It’s the first day of winter, at least in my book. I just came in from moving some pots of blueberries around with the skidsteer. It’s 3:30 PM, the outside temps are 20 degrees. There is a howling wind and the snow (what very little we got) never thought of melting today and it is just riding around on the wind. This is the time of year that I love my woodstove; my fingers, toes and hindquarters, especially.
We have been wading through the fall list of cleanup. Mike has been changing skins on the greenhouses while Ray, Jenny, Heat and Sam valiantly wash and pack out potatoes and carrots and try to winterize the miserably cold barn. The greenhouse crew works on plant orders and comes outside to price pottery, but daylight is in short supply these days.Farm chores are increasingly in need of moderated temperatures and a good desk lamp.
I have been spreading manure and trying to clean up around the shop. The other day I spread some of our homemade compost on the rhubarb and the more deserving rows of raspberries. On my trips back and forth from the field, I noticed a little maroon Honda driving past, very slowly. I assumed someone to be admiring my clean tractor as I loaded compost. After all, what’s not to admire about a clean tractor? It’s almost as prestigious as owning an Aston Martin, at least in any self-respecting farmer’s book. But I was wrong. A couple of trips back and forth past me later, a woman’s hand emerged from the Honda to flag me down . I went over to the car to see what might be amiss.
She was concerned with the fact that I seemed to be unaware that my compost pile was on fire. Was I aware of that and should that be allowed? Seems that after I opened up the pile with the tractor bucket she mistook the billowing clouds of steam for smoke from a fire. So I thanked her for her concern, tried to give her 3-minute course on the building and function of a compost pile, and assured her that all she was witnessing was a good thing. She then apologized for asking what then appeared to her to be a stupid question, to which I replied “If you don’t ask the question, you don’t learn anything.”
I was grateful to connect with her, even in a casual way, and to have an opportunity to address her concerns. But it brought home to me that in the last 50 years the vast majority of Americans have become removed from any form of agriculture. Perhaps that explains the uproar over FSMA 2013 and Food Safety. Most Americans don’t know how farms work, and their total personal connection to the farming community is through Fox Network or CNN News. When I was growing up (which in real time, according to most who work here was a period shortly before the invention of the steam engine) lived in Hillsboro, NH, which was small community of maybe 2000 folks. At that time there were 12 viable farms like ours in town that shipped fluid milk. There were no farm stands. Many folks in town kept some chickens or a pig, gardened, and they canned goods from their garden for the winter even though they might have had day jobs at Sylvania or Monadnock Paper. Many headed to the woods in November to get a deer to put in the freezer. Fishing was a food source or favorite pastime for me and my pals (unless it was baseball or softball season, that ran periodically year round for those of us who didn’t believe we could hurt our arms by throwing hard in the winter). The rest of the folks were either relatives of farmers, or lived near one.
Somewhere along the line the community/farmer connection deteriorated. A farmer spreading manure 50 years ago was a sign of spring, not unlike the arrival of the first robin. Today it means a potential visit from the road agent or a call from the town manager if any manure from the spreader ends up on the road, thus undercoating someone’s car. My Mom knew when it was time to call Elgin Sherk to see if he had any extra strawberries to sell from his garden, and she was a city kid from Stamford, Connecticut. Here at our farm we have witnessed the disconnect when we have had local people show up at the farm greenhouses when we first open in April with buckets in hand, looking to pick strawberries.
How did this disconnect happen? Obviously well-intentioned but destructive farm policy in the 60’s helped, as well as America’s undying belief that technology solves all problems and technology will feed all people cheaply. The farmers themselves bought into these beliefs, even though it led to their own demise. In Hillsboro in 1966 I could name you the twelve farms shipping milk by family name. Today not one farm in Hillsboro ships milk. I don’t know how many families were milking cows for a livelihood here in Plainfield in 1966, but I am sure that the number was many times the two that remain today. So there are fewer family farms, less personal and community connection to farmers, less knowledge about farming.
There has been a resurgence of small diverse family-based agriculture in the last fifteen years. Attendant to that is the development of farmstands, food hubs, CSAs and a foodie movement. From my perspective this is a very cool thing, not just for my own pocketbook but for society as well. I believe when people get involved with either food hubs or CSAs. or just come to the farm stand to pick up some vine-ripe tomatoes, they have an opportunity to understand and learn once again what it takes to produce the food we eat. Oftentimes the best support a community can offer a farmer is the understanding of how farms operate and allowing them to operate freely , despite the fact that they may be sometimes odiferous or sometimes noisy or inconvenient. Let’s hope the trend continues. Maybe someday in the future there will be twelve farms in Hillsboro providing livelihoods for twelve families. Now that would be something to see.