Farm Families: Part Two, Breaking With Family Tradition
11/18/08 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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(Host) The future of agriculture in the Northeast Kingdom still hangs in the balance for some farm families.
This week in a series of special reports, we're hearing the stories of six farm families in Caledonia County.
Today we visit a strawberry grower, and we talk with a local historian.
They were both born in Caledonia County. One stayed on the family farm and brought his kids into the business. The other left home to take a job in town, but came back to the farm to write books about rural life.
VPR's Charlotte Albright takes us first to the strawberry field.
(Albright) If you live in the Northeast Kingdom and you like red, juicy strawberries-and you don't mind picking your own-you need to meet Hez Somers.
(Somers) "So many people say "you grow the best berries in the state." Well, that's what people say."
Sound of Somers leading customers into the field to pick berries
(Albright) "As if on cue, a middle-aged couple drives up. Somers grows a hard-to-find breed called "sparkle" berries-deep red, tart, but perishable in the heat. So he hustles his customers into the field."
(Somers) "Good morning! Good morning, how are you. . .I'll take you down. . ."
(Albright) Somers has been taking this sunbaked stroll for decades. At 72, he shows no signs of slowing down on a farm that's been in his family for over a century. This is a family of entrepreneurs . Hez Somers says that means being flexible.
(Somers) "Course we've done many different things. We've had sheep, we've had cows, we've had pigs, we've done lumbering, we grew strawberries, my father used to have, oh, probably three to five hundred plants that he'd plant and then he'd just pick ‘em and sell ‘em locally. You know, I can remember when I come home pulling weeds. . .and weeds. . and weeds, so I got sick of that and I said, "if I ain't gonna do it better I'm not gonna do it."
(Albright) So he experimented with pesticides, and changed the barn layout to keep more cows more contented.
He's known around here as a free-spirited guy. And that may be one key to his success. Across the border, fellow farmer Steve Taylor spent two decades as New Hampshire's Agriculture Commissioner.
Taylor says breaking with family tradition is often necessary, but rarely easy.
(Taylor): "I've seen that many many times. I've seen the patriarch of the family say, those cows have to be confined in stantions, they can't be allowed to walk around-- and when he finally got out of the way they built a free stall barn where the cows can roam about and eat or lie down or do whatever they want between milkings. And the cows are healthier and they give more milk. And old grandfather is hard pressed to accept that and commend the younger generation for making that. So yeah, there's that difficulty, a tension that seems to be around."
(Albright) Somers admits that his family differs at times about how to best use this land. But-and here he chooses his words carefully. . .
(Somers) "We don't fight. We disagree sometimes, but we don't fight."
(Albright) "Smiling together near the cornfield outside their house, Hez and his wife look like Caledonia County's version of Grant Wood's famous portrait, "American Gothic." They've taken in dozens of foster children and exchange students, and some of them have become successful farmers, too. But Somers
figures those young disciples are unusual."
(Somers) "People don't like to stay home today. They want to be on the road and I think a lot oft hat... the ones that like to stay home and do the work and really love farming, I think they can make it because they'll figure out how it does work."
(Albright) "Which is more important, location or ambition?"
(Somers) "Ambition. Definitely so. Definitely so, because if you don't have the ambition you could be on glory land and where are ya? You're in the dumps."
(Albright) It can take more than one kind of ambition to keep a farm family-and animals-fed. Harriet Fletcher Fisher was raised on a farm but took a job in town when she was young. She married the son of a farmer. He worked in a mill. Eventually, as a widow, Harriet moved back to the farm where she was born and set herself up in a trailer next to the farmhouse where her son now lives. That's where she's written a handful of books about the way life used to be in Caledonia County.
Sound of indoor water fountain
(Albright) I was lucky to talk with her shortly before she died. A tabletop water fountain bubbled away near her armchair. This land has been in her family since 1839, and it's a place where Harriet's mother loved working outdoors.
(Fisher) "She'd hurry up and get the dishes done in the morning after breakfast and she'd say, "Earl where do you want to mow today?" And he'd say, "You hitch up the horses," and she loved the smell of the new hay and driving the horses and she also drove the one horse rig. Anyway, she would love to go down and uh, pole the manure down in the gutter which went down below, and uh, do that and clean the bran and then she'd say-and then we'd let the cows back in and the first thing the'd do, one of ‘em would just spread it right on and she'd say, "my clean stables," she'd say."
(Albright) Harriet Fisher may not have spent her adulthood mucking out stalls, but she's honored country life in her popular books. Here's a passage from her memoir, "Hometown Album," read by Kim Crady-Smith, owner of Lyndonville's Green Mountain book store, one of Harriett's favorite haunts.
(Crady-Smith) "We drank water without chlorine and our rumps were not used for a doctor's dart board. We were exposed to all kinds of germs and got immune on our own to just about everything. We fell out of apple trees, walked to school in snow knee deep or waist high, and when the snow roller came to roll the roads we had the most wonderful sliding track. No matter how high our boots were we got them full of water when all this turned to slush in the spring. It was wonderful stuff to play in."
(Albright) That scene may seem like a throwback to Norman Rockwell, but if you wander the back roads of Caledonia County, you can still sometimes see kids climbing trees and feeding chickens. Farms are struggling, but rural life is still treasured here in everyday routines and in the pages of local history.. Many farmers' children would like to think farming is in their blood. But they'll also tell you that with fuel costs and taxes on the rise, and milk prices always in flux, living the way their parents did is a lot harder than it used to be.
For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.
Note: Tomorrow in our Farm Family series we'll visit a younger man who's learned how to live off the land not just from his own parents, but from lots of other farmers. You can learn more about our series and tell your own farm family story at VPR.net.
Photo Top: Hez Somers holds a sign advertising strawberries that he sells from his family farm in Barnet, VT.
Photo Middle: Harriett Fletcher Fisher at the family farm in Lyndonville, VT.
Photo Copyright Herb Swanson ©2008