Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
BY OUR MISTAKES DO WE LEARN
“The health of the land and the health of the people are inextricably linked and we must heal them together.” – Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm, Vermont
On the wall in the kitchen of the two-story walk up of my grandparents home there was a framed photograph of a boy seated upon a pony. The photo was old enough that the faded colors had been hand-tinted upon its surface. The boy in the photo looked happy but complacent upon the back of his stolid and stationary mount. He was wearing the shorts, knee socks and cap of a depression era city boy. I looked at that photograph every time we came to visit and not having any experience with horses myself, wondered what grand adventures that boy on his very own pony most certainly must have had. Of course, I knew at some level that the boy in the picture was my dad, but at that age I found it impossible to conceive that he had ever been anything other than a grown man who wore suits and ties during the work week and golfing clothes on the weekend.
Recently, I had occasion to ask my dad about that photograph which he now possesses, stashed away in a box of memorabilia in the basement of his home. He told me that he was six or seven when the picture was taken, and that he was atop the pony of a peddler of sorts, a man who stopped by outside the schools as the children were released in the afternoon to await the opportune chance to entice their parents into paying for a photo of their child upon his trusty mount. But even with knowing the true circumstance behind the photograph, my childhood impression remains embedded in my psyche — my dad was once a boy who had a horse and when I grow up I should like to have a horse of my own.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it. Whatever value, usefulness or inspiration may be found in this account is owing to this fact.
My father was nine years old when World War II broke out. All his childhood dreams were fueled by images of heroes rushing headlong to combat the forces of evil. When it became clear that he was going to be drafted to fight in Korea he enlisted in the marines. As a college man, he went directly to officer’s training school and learned how to fly jets. The sound barrier had only been broken in 1948, so every jet pilot flying in the mid-1950’s was essentially a test pilot. When my father was stationed in Hawaii, even though the war had been over for a year, 1/5 of his squadron died in the air. On one routine flight my father’s jet went into an uncontrollable spin and he had to eject over the ocean at 10,000ft. The emergency protocol of basic training had been so effectively drilled into his brain that, between the moment he pulled the lever to eject until the time he found himself sitting upright in an inflated raft in the middle of the Pacific, he had absolutely no conscious memory. He never went up again. Even though he attained a full honorable discharge from the corps, for many years afterwards he suffered with the feeling that he had lost his nerve.
There was a hay field out beyond the backyard fence of my family’s suburban ranch house. Just up the road, at the far edge of that field, stood an old empty barn. I remember being about five and sticking my nose into the dark recesses of that relic building. The faint scents of old hay and sweet horse manure still lingered enough to conjure in my imagination the ghosts of farmers and cows and horses and chickens and pigs. A reverie of a past once teeming with ebullient life gone silent and cob-webbed and rusted and moldering somehow still kindled an almost mystic yearning in my child’s soul for a paradise lost.
EARLY WARNING SIGNS
Green teamsters and fast horses don’t make for a good mix. Back in 1994 Kerry and I befriended a young farmer neighbor of ours named Eric who was in the starter-up phase of creating his own family farm. He had some horses on his place. Among them was a mustang mare and her foal, both adopted from the Bureau of Land Management, and a 5 yr old Belgian stallion named Luke. Eric invited us over to take a wagon ride with the stallion. We met him out at his farm on a beautiful spring morning. He had an old wooden wheeled buckboard and an ancient leather harness. He pieced together this outfit and got the snorting rippling young stallion hitched. With a degree of trepidation, Kerry and I climbed aboard into the bed of the wagon, and off we went. Our host must have seen the shadow of fear cross our eyes because he called back to us from the driver’s bench that he’d just had his two little kids out for a ride the previous weekend.
Eric turned the stallion out onto the unpaved back country road. Kerry and I leaned back against the wagon sides and took in the light dappled scenery. It was a fine day for a horse drawn excursion. All of a sudden at a bend in the road something went terribly wrong. Luke veered off the road and began cantering over a bumpy meadow. Eric began desperately calling out; “Whoa!” and hauling back on the lines. Kerry and I sat up in alarm, holding on now for our lives. As Luke careened back up onto the road, heading back in the direction from which we had come, Eric called back to us over his shoulder; “He’s lost his bridle — I can’t control him!” And indeed, we could see that somehow the bridle had either popped off or broken and the bit was no longer in the horse’s mouth.
In the next moment, like some Hollywood stuntman, Eric leapt off the buckboard seat and started running alongside the wagon. He managed to get up beside Luke’s head and tried to reset the bridle, but his legs and lungs just couldn’t hold that pace. He lasted all of about thirty seconds before he slipped and fell. Kerry and I felt the sickening bump as the wooden wagon wheels rolled over his leg and we looked back in horror to see Eric writhing in pain in the middle of the road, clutching his broken leg.
Now it was my turn to contemplate heroics. I looked at Kerry, huddled in my arms, her face white as a sheet. I thought about our prospects of survival should we try to jump and roll. I looked up to Luke, still bombing down the road in a full flight of terror. I considered trying to leap up onto his back to get that bit back in his mouth. I picked up the lines and pulled back; the bit pulled uselessly at the horse’s throat. I looked up ahead in the road and realized that we were about to pass Eric’s house, after which the road wound and curved sharply down to a narrow bridge and then intersected with a busy paved road that lead to the village center.
I determined we were going to have to jump. But as we passed Eric’s house his wife Emily happened to be out on the porch and saw us come barreling by. Thinking quickly she grabbed her keys, hopped in her car, and gunned out ahead of us. She managed to get out in front of the horse and started applying the brakes. Miraculously, she got the horse to slow and then pull over and stop at the side of the road, his lungs heaving in exhaustion. We were about three-hundred yards from that bridge. No doubt in my mind, she saved our lives. I guess we might have been scared off working with horses right then and there, but we weren’t. I’d like to think that at least a modicum of caution had been etched on my psyche, but if so, subsequent events did not reveal much trace of it.
DAYS OF THE GIANTS
Even if I had never met John Hunt I would already know a lot about him through farming the place where he had spent his life farming. The land and the barns speak of his character — for instance; the concrete foundation painstakingly poured under the entire perimeter of the gambrel barn to replace the original one of field stone that had heaved and was falling down. Any thing that he built that I wound up having to take down filled me with grudging admiration for his “build it to last” approach. Foundations were poured at least 4’ deep, fence posts on which to hang gates went down 6’ to avoid all possibility of their being lifted by the frost, rafters and stringers were held together with enough four-penny nails to belie his Yankee frugality.
Over the years I have come to know John Hunt as a neighbor; he has shared many recollections of the horse farming days of his youth. He told me that one time his mother, Mae Hunt, was out raking hay with the farm horses on a buck-rake when all of a sudden the tines of the rake tore through a nest of ground wasps. The horses got stung and broke into a panic. Mrs. Hunt was scared to death that she might be pitched forward and then dragged by the rake so she decided to bale out backwards. She landed bruised and scratched but alive to tell the story. The horses finally ran themselves out and she climbed back onto the metal seat to finish the job.
On another occasion of making hay, John’s father got all hot and bothered with a mare that was balking on the mowing machine. He lost his temper and grabbed a wrench out of the tool box and hit her square on the poll with it. He’d only meant to get the horse’s attention but the poor creature dropped dead where she stood in her traces. John said his dad caught holy hellfire from Mrs. Hunt for that one.
Another time John’s father was out cultivating corn with his team. The repetition of all those trips up and down the rows began to wear him out. He grew mesmerized with watching the rustling corn stalks pass by the sweeps of the implement and he drifted off to sleep. He woke up sometime later under the shade of some maples at the far side of a nearby hay field. He could see that the horses had eaten their fill of grass and were now sleeping where they stood. Old Mr. Hunt counted his blessings to have woken up all in one piece that day.
John told me that his father once had a gelding so lazy that whenever he stopped the horses to rest, the gelding got into the habit of sitting his hindquarters onto the tongue of the mowing machine. One day the tongue snapped under the weight of the horse and that definitively ended work for the day. The next time they went out to work with a replaced tongue the gelding pulled off the same trick — seems he’d figured out a quick way to get out of work. Not to be beaten, John’s father went out and fashioned a pole out of a fresh-cut tree. He got the team out on the mower and made a few rounds and then stopped the team to blow. When the gelding sat on the pole of green wood it just bowed to the ground and when the horse scrambled to his feet the pole bounced back up again. The sly old gelding was out done and farmer Hunt commenced to mowing.
Then there was the day John was out by the barn attending to feeding chores as his father was out in the field mowing again. Suddenly, big black clouds bearing a thunder storm blew in and, knowing full well the danger, his father stopped the team and reached up his hand to the lever to raise the sickle bar. In that moment a lightning bolt charged out of the sky and struck his hand on the metal lever. The electricity passed through his hand into the mowing machine. The horses felt it and took off at a gallop. John’s father was pitched back off his seat. The horses stopped at the barn unharmed. The old man was still alive but three fingers were burned and mangled for life.
John’s older brother, Roger Hunt, worked for thirty-five years for the highway department, retiring as a supervisor, but at the end of his long days on the road crew he would saddle up on a tractor and help John seed down corn or mow hay or whatever it was on the farm needed doing. Roger died in July of 2001 and the way of life and in Vermont that once was, passed on with him. People like Roger and John Hunt who were raised on farms have more common sense in the tip of their pinky fingers than a new farmer like me will ever acquire over the course of a lifetime.
Roger Hunt was an affable and jocular fellow. He took his time but he was a hard worker. If you saw him driving by, you knew it was him immediately not just for the make of the truck, but for the measured pace of his driving. He is the only person whom I have ever witnessed conducting a snowmobile at a crawl. Roger, quite literally, came with this place. A provision of the sales agreement made between Cobb Hill co-housing and the Hunt family stipulated that Roger could live in his trailer-home on the property at a reasonable rent for as long as he wished to. He mowed the grass at the fledgling community and plowed the roads in winter, not for money but just because the work needed doing. Roger was a wealthy repository of stories about this land and he never tired in telling them. He told me of being set behind a team of horses when he was twelve years old in order to cultivate a ten acre field of corn. He spoke of how the original Hunt farm had been in Windsor, adjacent to the county prison farm (the Cornish Colony painter, Maxwell Parish, did a composite painting entitled “The Hunt Farm” which is still on view at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College). But that farm burned down and his father was discouraged from farming and so in 1948 he sold the property and the family moved to this site in Hartland. His father intended then to give up farming and become a grain salesman. Out of a sense of nostalgia he kept the one Guernsey cow. About a year later Roger’s dad came to the conclusion that he was no salesman and within two years the gambrel barn was filled with forty head of Guernsey cows. Back then there was no I-91 or I-89 and Hartland was nothing but dairy farms and dirt roads — only sixty years ago — but a world apart from today. When the dairy herd was sold at auction in 1994 the Hunt’s still had one token Guernsey among all the high-producing Holsteins.
John Hunt was the youngest child and the only one with an interest in making his living on the farm. At sixteen years of age he was running the place. John set about turning the antiquated farm he’d inherited into a modern dairy operation. Like many farmers in his day, John took advantage of low-interest loans subsidized by the government to invest in new equipment. He purchased bigger tractors, new harvesters, silos, a larger bulk tank and upgraded milking machines.
To survive in the current hostile “free market” system, the small farmer must at once retain the best of her conservative values while at the same time show a readiness to be flexible and innovative. John Hunt was a legendary hard worker and a more than able farmer, but when the market forces and misguided government policy converged to drive down milk prices at the same time that operating costs soared, the survival of even the most efficient small dairy farms was placed in dire peril. And it’s no secret that those who sat behind desks in the high places of government and industry felt secure in their conviction that, even though the policies they set might prove a tragedy for the small family farmers, the resultant streamlining and consolidation would be good for the industry.
To give a picture of just how hard the dairy industry in Vermont has been hit, consider that in 1979 there were over 5,000 dairy farms in the state and now in 2011 we have less than 1,000. Conversely, the amount of milk being produced in the state has remained about the same. How is this possible? Through consolidation of the remaining farms, increased mechanization, and improved genetics through intensive selective breeding for production — especially in the Holstein and Jersey breeds. Officially, the state of Vermont registers more than 6,000 farms, but this includes everything from bedding plants grown in greenhouses to former farmlands now yielding a yearly crop of Christmas trees. The dairy sector still commands 73% of the state’s gross farm income. Currently, Vermont dairy farmers who sell to “conventional” co-ops are receiving around $14.00 per hundred-weight and the price has dropped to as low as $11.00 in recent years (about the same price farmers were receiving in 1965). The price supports in the last Farm Bill added $2.00 back to that price, but even so, it costs even the most efficient dairy farmer no less than $18.00 to produce that hundred-weight of milk. At $34.00 a hundred-weight the organic farmer might appear to be faring better, but if you take into account the elevated cost of organic feed grain and the higher person-hours required to manage crop land, pasture, and hayland organically, even the organic price does not pan out so well.
The statistics on the demise of the small independent family farm are demoralizing and shocking enough in their nameless and faceless enumeration in print. The losses that can’t be calculated are those nuanced idiosyncrasies of character that are the grounded expression of a life lived long and well on one piece of earth. Between the individual farmer and her small farm there grows a give and take relationship that results in a reshaping of both person and landscape. The farmer and the small farm begin to mirror one another in ways that will never be possible on the industrial scale of farming.
As the dairy farms in our region pass away it is not just those family-run businesses that are lost. The economic pressure of losing the farm will compel many to sell their land to buyers who will take it out of agricultural production and open it to development. As a quorum of farms disappears the whole infrastructure of hardware and dairy supply and feed stores and equipment sellers that have supported the dairy industry also dry up. The ramifications on the community of working men and women in our state are severe. Their children are often faced with the prospect of either working in the service industry that caters to tourists and second home owners or getting an education and leaving home to go some place where they can find a better paying job.
Some critics will argue that the dairy farm is an outmoded form and it is proper for that model to die, but if the farmers weren’t under an archaic government imposed and dysfunctional pricing system, and if the distribution of dairy products were to be wrested out of the grip of multi-national corporations and geared to supplying local markets rather than being shipped as a commodity out of state, then Vermont consumers could support Vermont farmers in a mutually beneficial relationship that promoted good stewardship, good food, and preservation of our precious soils and scenic landscape.
Why are milk prices always in perpetual flux? The simple answer is that there is a surplus of milk on the market. The less simple answer is that the dairy industry is regulated under an antiquated pricing system that dates back to the 1930’s. This regulation was aimed at protecting individual farmers by limiting the competitive powers of the dairy co-ops, but presently it has rendered the co-ops powerless to pay a fair price and left the individual farmers on a roller coaster of oscillating prices for their milk. No one really believes that it makes sense to set a national price for milk based on the price of commodity milk for cheese in the mid-west — yet that is what continues to this day. The impact of the pricing system hits all across the board, however, the large farms are often able to ride out the lows because of their enormous capital reserves and they are also eligible for more government subsidies. The tragedy of the commons associated with commodity dairy farming is that all the corn and soy and alfalfa production that goes into feeding it has huge negative environmental impacts because it is a highly fossil-fuel intensive form of agriculture and the mono-cropping leads to loss of top-soil and pollution of ground water at an unprecedented scale.
As one way of life passes, another emerges. What kind of working landscape will replace the dying dairy farms of our region? It is in our hearts and hands to decide.
SIGNS OF HOPE
At Cedar Mountain Farm we operate a small sustainable dairy and market garden which sells all of its produce locally through “niche” marketing. Although we are not immune to the effects of commodity markets (for instance, we still purchase feed grain and diesel), we are not as much at the whim and mercy of these prices as are large farms that sell to wholesale brokers or co-ops. We sell our milk through an exclusive yearly contract to the Cobb Hill Cheese Co. We set our price based on the actual cost of production. In a certain sense, our marketing value stands on the basis of our presenting an alternative to the international commodity food system.
The costs of buying from the supermarket are “hidden” costs. We farm by an ethic that calls for humane and respectful treatment of all our livestock — honoring the spirit and gift they bring to our lives and treating them with befitting dignity and care. Our dairy herd is housed in a cover-all barn structure on a bedded pack. The cows graze night and day for 5-6 months of the year on intensively managed paddocks. We milk seventeen cows and maintain 45 head, including a few steers for beef. Although we are not certified as an organic farm we employ ecological practices for pest and disease management. The main line of defense is trying to build up a healthy balanced soil that will produce plants and animals with strong resistance and immune systems. The rich taste and vital nutritional content of a glass of milk from one of these cows cannot be bought at a supermarket.
At present we receive $42.00 for every hundred pounds of milk we sell to the Cobb Hill cheese and frozen yogurt company. That price translates to approximately $3.36 per gallon of milk sold. We sell a gallon of milk for $6.00 retail price to the customers who come to our farm. From a business point of view we probably would have been smarter to have made the cheese ourselves rather than finding some- one who wanted to buy our milk. It came down to a quality of life issue. We realized we’d have to give up our CSA market garden in order to become cheese makers and neither one of us was prepared to do that. We both love working outdoors and growing things and the market garden affords me with ample excuses to harness up the horses; working with horses is what renews my passion for farming year after year. When I am out in the fields plowing or discing or raking hay I feel like I must be just about the luckiest person alive to be doing this for a living.
The price we receive for our milk certainly compares favorably with the check in the mailbox that the majority of dairy farmers are receiving from the co-ops. However, the milk our artisanal cheese maker friends purchase from us is virtually a hand-crafted product. Our micro-scale dairy requires more hours per worker to feed, bed, milk, etc., than does the mechanized efficiency of a large farm. In addition, we have built (are building) our farm business up from scratch and we have had to take on a considerable debt load to renovate antiquated buildings, build new facilities, and purchase all the necessary equipment. Everyone I know who loves to farm succumbs to the same urge as we do; a temptation to invest every cent of hard-earned “profit” back into all the equipment, buildings, and tools we want to see on the farm. With all that said, almost twenty years ago Kerry and I came together united in the dream of one day having our own small farm of milk cows and working horses and by some grace we are blessed to be living our dream. Our hope and prayer is that every person who so desires can find their way to attaining the small farm dream.
The prevailing argument from the side of industry as to why we need factory farms is that with seven billion people living in the world today we cannot possibly produce enough food on local sustainable small farms. This assertion is based on a model of society that would continue to promote a populace of consumers rather than producers in an ever expanding economy. But as we come face to face with the realities of peak oil, peak water, and peak soil — it becomes clear that a return to small scale localized and sustainable agriculture will be the most effective remedy for feeding the world. This is not just the opinion of one small farmer, but the conclusion of a major food policy study conducted by the United Nations in 2010. This study concludes that the best hope for developing nations to retain or regain the capacity to feed their own populace lies in the promotion of small scale sustainable modes of agriculture and the revival of regional food systems.
For the Hunt family the only solution to their economic woes seemed to lie in boosting production by buying more cows, purchasing bigger machinery, and renting more crop acreage. And yet they only wound up working even harder and pushing themselves and the machinery and the cows and the land to the limits. And even while they were scrambling to rent more ground to feed more cows, they were squeezed by debt into implementing the unfortunate but all too common crop rotation of many present day Vermont dairy farmers — alfalfa-corn-house lot — that is, they had to sell off some of their finest bottomland to a developer just to keep the farm business afloat. Barbie Hunt had to work off-farm in the local school system to make ends meet. The family also opened up a gravel pit on the south side of the property, maintained a sugar bush of around 2300 taps, and made about 10,000 extra square bales over what the cows required to put up for sale.
Now, just maybe, if they had down-scaled the dairy herd, and further diversified, say by raising some Black Angus grass-fed beef, and/or created a value-added product like cheese or ice cream or bottled and sold their milk locally, they might have had a fighting chance. But the writing was on the wall for the 60 cow family farm producing commodity milk and though there are still several hundreds of them out there, the prospects in the moment don’t look too good. If the sons and daughters of those farmers are to stay in farming, and if other young would-be farmers are going to succeed, we need to develop new models, which also harken back to the age-old wisdom of the small-scale diversified family farm. And even as we strive to assume faithful stewardship of this land, it is important for us newcomers to understand that many of the farmers who came before us did not really leave willingly — they had to forfeit their tenure here due to a legally and economically sanctioned hammer-blow — and we shouldn’t be too surprised if they resent us a little bit for it.
As Barbie Hunt tells it, it was initially John’s idea to sell the land, but when it actually came down to the sale of the property to Cobb Hill co-housing, the old farmer began to hedge like an animal caught in a trap. And who could blame him after spending his entire life gaining his livelihood from what he could wrest from that good earth? So, a meeting was arranged one winter day in 1997, in which I, in the role of the would-be farmer, was more or less presented to John for approval. I met John at the realtor’s office and the mood was about as merry as a wake. John fit the picture of the closed-mouthed taciturn Vermonter, which is funny if you know him, because like virtually all native Vermonters, once you gain his confidence he will regale you with a seemingly endless string of tales from his colorful personal history of working on the land. And so I described to John our farming plans and especially those to do with raising dairy cattle and I guess I sufficiently convinced him that this co-housing whatcha-ma-call-it would indeed be a real farm, because he did indeed forthwith agree to the sale. In the fall of 1999 we brought our 3 horses and 7 heifers onto the land that had been the Hunt farm to begin our new farming enterprise.
END OF PART ONE