Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On
Geographically speaking, Melvin isn’t our most immediate neighbor, but he’s the one we see most often, and that makes it feel as though he’s our closest neighbor. There are numerous reasons for that: We keep a freezer in his basement (our home’s solar power isn’t robust enough to support it); we keep our own small herd of cows, and Melvin is our primary source of expertise in all matters bovine; and we see him frequently in the hayfield abutting the border between his land and ours. Usually he’s haying, or spreading manure, or running fence. A couple of times, I’ve heard him singing over the noise of his tractor, usually something choral.
Occasionally he’ll stop and we’ll chat for a minute, but mostly we just throw each other a wave and go about tending to our respective tasks. There’s something comforting in that: Here I am, turning a manure pile or clipping pasture, and there’s Melvin, just over the hill, working his own holding. It isn’t exactly company; it’s quieter than that, a sliver of awareness that I’m not the only one afflicted by the lure of working the land, which in 2010 can feel like an illogical and lonely pursuit.
It’s a pursuit that has defined Melvin’s life; he’s never had a career that didn’t involve milking cows. For a year and a half, back in the early 2000s, he assembled train cars for Bombardier Inc., but that represents the only significant period of his adult life that didn’t involve farming. It’s also the only portion of his adult life that was backstopped by health insurance. “I don’t get sick much, and I try not to hurt myself,” he told me, as we drove north on Route 16 toward the auction. Except for the time a tree fell on him as he was cutting firewood, this strategy has worked out pretty well.
Melvin was born in 1948; his parents were living on the 185-acre farm that his grandfather Fred Churchill had bought in 1938. It’s the same farm that’s currently owned by Melvin’s brother Rusty and worked by his son Morgan; at some point, the narrow gravel lane that splits the farm was named Churchill Road. It connects to Bothfeld Hill Road, named for another longstanding Cabot farm family.
At the time, Melvin’s parents, Percy and Pauline, were running the place, milking about 50 cows. It was the beginning of the era of mechanization on small farms, although when Melvin was born, his father was still haying with horses. “All the local farmers would get together and move from farm to farm, getting the hay in,” he explains. They’d mow and rake the hay with horse-drawn equipment, before forking it into a wagon and then into the barn. These days, most farmers make the same big round bales that Melvin and Matt do, and it’s entirely possible to put up a year’s worth of feed without actually touching a single blade of grass or dried strand of hay.
When he was 25, having worked his parents’ farm, followed by a stint at a 600-head dairy in Tampa, Florida (brief, having followed the first of his three wives there), and then as a hired hand at the Bothfelds’, Melvin purchased 23 cows and four bred heifers and began farming for himself, first on leased property, then on his parents’ land. In 1978, he purchased the 113-acre farm where he raised his boys and where he still lives and works on 110 of those acres. He’s never really considered living anywhere but in Cabot, although a dozen years ago he left the farm in the care of his oldest son, Martin, and embarked on a cross-country drive.
The trip made an impression on him, in no small part because he met a cattle rancher in southern Utah and spent a day helping him brand the young stock. The rancher took a liking to Melvin. “I’m going to show you something not many people have seen,” he told him. He took Melvin deep into the desert on horseback, where they clambered up a rock face to a natural stone shelf. Figures and symbols were carved into the wall of a little triangular cavern behind it: petroglyphs. The carvings were arranged in two rows, one over the other, and the rancher explained that the rows were situated so that at noon on the spring equinox, the sunlight would fall precisely on the bottom one; on the fall equinox, it would fall upon the top row.
It just so happened that the next day was the spring equinox. Melvin wasn’t one to pass up such an opportunity, so in the morning he returned to the cavern. The rancher had been right. Melvin sat for a while, transfixed by the art of a culture whose time had long ago passed.
On the morning of the auction, I found Melvin in the house, drinking coffee. He’s short and built in the quietly powerful way of men who have chosen physically arduous careers. He has a full beard, and has since I met him when we moved onto our land in 1997. There’s almost always a baseball cap perched on his head; it was years before I realized that he’s mostly bald. From a distance–and perhaps to a stranger, even up close–he can appear intimidating. That’s due, I think, to the beard, which makes it difficult to gauge his expression, and a full quotient of Yankee reticence. He doesn’t feel compelled to fill conversational silences, a quality I used to find uncomfortable but have since come to appreciate.
Janet offered me coffee, and I sat at the counter drinking it and looking over an ad for a wheeled scoot she was considering, in hopes that it would ease her gardening efforts, which are affected by physical ailments. We all agreed it seemed well constructed and, at $89.95, a worthwhile investment. Melvin pointed out an upside-down tomato planter ($19.95), and we all had a good chuckle.
Matt strode into the house. He’s 33, and the third of Melvin’s sons to try his hand on the farm (Jeremy’s the holdout; he’s a carpenter.) Martin lasted about a year and a half before taking a job at Vermont’s Agency of Transportation and moving to Montpelier. Morgan stayed for a few years, then moved across the valley with his wife to work the farm where Melvin was raised, the one that now belongs to his brother Rusty. Matt’s in his third year on the farm, and from what I can tell, seems inclined to stick around. He lives about five miles away with his wife and daughter and between milkings works as an electrician. He’s also a skilled outdoorsman. He loaded a plate with nine pancakes, ate quickly and quietly, and left to spread manure. Melvin and I climbed into Matt’s truck and headed north, toward Barton.
At the auction, I bought lunch for the two of us: cheeseburgers, fries, Pepsis. I carried our food over to the spot where Melvin had parked himself, next to a rust-speckled disc harrow he hoped to leave with. He needed the harrow to tend to a rough hayfield that he and Matt had recently taken over.
The bidding began, and Melvin balanced his lunch atop the harrow’s frame. I’d already learned that auction ethos demands the most extreme subtlety on the bidders’ part, like counterpoint to the frenetic banter of the auctioneer. Huge (and often hugely expensive) pieces of equipment trade hands on twitchy nods that could just as well be the response to a blackfly as an actual bid. During the auction, I studiously kept my head still, lest I end up accidentally buying an early-1900s-era potato digger, say, or a snowmobile that supposedly ran just fine.
Indeed, despite knowing Melvin’s interest, it took me a moment to realize that he was even bidding, and another moment to realize that he’d placed the winning bid and now owned the harrow. He’d gotten it for $850 and looked pleased with himself; another, smaller harrow had sold for nearly twice that. We sat on his purchase and ate our lunch, discussing the equipment’s merits and possibilities with Morgan, who’d come to the auction mostly as a spectator. True, Morgan needed a new baler, but he needed the cash more. “This isn’t the best time to be spending money,” he noted ruefully, but even as he said it, he was gazing wistfully at a New Holland piece, its paint still shiny from lack of use.
I wonder what we really lose when we lose our farms, and what we’ve lost already. The talk seems to be of money, of how these farms are worth more than the value of their products for the sheer economic activity they generate. Tourists, milk-truck drivers, tractor salesmen, auctioneers–all are tangential benefactors of the agricultural landscape. Vermont has even determined how much all these parts are worth: $14,000 per cow.