Lesson

April 11, 2013 § 8 Comments

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I wrote this a few years ago, about our neighbor, Melvin. Last December I was signed up to do a local reading and for a variety of reasons (mostly because I am a shiftless sloth of a writer), couldn’t come up with anything new. So I dusted off my Melvin story and refreshed the ending. The changes are small, and some people probably wouldn’t even notice them. But I like the new ending much better, and it’s a lesson to me in how minor edits can make a big difference to a piece of writing. Remarkably, that has escaped me until recently.

I wonder what we really lose when we lose our farms. What we’ve lost already. The talk seems to be one of money, of how the monetary value of these farms is greater than the value of their product for all the 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 these numbers. But to me, they ignore a deeper, intrinsic value that can’t be measured in dollars alone. Maybe it can’t even be measured at all; maybe it can only be absorbed, as if by osmosis. I absorb a little every September, when Melvin pastures his milkers in the hayfield abutting our land, and my boys, eager to prove they are growing into the young men they will become, herd them down to the barn for afternoon chores. And I absorb a little every time I pass one of the numerous farms in my hometown – the Ackermann’s, the Stecker’s, the Bothfeld’s, the Paquin’s – my eyes drawn to the cows, some bent to the grass, some loafing in the shade of a fence line maple, quiet, sentient reminders that while humanity’s connection to the land may have suffered under the delusion of our arrogance, it has not yet been severed.

There is a feeling of inevitability surrounding the future of Vermont’s dairy industry. Many of the loans that carried some farmers through the past two seasons have gone unpaid, and more 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 year’s end. Even if it’s half that number, it’s shaping up to be a 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 reality. “Realistically, it won’t be a farm forever,” he told me, when I asked him about the future of his place. At some point, most likely by force of age or simple weariness, Melvin will move on. At some point, my boys won’t herd his cows anymore, either because my boys no longer want to, or because there are no cows to herd.

There are times when I consider the implications of this and wonder if sometime soon, the barns and pastures of my hometown will be not unlike the Petroglyphs Melvin saw in Arizona. 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 Melvin’s pasture, amongst his big, gentle cows. For this summer, at least, my boys will spend hours at the edge of the hayfield above our house, watching Melvin mow and rake and bale. This year, and likely for a few more, I will drive the back roads of Cabot, past the town’s remaining farms. I will see people I know doing work they love for wages they cannot or can barely afford, and I will be reminded again that the value of a particular task is not always best measured by the money it will bring. When I get home, I will try to explain this to my boys.

And I will hope, more than anything, they will understand.

§ 8 Responses to Lesson

  • Dawn says:

    This breaks my heart. I, too, look at my boys and wonder if they will see a time when family farms are a thing of the past or something that exists only as a hobby of the rich. It does seem that so many people are trying to change this possible future but face so many bureaucratic roadblocks. Sometimes I wish there were more we could do than just “be the change you want to see in the world” but maybe I’m just not “being” that enough. Thank you for sharing this, Ben.

  • Marsaille says:

    Children understand best I think. If things are going the way they should, their lives are full of “that felt good” or “this is fun”. We just need to help them identify that sometimes that felt good feeling… is a feels good, satisfies your soul kind of good. Why do you think your son loved hauling all that sap, or loves haying time? Not because it somehow sustains their family. (Although that may be part of it.) But because it feels good and their world feels right during that time. The value is in doing a task you love, and it makes your world right. Sometimes that makes money. For instance, my kids love opening jam that we made last summer. First of all it flat out tastes better. Second, they remember picking the berries, boiling jars, giving some as gifts at Christmas, etc. Maybe we could make enough to sell, and that would be great too. But it wouldn’t make much money. They know they don’t get that same feeling from making more money doing something they don’t care for really and buying fancy jam at the store. I bring it up when that last jar of our jam is gone and we have to do just that. I am a Mom and try to relate these things too. I don’t want them to get to the end of their lives and go “Ya know, I never really wanted to be a banker. I really only wanted to be a cowgirl. What happened to that?”

  • Angela Kelly says:

    I understand. This life is worth choosing :)

  • Doug W. says:

    Ben,–whatever became of the younger couple dairying in The Town that Food Saved. Are they still farming it?

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hey Doug,

      You probably mean Chad and Heather yup, still at it, I’m pretty sure. Or they were last time I ran into Chad.

      The conventional milk market is fairly strong right now, so they’re probably doing ok at the moment.

  • Wendy H says:

    More and more do understand, Ben, and are willing to consider their options against the financial mess that has been made. That’s what I hope, anyway – that people will see the value of the old ways more as we have vs. passing over their hard earned cash to some big name brand or big box store that the ad men say we all need. All it does is keep us empty and poorer, and not being engaged in community or life. There are so many ways to live better, smaller, and cheaper these days if one takes the time and makes it a point to ‘live wisely’ and spend far less.

    Your piece reminded me of a book my mom passed along to me years ago – The Tightwad Gazette – which had originally been written as a newsletter (which she had subscribed to). I found this link that I thought your readers might enjoy, which talks about the book and the author. There are many other links and ideas on being more frugal, but this is a good place to start since the author had personally interviewed her:

    http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2008/05/14/an-interview-with-amy-dacyczyn-the-author-of-the-tightwad-gazette/

  • Melissa R says:

    I am so ignorant of so many things. And this is one of them. I see, living in New England, dairy foods that tell us their source is in Vermont. It seems to me that a lot of people buy these foods. So why do farmers need to lose their farms? What happens between supply and demand that I am not understanding. It just seems to me that there is a lot of demand for Vermont milk to make into various products.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the note. The answers to your question are fairly complex, but an oversimplified version is that most farmers sell fluid milk into the commodity market, where prices are set by the market, rather than the producer. The organic market operates a bit differently, and generally offers much better pricing stability to farmers (this is one reason why the majority of farms around us are certified organic).

      I suppose the primary point is that like most food products and other products essential to our well being, milk has been commodified. And when a product or service becomes commodified, its pricing is generally hijacked by corporate interests.

      Like I said, oversimplified. But also true.

      – Ben

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