Holding On: Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love
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.