Farm Families: Part One, Passing on the land

11/17/08 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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(Host) In that still rustic corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom, you see plenty of silos and hardly any condos. Herds of cattle graze by dirt roads.

Buildings may be worn and weathered, but farmers still live in them, and hope to pass them down to their children.

All this week, we'll meet a few of these families, and hear why they hold onto land that may no longer yield profits. How do they pass farm values to their children and grandchildren? And those kids-do they think they're inheriting a treasure? Or just trouble?

VPR's Charlotte Albright has spent the past couple months in Caledonia County to get the answers to these questions.


Music up: "How do you keep ‘em down on the farm"

(Albright) In 1918, when that song was first performed, aging farmers and their wives were scared. How could they keep the cows milked if their soldier sons came back from World War I looking for bigger adventure and easier lives?

Vermont has only about 6,000 farms left, and only a thousand are dairy farms. This part of Vermont is feeling some of those pressures, but since the economy lags behind southern and western Vermont, farmers face fewer temptations to sell out. And around here, land is a powerful magnet. The late Cola Hudson loved growing up in a farm family high on a hill, up a dirt road lined by stately maples, with a breathtaking view of Burke Mountain.

(Hudson) "I wouldn't trade it for a bushel of monkeys."

(Albright) Hudson reminisced at a public meeting of the Lyndonville Historical Society one chilly October night in 2007.

(Hudson) "I have lived in the same place that my grandfather bought in 1903 in the Pudding Hill area of Lyndon and it's been a wonderful, wonderful experience to have lived in a three generation family all under the same roof. I was in my sixties before I realized what a generation gap was, or is, because when you grow up in a three generation family under one roof, there isn't a generation gap. There's a continuum of life from the beginning to the end."

(Albright) Hudson's own end came suddenly last January He was 81. Like many struggling Northeast Kingdom farmers, he had to take outside jobs, first as a school janitor and later as a state legislator. He never married, and
lived out his last years in a trailer across from the now boarded up family farmhouse. Even the trailer is gone now, It leaves a fresh brown gash in the ground. His many friends wonder what will happen to this land, now that it's been handed down to relatives who don't live on it.

But many farms do get passed down to children. Take the Simpson place.

Wilder Simpson grew up on these 200 acres of pastures, hayfields, and woodlands. On this hot summer day he's showing his 14-year old grandson Connor how to drive a tractor.

(Wilder Simpson) "And I think it's really important for teen-agers to work with adults and to get another perspective other than other kids. Because kids shouldn't raise kids. Kids should get their directions from adults and that's really what I wanted to do, it's wasn't so much getting work out of him-that's what he thinks-but it was about building a relationship with your grandchildren, and I'm very pleased, I don't care if we cut any hay, that's not the important thing. I was pleased when he was asking questions about the farm."

Albright: Wilder Simpson's ancestor, Sebinah Wilder, bought this farm two hundred years ago. The family became world famous for breeding shorthorn cattle. But Wilder wanted to try other things. Teaching, for example. Working as a herdsman in Alaska. One of his brothers moved to Guatemala. Another died. Still, the Simpson clan considers this place home, whether they live here or not. And they all love the old barn.

Albright: Wilder climbs the creaky steps.

Wilder Simpson "The old part of the barn-don't get nervous because it is very firm-is out here-this was built in probably 1890, 80, somewhere in there, and we used to back in here with the hay, on a hay wagon and throw it into the bays, and my brother and I would mow the hay away in the bays and it had to be put in layers, you put a layer in the back, and a layer in the front, and a layer in the center. If you didn't it would just be a matt and you just couldn't dig it out, so we would work all summer. Our job was in the hay mills when they came in with a big load of hay. When they went out to get the hay, one of us drove the tractor while the hired man and my dad milled the hay away in the big wagon. Then they'd come in and they'd pitch it off. And it was hot."

(Albright) He also remembers that it was fun. Still, Wilder Simpson figures that a lifetime of manual labor wouldn't appeal all that much to his skateboarder grandson, Connor

It turns out, though, Connor would consider following in his forefathers' muddy boot steps.

(Connor Campbell) "When they show you how much land that we actually own it's really amazing that my great grandfather and my great-great grandfather kind of built an empire today like there's just so much that we own out here."

(Albright) That's music to the ears of the family patriarch, Leland Simpson. He's surprised that his great grandson might want to make a living off this land.

(Leland Simpson) "I would expect him to say "I dunno" I think it's pretty early to decide but it's good to think he's seen the good side of it."

(Albright) At 92, Simpson says he put down his chain saw only three years ago.
He admits with a sheepish grin that he's now more likely to survey the rolling property by golf cart than tractor. He leases out most of the hayfields to younger neighbors., and keeps only three animals-horses-in the barn. Still, once a farmer, always a farmer, and from his sun porch armchair beside a stack of books, Leland Simpson looks back on a good life.

(Leland Simpson) "Luck, I guess. I think luck enters into a lot of it. Genetics
probably had something to do with it too. I come from on the Simpson side. My father's uncles were farmers, hard workers. Some were workaholics. I probably feel into that category when I was able to do it. Didn't know enough to sit down and enjoy the breezes. "

Albright: Like Cola Hudson, Simpson mixed farming with lawmaking, and sponsored a number of bills aimed at keeping family farms in business. He's proud of that legacy and proud of the fertile fields that were his birthright, and will pass to his children in time. But what will they do with their inheritance? That depends on how they look at it-as a blessing, or a burden.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright

Note: Tomorrow in our series on Farm Families, we'll meet a strawberry grower who changed with the times, and a writer who loved to look back.

Top Photo:  Wilder Simpson and his grandson, Connor Campbell, take a break from haying at the family farm in Lyndonville, VT.

First Photo: Cola Hudson speaking to the Lyndonville Historical Society about growing up on a farm in Vermont.

Bottom Photo: Leland Simpson sits on the porch of his family farm in Lyndonville, VT

Photos: Copyright Herb Swanson ©2008 

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