Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Down on the Farm

I didn't grow up knowing my parents as farmers. By the time I was born, the fourth in a family that eventually grew to nine children, my parents had left the last farm where they'd work, raising cattle in The Plains, Virginia. I remember little of any talking they might have done about their employment as hired hands, except that they always described the work as dirty, never-ending, and thankless. From the time she was "old enough" until she married at 19 and left home, my mother worked in her parents' greenhouse—and hated it, so perhaps farming would not have counted among the vocations she might have imagined for herself had she been able to attend college as her three sisters did. My father, orphaned at four and for some period a ward of the State of Massachusetts until he was, literally, farmed out, always worked for his keep. Sun-up to sun-down was how he lived, no excuses, ever. His hands did the work.

Virginia is a place that if you travel far enough beyond Arlington County, where I live, you'll find yourself amid acres and acres of farmland — miles-long rows of corn, bean fields, apple orchards, hillsides with sheep and Angus or Charlet cattle — beautiful horse country, and home-based stands off gravel roads where basket after basket of just-picked fruits and vegetables, home-made jams and jellies, pies unlike any sold in stores, native honey, hand-dipped candles, and fresh meats are available to haul home. In the fall, especially as Halloween nears, some local farms hold Farm Days, and offer hay rides, mazes, and "petting zoos" for children. The latter are the closest most children from the Washington, D.C., area's urban and suburban communities get to draft horses, pigs, sheep, or dairy cows, or a stream stocked with fish and visited by wild ducks.

Farming is alive still and, some might even say, well. But how many of us know, live next door to, or regularly exchange pleasantries with a farmer? How many of us have ever given money to support a farmer's operations? Who among us gives a second thought to the source of the food we eat daily, to the people whose orchards provide the apples in our lunch bags, raise the chickens for our egg sandwiches, cure the ham for our Easter dinners, shear the wool for our winter scarves, make the cheese we serve as hors d'ouevres, or grow the sunflowers that grace our tables?

If you asked your children to describe the word "farmer", what would they say? Could they tell you in which states other than Iowa farmers sow wheatfields? Would they mention Florida's orange groves, California's lettuce fields, Illinois' soybean farms, Massachusetts' cranberry bogs, Virginia's peanut crops, or Maine's apple orchards?

Do any of us today have a realistic idea about what it takes to start and sustain a farming life?

Start here.

In 1999, the nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust was created to help preserve farmland and ensure the economic viability of the state's farmers. More recently, it has undertaken to cultivate appreciation of and support for Maine agriculture, to "keep Maine farms farming".

The trust, which indicates that Maine has added 1,000 farms over the last decade, commissioned  filmmakers Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann of Pull-Start Pictures to produce "Meet Your Farmer", a series of short documentaries highlighting the lives and farming operations of eight different families in Maine. The films take as their subjects Tide Mill Farm, which raises vegetables, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and beef cattle and runs a dairy operation; Broadturn Farm, where the couple that leases the land from a local land trust raises vegetables supplied to 100 local families who pay for a share of the farm's seasonal bounty; Sandy River Farms, which produces dairy, beef, and grain products; Horsepower Farm and Ayotte Farms, which grow vegetables and potatoes, respectively;  Chase's Farm and Restaurant, which grows vegetables, operates a restaurant, and runs a farmers' market, Chase's Daily; Lakeside Orchard, which grows and harvests apples; and Reed Farm, also a dairy operation.

The films are excellent. They give us an honest look at the hard work it takes to run a farm. "It's chores in the morning and chores at night. And the name of the game is getting what you have to get done done in between. The chores are there, whether you like it or not," says one life-long farmer. That same farmer also admits that farmers' lifestyle is "really removed from the rest of the town, as it is the country" but he believes that "the more you educate people in what you're trying to do here, the more farmer-friendly they are."

The documentaries also offer important insights into the values and aspirations of the farming families and the difficulties their particular businesses face. Their narratives are not ones many of us recognize but that all of us should hear. . . and pass on.

To watch the films, click on the farm names above.  Two of the films are below.

Lakeside Orchards and The Apple Farm: Marilyn and Steve Meyerhans: "Sometimes when we get all wrapped up in the business part of it, we have to get out into it [the orchard] to see what it's all about."

Meet Your Farmer - Lakeside Orchards from Pull-Start Pictures on Vimeo.

Reed Farm, Dan Tibbetts, Dairy: "I'm always, always, always trying to see the road to take, to see the farm continue after I'm not farming anymore. . . It's not a lifestyle that's real appealing, unless you can see the full value of it."

Meet Your Farmer - Reed Farm from Pull-Start Pictures on Vimeo.


Billy Coffey said...

I'm fortunate enough to live in a place in Virginia where cows outnumber people. Farmers tend to be a faithful lot, at the mercy of both weather and government restrictions and falling prices. It's a tough life, but they'd live no other.

M.L. Gallagher said...

Like Billy, I am fortunate to live in a place where ranchers butt up against we 'city folk', where within a ten minute drive I'm into ranch country. Maybe not 'farmers', ranchers have a similar strain of breeding.

And I love the peek into your life!

Thanks my friend.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Wow. I know no farmers, and think of them very rarely (when I go to the farmer's market every other week or so). This is an excellent reminder of their relevance and total importance.

And thanks for your kind words at my site yesterday :).

S. Etole said...

I,too, live in a farming community. A hay field abuts one side of my driveway and a row of spruce trees the other side. The farms here are relatively small and as you've said, the hours for them never end. I can't think of any place I'd rather be!

It was a gift to hear more about you.

Nikole Hahn said...

Beautiful article. I really enjoyed hearing about your parents and the farms.

Joyce Wycoff said...

Thanks Maureen ... I had a close encounter with farms, farming and farmers as I was growing up in rural Kansas. Now my closest interaction is at the Farmers Market. It was fun reading about your background and it was also a good thing to remind us of the importance of farmers.

I am so thankful that there are people who actually love the work involved with raising the food I eat every day ... and even more thankful that it doesn't have to be me!