they’d go off and play, and when dinner was ready, I’d get out in the middle of the road and yell and they’d come running.”
They had only 14 acres of pasture, not enough to grow their own feed. Whenever they had a little money, they added to the herd, building up to 35 milkers. One night, Charles went to the Deerfield Fair to watch the horse pull. He was leaning on a fence and somehow he caught his finger up in a halter, and the horse snapped it right off. When the call came, Ruth gathered up the kids, they got the cows milked, and then they went to the hospital. “It’s just the way it was,” Ruth says. “The cows always had to come first.”