Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Farming Neighbors

This part of The Beach, although festooned with McMansions and Summer estates, will always be considered "The Country." However, it takes exactly eight minutes for me to drive to the site of a mill that once employed hundreds of people. I can bike to the biggest shopping mall in the region. We even have a Starbucks, the herald of fruity urban modernity all my neighbors loathe.I live on the border of agricultural land, conserved for the purpose of agriculture. Although -- like most of the farms around here -- it was once a dairy farm, it is now primarily a vineyard.But my understanding of the local farming culture goes back to when I was a kid in school. Because I was the smart kid that got bumped up a grade, I was in what some of my agricultural friends called "the Smart Class."
And they were what my Smart Class friends called "Farmers."
I didn't understand the pejorative sound my suburban pals made when they said "fah-mah."
What I had failed to ascertain was the difference between what I saw on the early-morning International Harvester propaganda films and the hauteur of the hay-growing Swamp Yankees who never had no use for book learnin'.
I am over-simplifying what is an extraordinarily complex sociological phenomenon, but no one is going to study it because it's just so damned boring that I'm wondering why I'm even. I mean, I could write a book about it. Yeah, a fancy picture book with a colon in the title. But I'd have to self-publish, because publishers would probably suss out that it's just a lame-ass attempt to garner favor with locals who think

Dedee Shattuck published a book. "Farmers: Portraits in a Changing Landscape." Fancy that.

Ms. Shattuck describes the farmers as "inspirational," in the same tone one uses to claim that Special Olympians are "inspirational." We know our farmer neighbors around here. They mow our hayfields and plow our driveways and provide great products through the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) and at the myriad local Farmers Markets. Sure, Farmers Markets have a "CDs-on-tables-by-the-mixer-board-on-open-mike-night" quality, but some of these guys are local folk stars.In Farmers... -- without benefit of cohesive narrative -- we're perfunctorily introduced to people who make with the farming. The reader gets a sense that each farm is a one-man operation since we're not given a sense of employees, the workforce involved, except a few mentions of "the kids."
Any homegrown discussion of local folks will seem incestuous and tedious, but Ms. Shattuck's book is still a lovely photograph of my neighbors' vocations and avocations. The thin but impressively-designed (Hannah Haines at Reynolds-DeWalt) tome consists of photographs (by Abigail Pope, Bridgette Auger, and Lyn "ClamJams" Keith) and the author's rhapsodic captions to those photographs.
Although I know a half-dozen of the books' subjects, I'm fascinated by the details Shattuck finds appropriate to share. At least half, it would seem, are distinguished as family farms run by a descendant of the original owner. But many farmers around here are former professionals who picked up the hoe after retirement or as a pastime. At least three admit that their farm is not their primary source of income. Some are happy about the next generation, some are cranky about it. Some mention the importance of local farms in the light of national security worries and gas dependence issues. Nobody uses the term "hobby farm."
Usually when the privileged eulogize a "lifestyle" like farming, the poor subjects are depicted as wed to the land their ancestors farmed, unlettered and weary boobs in need of the aid of smarter, wealthier, better-connected busybodies. SEMAP, the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership, is an institutional manifestation of what the farmers around here do anyway "to achieve economic success" -- they band together, help each other out, and work toward the common goal of getting their quality product to market. There are a number of farmers in this book who say just that. Farmers... is a love letter to SEMAP's members and operatives. Who, although well-represented, are not always clearly identified as members of the organization's Operating Board or Coordinating Council.
Now if some of them could only be convinced to not work so hard for the multinational retail corporations around town.
If politics "makes strange bedfellows," then economics is their insidiously misguided pimp. An unemployed farmhand in Dartmouth I know is working against the town's split tax rate, which they insist places an "unfair" tax burden on businesses -- with a high chance of succeeding due to the tight network here. This puts the farmers in the same camp as the CEOs of WalMart and Stop&Shop, the very corporations who refuse to buy local produce and have effectively made these farmers' lives more difficult.
Could they put their energy to work redefining some laws so that certain multi-use crops could be planted legally and profitably on the very farms? Crops like hemp which benefit the soil and, unlike hay, can be used in textiles, clothing, specialty industrial oils, paper products, building products, insulation, and fuel. Oh, that's right, WalMart doesn't like them either.
And we can't offend our corporate friends.
But nobody ever said farming was easy.

2 comments:

bitterandrew said...

Excellent, excellent post.

Extra kudos for use of "Swamp Yankees."

ThirdMate said...

Thanks. Someday I'll write about Swamp Guineas. They're the fahr-innahs.