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Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On

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.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
Photo/Art by Peter Miller
With a lifetime of dairy farming at his back, Melvin Churchill (here haying a section of his 110 acres in Cabot, Vermont) is bucking the trend of leaving the land.

I don’t dispute those numbers. But to me, they ignore a deeper, intrinsic value that can’t be measured in dollars alone–or even at all. It’s the value of my young boys’ gathering around Melvin and Matt’s bale wrapper on a cloudless June afternoon to watch them put up the winter’s hay. It’s Matt pausing to explain how the wrapper works. It’s passing any one of the many farms in Cabot–the Ackermans’, the Steckers’, the Bothfelds’, the Paquins’–and seeing the cows, some bent to the grass, some loafing in the shade of a fenceline maple. It’s a reminder of the inescapable connection between our land and our food, between us and what sustains us.

There’s a feeling of inevitability surrounding the future of Vermont’s dairy industry. Many of the loans that carried any number of farmers through the past two seasons have gone unpaid, and additional credit will be hard to come by. The state’s Agency of Agriculture has predicted that as many as 200 more farms could go under by the end of this year. Even if it’s half that number, 2010 will have turned out to be one tough year.

Melvin Churchill, buffered from the worst of the downturn by his organic status and the fact that his farm is paid off, acknowledges this truth. “Realistically, it won’t be a farm forever,” he said, when I asked him about the future of his place. At some point, he and Matt might move onto a bigger farm, or they might move on from farming altogether. At some point, my boys probably won’t watch them hay anymore, either because my boys no longer care or because Melvin and Matt are no longer haying.

There are times when I consider the implications of that and wonder whether sometime soon the barns and pastures of my hometown will be not unlike the petroglyphs that Churchill saw in Utah: artifacts … history … the remains of a particular way of life and the people who lived it.

Maybe so; probably so. But for now, I take some comfort in the fact that I can walk over the hill, across the Churchills’ pasture, among their big, gentle cows. For another summer, at least, my boys will spend hours at the edge of the hayfield above our house, watching Melvin and Matt mow and rake and bale. This year, and likely for a few more, I’ll drive the back roads of Cabot, past the town’s remaining farms. I’ll see people I know doing work they love for wages they can barely afford, and I’ll be reminded that the value of a particular task should not always be best measured by the money it will bring. When I get home, I’ll try to explain that to my boys. And I’ll hope, more than anything, that they’ll understand.

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Ben Hewitt


Ben Hewitt


The Hewitt family runs Lazy Mill Living Arts, a school for practical skills of land and hand. Ben's most recent book is The Nourishing Homestead, published by Chelsea Green.
Updated Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

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One Response to Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On

  1. Duane Searles November 6, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    It was with great sadness that I read this article. Having grown up on a farm in eastern Mass. I remember when my father decided to sell.the farm. It was a sad time. I was only 24 and newly married and I asked my father to let me buy the farm from him. He would not sell it to me \”too many headaches\” he said. That was over 30 years ago and not a day goes by that I say to myself “What if?” Maybe I would of failed, but then again maybe not. I sometimes feel I short changed my kids my not exposing them to the farm life. It was a great way to grow up!!!

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