Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On
What is the true value of a farm, or of a farmer like Melvin Churchill? Dairy Farmers across New England are clinging to a way of life that is quickly disappearing.
The annual farm-equipment auction at The Pines’ barn in Barton, Vermont, was hopping. Maybe it was the weather that had brought the crowds, for although it was only mid-April, the day was more appropriate to early June. The air pulsed with a soft breeze, warm enough that bottles of Mountain Dew outnumbered coffee cups at least two to one. In northern Vermont, the grass was already greening up nicely, and the consensus was that the cows would be turned out to pasture a week or two earlier than usual. If I had to guess, I’d say there were 250 people gathered at The Pines–mostly farmers, but also a few others drawn to the rugged utilitarian aesthetic of the machinery. I could be off by 50 or 60 in either direction, but no matter the precise number, it felt like a crowd. The auction hadn’t started, so folks mostly wandered along the rows of implements and tractors, or stood chatting in small groups.
Pickup trucks rolled slowly down the gravel road and turned into the field to park next to other pickups. Many towed equipment trailers–a silent hope that on this day, a deal would be struck. Six elderly attendees sat in a circle around the circumference of a big tractor tire that lay on its side.
There was no dress code but the one that was unspoken and self-enforced: clean-but-frayed flannel shirts tucked into freshly washed work pants, topping steel-toed work boots. Often the toe leather was worn away, exposing a shiny bit of metal, almost jewel-like in the sun. Ball caps were all but ubiquitous, advertising tractor brands or equipment dealers or feed suppliers. The older farmers walked in the determined, shoulders-forward way of those who have spent nearly a lifetime traveling from one task to another, moving slowly but surely into the knowledge that those tasks formed a line stretching farther than the eye could see or the day could accommodate. The younger farmers moved in a way that suggested that they would someday move like the older farmers.
People greeted one another in a languorous, low-key manner that revealed few specifics but nonetheless offered a view of character and the enduring qualities upon which character is built: humor, persistence, self-effacement.
“Hi Tommy. How ya’ doin’?”
“Hanging in there, eh?”
“Yuh. Ain’t movin’ very fast.”
“How you doin’?”
“Not too bad.”
“They let you out, eh?”
“Nice day, ain’t it?”
“Not bad. I seen worse.”
“Better’n last week, anyhow.”
I walked slowly through the crowd, eavesdropping a bit, but mostly just absorbing what came my way. The auctioneer, Reginald “Reg” Lussier, began his patter, and for a time I simply stood, all but hypnotized by the rapid-fire rhythm of his craft and the swirl of bodies around me as folks pressed in to get a view of the action. I smelled cigarette smoke, French fries, grass, and the sharp, vinegary scent of sun-hot metal, and I felt as though I were in the midst of something ritualistic, almost ceremonial, in nature.
Some of this, I knew, was because I’d learned just days before that the number of working dairy farms in Vermont had recently dropped to 1,017. This means that since recordkeeping began in 1947, the state has lost 10,189 farms. In other words, in a little more than half a century, we’ve shed 90 percent of our dairy farms.
So I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was witnessing the coming together of a dying breed, one of the last gasps of a way of life that once defined the surrounding landscape. What will the Pines auction look like in 10 years? I wondered. And then: Will there even be a Pines auction in 10 years?
And yet, to be honest, there was little in my immediate view to suggest that the auction wouldn’t endure. The turnout seemed strong; spirits seemed high. Large pieces of equipment were selling for many thousands of dollars and, it appeared to my admittedly novice eye, selling quickly. I heard laughter; I saw smiling faces. Everyone seemed relaxed, and it occurred to me that maybe I was simply at a farm-equipment auction on a nice day in April, watching as flannel-clad men quietly assigned an upper boundary to the price they’d pay, and then did what they could to pay less.
On the morning of the Pines auction, I’d kissed my wife and two young boys goodbye and walked over the hill from our own small farmstead (seven cows, a dozen sheep, four pigs, and enough chickens that fresh eggs can sometimes feel like a burden), across a ridgetop hayfield still redolent of the spring’s manure spreading, and down a short, steep, grassy pitch to Melvin Churchill’s dairy farm. At the top of the hill, I paused for a moment to survey the scene below me.
From my vantage point, I could see the back of the old farmhouse where Melvin lives with his partner, Janet Whitlock. It’s large and rambling, constructed many decades before terms like “energy efficiency” and “green building” had entered our lexicon. Every year Melvin buys a dozen cords of hardwood logs to feed the basement furnace. The house is white clapboard, with a large wraparound porch. The paint is flaking, and in some places the lines don’t meet as precisely as they once did, but it’s still solid.
The barn is about 50 feet from the house, slightly downhill, across a packed-dirt barnyard. Naturally, it’s red. Equipment is scattered about the property: three tractors and a bulldozer; the implements of haying–mower, tedder, rake, baler; a round bale wrapper, for sealing the big marshmallow-like cylinders of hay that have all but replaced traditional square bales on the modern dairy farm; a pair of hay wagons; and a handful of cars and pickup trucks in varying stages of disrepair. There’s a small pond, and along its southern shore, a tall diving platform that Melvin’s sons (Martin, Matthew, Morgan, and Jeremy) constructed one summer from cedar poles. Now it leans precariously, as if preparing to take a dive itself.
Melvin’s property isn’t an unnaturally spotless postcard farm. The old implements, the broken cars, the loose shingles on the barn roof … I suppose that someone from a place where the workday didn’t begin at 5:00 a.m. and end 14 hours later, and the workweek didn’t extend into those days beginning with the letter S, might view these things as eyesores.
But perhaps because I was raised in rural Vermont, where these sights are commonplace, or perhaps because I know Melvin Churchill and at least something of what it takes to make a living milking 42 cows in Vermont in 2010, that’s not my view. Rather, I’ve come to appreciate these sights as a tangible lesson in thrift and the enduring willingness to carry on in the face of the knowledge that things aren’t likely to get any easier anytime soon. In that way, they remind me of the qualities that once defined rural American life but are now eroding. It’s an erosion, I believe, that leaves us all poorer.
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