A Farm's Many Lives
A working farm with its house, barns, fields, and pasture may appear to be a constant in the landscape, but for a farm to survive through the years, the capacity to change and change again with the times is as essential as the quality of soil and luck with the weather.
%chicken%right%On my family's farm in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, there have been many different farms during the century it's been ours. My grandfather, who purchased the place in 1901, assumed the life of those who'd owned it before him. The deed had granted him not only the buildings and land, but also the dairy herd, the hens and chickens, the milk pung and plows, the blind horse, plus feed for the blind horse. He'd sell his milk to bottlers in the city of Lawrence, six miles to our west, the same as most of his neighbors.
On our stretch of road one dairy farm adjoined the next and the next all the way to the horizon, each one sending 40 or 60 or 75 quarts of milk a day to the cities, year in, year out, as the first airplane flew overhead, as the 1918 flu cut through, even as the 1920 census showed that, for the first time, the number of urban and suburban dwellers in the United States had surpassed those living on farms.
Eventually, competition from larger herds on more land to the west and the efficiency of long-distance transport made a small, local herd less lucrative. Sometime in the '40s my father, who'd assumed responsibility for the farm, began to grow corn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, and apples for the corner stores in the cities. By the time I was born, in the 1950s, the herd was gone and the barn had burned down. The far pastures had reverted to pine woods, while some of the near ones were planted with apple trees--McIntosh mostly--the '50s was the era for bright, red September apples.
Though the road had long since been paved, it was still quiet enough for my sister to turn cartwheels down its center. When my cousins and siblings and I played in the woods, we came across rhubarb, cellar holes, lilacs, and labyrinths of stone walls, though we were far too young to care about what their presence meant. The farms that disappeared while I was young didn't collapse in on themselves and turn wild. They were converted to housing tracts. Few of my friends were children of farmers, and I was taught, as was everyone else, to desire to go away.
Which I did, though beyond anyone's expectation--especially mine--I returned again to the farm in my early 30s. It was a much busier place by then. The sound of morning commuters heading into Boston woke me before the birds. As the suburbs had grown up around the property, the world came to the farm--we sold almost all our produce on a large roadside stand. We still grew corn, tomatoes, peppers, and beans, though the McIntosh were becoming a liability. People had begun to prefer Macouns, Braeburns, Granny Smiths. When apples from Washington state, then apples from China flooded the market, it was hard to make the orchard pay.
A working farm in that part of the valley had become a rarity; everyone was more conscious of the particular--sometimes romanticized--place our farm held in the community.
When my father died, 10 years ago, we decided to lease the farm to someone who'd worked for him in the past. I moved from the farm again in June of 2004 and have been away for more than a year and half, though late last fall, when some of the McIntosh trees were cut down to make way for greenhouses, it stung. Now I get most of my fruits and vegetables at the farmer's market in Brunswick, Maine. I always feel consoled just walking among the old trucks. The scale of the operations reminds me of our own farm before the road was busy; the talk about the frost, the cold, the drought reminds me of the way my own father talked. I don't really feel strange at all until I step up to pay for my chard or beans, and then a little what?--guilt?--creeps through as I wonder: Is this all I have to do?