The Uncertain Future of Small Farms in America

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“For more than two hundred years, our farm had been sustained by love and necessity, but much had changed since the first seeds had sprouted, hesitantly raising their leaves among the stumps of a forest clearing.”
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Trace the history of one small farm from the early 18th century to present day in “Birth, Death, and a Tractor.”

It is time we remembered the way farms once were.  Birth, Death, and a Tractor: Connecting an Old Farm to a New Family(Down East Books, 2015),by Kelly Payson-Roopchand, is the story of a small family farm in Somerville, Maine, from its setting in the early 1800s to its perilous transfer to a new farm family in 2008. Chronicling the history of seven generations, it is a reminder of the role small farms have played in our national and family histories, and a challenge to find innovative ways to reconnect our communities to this rich but threatened resource. This excerpt, which tells the story of a family working on the farm in present day, is from the section, “September 2009: The End of the Road.”

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Facing The End of the Road

It is morning, and I come downstairs, one-year-old Keiran riding on my hip. Already impatient to be outside, he wiggles as I put on his shoes. He is almost independent, needing my hand for balance but otherwise impatiently tugging, a fish desperate to escape the line. As we step over the threshold, he pauses, his hand quiet in mine, looking around at the day. Like all good farmers, he starts each day by taking stock . . .

Nestled in a bowl of trees, our farm is a breathtaking remnant of a six-generation family farm, connected to the outside world by a mile of dirt road. Old apple trees line the road, their branches as twisted and forlorn as the tumbled stone walls below, yet each spring they coax forth an abundance of flowers, and each fall they make a brave offering of nameless apples. Most are small and sour, probably cider apples, but to my son they are a treasure for the picking. “Ap, ap,” he entreats, pulling me toward the tempting fruit. I hoist him into the tree, supporting him with my belly, once again swelling with new life.

Successful in his quest, Keiran holds an apple aloft, then points to the goat pen where Manley, our Nubian buck, is pacing in anticipation. A big goat, Manley’s head is level with mine when he jumps onto the gate, and caution tempers Keiran’s excitement as he holds the apple out. Straining forward, Manley mouths the entire apple, trying to find an entry into its smooth slickness.

While Keiran admires Manley, I watch the female goats, safely separated from their ardent suitor. Aligned along the barn ramp, the does bask in the morning sun, their coats shining: the multicolored Nubians with their roman noses and floppy ears, and the glistening white Saanens, their noses dished and ears erect. Heedless of the wet grass soaking his soft leather shoes, Keiran toddles to the rail to inspect the herd. Pulling himself up on tiptoe, he peers over the rail, resting his cheek on the graying board. Together we are quiet, humans and goats, enjoying the view.

Our house and barn lie partway down a hill, our fields sloping gently to a brook. Once a seasonal stream, the brook has widened below our house into a broad marsh, the work of the resident beavers. This morning the marsh is partially obscured by a low fog that rests along the length of the brook, heralding the change of season. The rising sun, angling down to the river, lights the fog from within, slowly melting . . .

The sound of a vehicle approaching, its tires crunching over the gravel, draws our attention back to the road. With only two other houses before the road ends, a passing car is a notable event. We wave as a truck comes into view, and the neighbors wave back as they pass. Here at the end of the road, we know each other’s news—not in the modern sense of gossip, but in the way of community, where each of our small stories is shared and important.

An airplane drones above us, and Keiran leans back in my arms, searching for the contrail. He is fascinated with all things motorized and lifts his hand in imitation of the plane. Every morning a plane passes about this time, flying low, easily visible. High above, a few others pass silently, their faint smoky trails soon blown apart. This is our traffic.

The Seventh Generation of Farming of Farming

Our road is named Hewett Road for the family that farmed this land for six generations, and our farm is named Pumpkin Vine Farm for the family ties that stretch, vine-like, around the globe. Grounded in the land, the farm connects us through time and space, drawing us irresistibly home.

Don and Shirley Hewett, the last of their family to farm this land, now live across the road in a small house overlooking the fields. Like the generations before him, Don had poured his life, body and soul, into the farm. A tall man, bending now before age’s advance, he has a strong and steady presence, as reassuring and timeless as the land itself. Just as clearly as he shaped the land, plowing the fields with horses and, later, tractors, so the farm has marked him, in the strength of his large hands and the quiet contentment of his spirit.

But Don himself had no farmer heir, and as the years passed, he had been forced to sell first his cows and then his farm. He had built himself a new house on the hilltop, where he watched the barn and fields slowly fill with the clutter of neglect. Then we arrived, and shortly thereafter, our son Keiran, and new life crept into the farm, small but irresistible, like the trickle of ice melting in the spring.

Like Don, Keiran was born on this farm, and he belonged to the land in a way that I never would, much as I loved it. The land called to him, and he answered without restraint, eager to know goat and river, sky and apple tree. Walking the road in his yellow boots, he seemed a small sprite, a laughing piece of the farm itself, joyful in its million transformations. He gravitated toward Don as naturally as the young colt shadows the stallion, mimicking his behavior. Watching Don astride his tractor, Keiran trembled with longing, waiting his turn at the helm.

Yet small farms such as ours faced an uncertain future, and there was no guarantee that Keiran’s beloved world would survive. For more than two hundred years, our farm had been sustained by love and necessity, but much had changed since the first seeds had sprouted, hesitantly raising their leaves among the stumps of a forest clearing. Nowadays mega-farms flood grocery stores with cheap food, and small farms are considered a hobby, too expensive to maintain. We are committed and stubborn, yet reality still stares us in the face, coldly uncompromising, waiting for us to admit our mistake.

But seeing Don and Keiran together, it was hard for me to believe we’d made a mistake—that it was not, in fact, deeply right. Don was one of those people we all longed to meet, if not to be, and his gentle spirit sparkled with a delight and mischief equal to Keiran’s own. It seemed a rare gift to grow up on a farm and work the land, to know deeply and immediately one’s place in the cycle of life.

Despite our vastly different backgrounds, Don and Shirley had welcomed us as farmers, gladly sharing their family’s story. Shirley was as warm and chatty as the most beloved of grandmothers, and, in the homey comfort of their living room, their stories flowed freely.

Together we pored over old photographs, curious to see the farm, so familiar and yet so strange, other families gathered on the porch, looking out at us. As we turned the brittle pages of a handwritten cookbook, we lingered over the recipes, laughing at the personal comments and wondering what our children would think of “Crybaby Cookies.” Every day, as we worked to revive the farm, we felt their presence supporting us.

Their family’s imprint on the farm was clear, from the hand-hewn timbers rising to the hayloft, each ax stroke clearly visible, to the sloping fields, cleared first with oxen and then with horses. Conscious of generations of love and labor, we fought to grow our little farm, struggling with the constraints of modern life.

It was a financial stretch, requiring both of our incomes to pay the bills, and I wondered how we would find time to farm. When I despaired, Anil reminded me, “You do not find such a place and let it go.” And so we farmed on evenings and weekends, working outside until night blinded us, the farm always our joy and our goal.

As much as we had longed for this life, we had not imagined the depth of our delight in the experience. The farm gave us immediate connection, the vitality of beauty and pain in the smallest of chores, as well as deep reflection when we paused, elbows scraped and dirty, to consider the significance of our acts.

With blood and dirt commingled on our hands, we understood the perspective of the pig and the potato. We were sowers and reapers, standing at the two ends of life. As we shaped lives, so also were we shaped, as we ate and worked and faded away, our edges slowly dimming. Hearing the stories of previous generations, I saw our own lives reflected, and understood that we too were just a passing moment, a short slide from birth to death.

The more we lived the farm life, the less we could imagine any other. As we milked the does or weeded the garden, our off-farm jobs seemed insubstantial, the shadows of clouds quickly passing over the solid reality of our fields. This was the only work that felt alive and whole, and we longed to stay here, to pour the skill and labor of our hands into this land.

Nor were we alone in our longings. Every day, splashed across the newspapers like tales of forbidden love, I read of people seeking reconnection to food and farms. In our rush toward comfort and convenience, we had not fully appreciated how much we had left behind. Along with the sweat and dirt of farm work came a bone-deep satisfaction from our connection to the land. Computer games and reality TV could not replace the direct participation in life and death that small farms offered.

Having divorced itself from a land-based lifestyle, society needed to find new ways to relate to small farms, not only as consumers but as participants. Our greatest need, it seemed, was not the physical nourishment of our bodies, but the peace and connection of our spirits. Beyond fresh local food, we needed the experience of farming.

As Richard Louv reminds us, “for today’s young people, the familial and cultural linkage to farming is disappearing . . .” In 2012, farms comprised only 1.8 percent of US households, down from 40 percent in 1900, and few children ever set foot on a small farm, much less have a meaningful long-term relationship with one.

This, then, is the story of our farm, but also of the choices we make as a society. As we follow the six generations who shaped this farm, it reminds us of who we have been and, as we struggle to revive the farm, it challenges us to choose who we will become.

Do we value a sense of connection, a deeper understanding of our own place in the cycles of life? Will we make space for small farms in the future and find meaningful ways to reconnect our children—and ourselves—with them?

Here at the end of the road, we have found a peace and vitality that connect us deeply—to each other, to the land, and to its generations of farmers. They have also passed along this road, women and men who dreamed and worked, loved and mourned and passed on, leaving this farm to nurture their children. Now it is my children who run, laughing, in yellow boots, and I who am the farmer, the dreamer, and the storyteller.

Listen, then, before the stories whisper into silence. Listen, and I will tell you tales of the farm—stories of birth, death, and a tractor.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Birth, Death, and a Tractor: Connecting an Old Farm to a New Family, by Kelly Payson-Roopchand and published by Down East Books, 2015.

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