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