Farm Families: Part Four, Making Ends Meet
11/20/08 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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(Host) All week, we've been hearing about the lives and challenges of six farm families in Caledonia County.
Their stories open a window onto the landscape that can feed their families, and teach their children the value of hard work, persistence, and togetherness.
Farming here is different from other parts of Vermont. Winters are often harsher, but the soil is rich, and the love of land runs deep-so deep that some are willing to live on the poverty line just to stay where they were born. How long can they hold out?
Here's VPR's Charlotte Albright.
(Albright) Hang around with farmers long enough in the Northeast Kingdom and you're bound to hear a complaint-funny but barbed-about states just to the east and south.
(Norm Lewis) "That's New Hampshire over there. As I say, we're near, but not close."
(Albright) That's Danny Gore, repeating a popular old quip. He's the fictional creation of Danville raconteur Norm Lewis, who has entertained audiences for decades with his tongue-in-cheek performances, collected on a video called "Farm Family Values."
His joke about New Hampshire amuses Steve Taylor, who spent over twenty years as New Hampshire's Agriculture Commissioner. Taylor says the Connecticut River is a powerful dividing line, in part because the soil on the west side is so much richer than the glacial deposits in the aptly named Granite State.
(Taylor) "The second thing was that this area because of the agriculture and also because of its proximity to the Connecticut river which allowed for navigation up and down established commerce and movement of people from southern New England, from Connecticut, primarily up here, that it proved attractive to the kinds of people who wanted to go and do their thing and be left alone doing it.
(Albright) Of course, all New England farmers, except for Native Americans, originally came from somewhere else. That migration is still happening on a smaller scale in the Northeast Kingdom, because farmers in states to the south are feeling squeezed out by skyrocketing taxes and congestion. That's how Ray Clark's father came to own 265 acres in Lyndonville. When his dad died thirty years ago, Ray bought the farm from the estate.
We talked one brisk fall day as he was hooking his tractor up to his hay mower.
(Clark) "Years ago, hooking this stuff up, the only thing you had to do was get the horse to stand still. Well you don't have any trouble to get the tractor to stand still. .. "
(Albright) Clark grows and sells pumpkins and raises Devon cattle-a rare breed these days.
(Clark) "Well, the idea of the thing is to make it break even. I haven't been able to do that. As near as I can figure this costs me about twenty five thousand dollars a year to stay here."
(Albright) So he subsidizes his farm by designing, selling, and repairing boilers. His engineering consulting business takes him around the globe, when he needs ready cash. But he'd rather just stay home and work outdoors dawn to dusk. He's in his seventies.
(Clark) "But the old timers always said that, and I've said, too, that the fact is that if you enjoy what you're doing it's like being on vacation every day. And if you don't know what day it is and you really don't care, you've got a good life."
(Albright) Clark breathes hard as he chomps on an unlit cigar. He has no plans to retire and, with typical black humor, predicts he'll just keel over in the barn and his wife will hose him off for the undertaker. He directs the county fair, co-chairs the county farm bureau, and belongs to the Masonic lodge. And he's part of an occasionally cashless economy.
(Clark) "If I've got hay out and it's starting to rain, people stop and help. On the other hand on a Sunday afternoon if someone needs something welded or machines or their oil burner is out they need help, I'll go and help them, they need help, if I've got the parts, I'll go and give ‘em the parts.
(Albright) Farmers who stick together can often make ends meet better than they can alone. Around here, some even loan each other wads of bills, and get them back another year. But too often, it's not enough to ward off bankruptcy. Steve Taylor, the former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner, says that an agrarian way of life in the North Country has been on the wane since the mid nineteen fifties, when farmers still eavesdropped on telephone conversations-for good reasons.
(Taylor) "There was the party line,we talked to our neighbors a great deal. If a neighbor's house caught on fire we dropped everything to go help them. Those things were a way of life where we knew things, they were at a personal scale and we could go to town meeting and we knew everybody there. That to me was just a fascinating time and the vestiges of it are still around as you're finding here, but it's fragile. I hope it can survive but I'm not terribly optimistic that it will."
(Albright) But even Taylor predicts some of the oldest, most established family farms may survive in places that aren't yet prime targets for large-scale development. Long time farmers who've been toiling away in good times and bad aren't holding onto family land to build up a family fortune-they say they're hanging on because they want to preserve a way of life for their kids and grandchildren, as their parents did for them.
(Sounds of pumpkin buyers)
On a brisk autumn Saturday, neighbors are meeting and greeting each other as they choose pumpkins from Ray Clark's gigantic stash. His wife yanks out catnip for cat lovers, and passes out free spider rings to kids. But just up the road, .a small housing development is sprouting on acreage that used to be farmland.
A sign of things to come? One farm inspector I met hopes not. Some cash strapped farmers he knows will sell off cows, and even auction off equipment in order to hold onto land that they hope their grandchildren will bring back into production. Sometimes, that really does happen in this unusual corner of the state.
Albright: So as we end our week in Caledonia County, what do we see in our rear view mirror? Well, now that the childless Cola Hudson has died, his scenic property is a big question mark. The cows are already gone from the Simpson place, but at least the children and grandchildren still drive tractors there. Hez Somers, the strawberry grower, seems pretty sure his kids will keep living off family land. Harriett Fisher's passed away, but her son would like to do more maple sugaring and cattle raising. The Paris family? Farmers forever, they say. And Ray Clarke works day and night so his kids can keep the farm going after he's gone. "This is my home," he says. "And theirs if they want it."
For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.
Farm Families was reported and produced by Charlotte Albright. The technical director was Chris Albertine. Nick Kaiser performed the instrumental music. The executive producer was John Van Hoesen.
Note: You can find this week's entire Farm Family documentary series and an audio slide show about the project online at VPR.net. And you can tell your own farm family story.
Photo: Ray Clark with pumpkins at his family farm in Lyndonville, VT.
Photo Copyright Herb Swanson ©2008