American Impressions, Chapter 14: Vermont
Of the Farm
Fairfield, Vt., is a gentle place, a village of dairy farms and ancestry where land is still maternal, manure is not a four-letter smell, and empty pastures and languid Holsteins set the pace. The speed of life as the rest of us know it is beyond the surrounding mountains—in Burlington, 45 minutes west and south, or across the Canadian border a shorter distance to the north.
I’ve been going to Fairfield for almost 20 years, as much for the restorative effects of its pace—even The New York Times discovered Fairfield in a front-page feature three years ago—as for the village’s place in my adoptive family’s ancestry: It is where the Branons, on my father’s side, settled from Ireland last century. Many Branons are gone, many are still there, tending four or five farms in what is considered an epicenter of New England family farming: With 70 working farms in a township of 1,700 people, Fairfield has the most dairy farms of any town in Vermont. (The state numbers 1,850 dairy farms, most of which are run by families).
With every visit in the past I’d make the rounds of the Branon barns and always hear the same story: family farming, once as central to the making of America as immigration and industry, is hurting. Young people can’t be bothered with the muck and monotony of farming anymore. Big farms that can better weather bad times are running the little guy out of business. The story had a moral: that by losing the family farm, America was losing that Jeffersonian ideal of a free citizenry learning self-reliance from the land. “The family farm is going to look more like what we’re doing than the 60-, 70-, 80-cow farms of the past,” says Pat Branon, who runs a 135-cow farm that, to stay competitive (and pay down a new barn), will soon number 200. He remembers growing up in the 1940s on a 60-cow farm, which in its day was good enough to support a family of 10 or 12. “That’s going to be disappearing,” he says, although he still considers his farm a family operation.
The practice of the Jeffersonian ideal has actually been dead for generations. Less than 1.9 percent of Americans live on farms today (compared with 43 percent in 1880). Farms and families have been downsized in the last 50 years, but the two words wedded together—“farm” and “family”—have the evocative power of Sunday supper with every aunt and uncle in sight. No one wants the two words divorced, as if we hold on to the few family farmers that remain the way we hold on to a dear memory. Yet milk makes it to market whether it’s produced by Pat Branon’s cows, which he knows by quirks if not by name, or by a Texas megafarm that gushes out milk as mechanically and efficiently as an oil well. Folklore isn’t going to make it taste better. So why bother worrying about the difference? Stupid question. The notable difference is not between big and small farms. It’s between farmers and the rest of America, between that tiny minority of people whose work feeds us and the rest of us consumers who make up pretty stories about farmers to convince ourselves that we still know where food comes from and what crucial role farmers play. The notion of family farming is one such creation, a rustic dressing-up of an agrarian culture that has always been shaped by struggle and uncertainty, and by families. The effect of corporate farming is only an extra challenge for the smaller operations. It’s not the challenge. (Actually, only 1 percent of U.S. farms are corporate operations). Focusing on it masks a severe fault line, one comparable to the racial divide but involving a different sort of minority—farmers—and the rest of society.
More than corporate farming, more than costly new environmental regulations, more than the vagaries of the farming market, the biggest challenge for Vermont’s family farmers is the disaffection they feel from the people they feed. It isn’t just that most of us have lost a working connection with the land, they seem to say, but that the people who work it have become so foreign to us. We love them on postcards or in our vacations’ sunset scenes, but we’d rather not know more about them unless the story, like “Field of Dreams,” confirms our comfortable myths about the land. For all we know, milk is a synthetic product like almost everything else we use, ready-made in its plastic bottle by a machine that will never fail. Picking it up from the dairy aisle at Publix is as close to harvesting as we’ll get.
The argument for getting closer sounds flimsy at first. Appreciating shoe-making or the manufacture of computer chips won’t make us better citizens as we walk in our shoes and tap on our keyboards. Appreciating the mechanics of milking a cow as we eat our morning cereal won’t, either. But we don’t go around romanticizing shoe-making and computer-chip manufacture the way we do farming. And the romanticizing is generally inaccurate, to the detriment of farmers. Gauzed-up by government, jazzed-up by “caring” companies like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and made-up by Hollywood, farmers have been idealized to death in every way but Jefferson’s.
Fairfield, it turns out, is a corrective.
Sundown. Time for evening milking—evening chores, in the farmer’s language.
I head to the million-dollar-barn, as its owners sometimes call it, a new, T-shaped hangar low to the ground, its deep green siding a contrasting spot of spring on the snow-covered landscape. Pat and Bruce Branon, the oldest and youngest brothers in a brood of eight, have just built the barn a hill away from the old family barn and sugaring house. It was the younger man’s idea: Take the money from a state program that buys farmers’ promise to keep their land agricultural forever, and invest it in an operation for the 21st century. The result sparkles with the shine of aluminum and digital red consoles that measure, second by second, every cow’s output (a good cow will produce 35 pounds of milk twice a day). The system even can detect signs of illness.
The concrete parlor floor is heated to about 50 degrees. Cows heat up the air, their breath forming a halo of vapor around them as they wait their turn to be milked, 80 of them bunched up rump to droopy snout in a holding pen. As crisply frigid as it is outside, the air inside is as muggy as a summer afternoon in Florida but tinctured by the acrid smell of a boxed-in herd. There’s nothing pretty about it. Not even the cows, who couldn’t care less about the shine and consoles. They wait and drool, their Holstein hides not black and white but gray and caked with mud or manure. They stare into the very limited space around them, waiting to be scolded into milking position, then disinfected, teat by teat, with a blood-like solution, then milked, then pushed out by a mechanical arm back to their stalls on the other side of the barn. They don’t moo much. The sounds of the parlor stop with urine jets or feces splattering the floor and anything near it, which usually means other cows and whoever happens to be running the operation in the pit of the parlor.
It’s not pretty, but there’s nothing ugly about it, either: the cows, these living things that do nothing but eat and make milk and mate with the barn bull so they can keep making milk and keep the barn in business with new cows have a laboriousness about them that you can’t help but admire. They’re machines on legs, as dumb and servile as they are vital to our well-being, and they perform, day after day. The capacity to protest is not in their nature.
A farmer’s life is not more glamorous or more prone to protest. It’s a sort of dawn-to-nightfall slavery to the cows, with six hours a day taken up by milking chores and hours in between filled by the tedious attention to detail necessary to keep any small business going. “Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows,” I could hear Willa Cather’s heroine in “O Pioneers!” say.
Pat and Bruce Branon, who are partners, employ one other man, Norman Menard, 35, who’s married to Pat’s daughter Sarah, a 29-year-old veterinary technician. She helps her husband around the farm on weekends. (Spousal second incomes are vital in running most farms). Norman Menard one day hopes to be one of the Branons’ partners. He is proof—like other men his age in Fairfield farms—that age doesn’t always determine who runs farms. Independence has a lot to do with it. So does prosperity. This is not a bad time to be a dairy farmer in Vermont, the price of milk being at or close to all-time highs. As always, the demise of the family farm has been exaggerated. Only the struggle of it hasn’t.
When the 135 cows have passed through the parlor, Sarah hands me a 3-foot-wide squeegee and I set to work, slushing down to gutters three hours’ worth of fresh manure. My boots got a new polish, my clothes a new scent. In the huge barn itself, the cows have resumed their routine, ruminating endlessly on their daily allotment of 100 pounds of feed (to maximize productivity and minimize wear, cows never go to pasture anymore). Three hours earlier Norman had showed me a cow that was about to give birth. By the time we were done, she was munching on her calf’s placenta. Had the barn’s newest addition been a male it would have gone to the slaughterhouse, males (the necessary bull or two aside) being useless on a dairy farm. It was a female. “This one we’ll keep,” Norman says, unceremoniously peeling off whatever was left of the calf’s afterbirth.
And this—not the lore, not the green-acre idiocies of pop culture—is what the 14-foot statue on top of the Vermont State House in Montpelier stands for, her name a synonym for the state’s: Agriculture.
”The farm represents a historical way of life for the United States,” Sara Kittell is telling me after I ask why the idea of the family farm matters to her so much. “Farmers work the land, they provide food for people, they showcase a work ethic, a place for children to be raised. It’s the reason people come to Vermont. They don’t come to Vermont because we have the best technologies or the biggest cities or the smartest people. They come here because of what the family farms have made all our communities—self-sufficient, caring, neighborly people that take care of themselves and others.”
When I decided to focus on the family farm in Vermont, it was only an added bonus that Kittell (born a Branon and therefore a distant aunt) happened recently to have been elected to the Vermont Legislature and had taken over the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Her chief agenda: To save the family farm through such initiatives as the Northeast Dairy Compact, which prevents the price of milk from falling below a certain floor, and the Vermont Land Trust program, which has reduced pressure on farmers to sell their land to the highest-bidding developer. Sara’s husband, Bill, has been on Fairfield’s zoning board for a decade and a half fighting his own version of rural defense by successfully limiting growth to eight, 10 or 12 new housing permits a year.
”One of the things we’ve tried to maintain is the integrity of our agricultural land: You can’t build in the middle of that meadow over there, and that just drives people nuts,” Bill Kittell says. “I’ve had my life threatened out there in these meetings.”
But Bill Kittell is a lawyer, Sara a legislator who ran a restaurant and catering business before the Senate and raising a 7-year-old daughter took up all her time. The Kittells’ two grown daughters have left—one works in a bookstore in Burlington, the other writes speeches for Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services in Washington. When Sara Kittell speaks of young people being enticed away from the farm, her family is the prime example, although she resents the implication that farming is not as good a job as any. It is true that leaving the farm is a sign of success. It is not true that staying on the farm is a sign of failure.
”I heard one farmer speaking of leaving the farm to his children as ‘child abuse.’ It was pretty disgusting, putting it that way,” she says. Besides, she adds, even if less than 2 percent of Americans live on farms, 17 percent of the workforce is in agriculture-related jobs, and 13 percent of America’s gross domestic product—or $1 trillion—is generated by the food and fiber industry. What’s missing from all these numbers is the realization among consumers that cheap food comes at a price—a price rarely reflected by the sticker on a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. That’s why farmers stay relatively poor or celebrate when they break even. Their lifestyle—more than the government—subsidizes our food.
In the 1980s farms were going out of business by the tens of thousands every year. But contrary to public perception, their number has steadied at more than 2 million since 1991 and has actually gone up in 1998. Conditions are especially good in Vermont, where Ben & Jerry’s three production plants, churning out 700,000 pints of ice cream a day, have done wonders for dairy farmers simply because two Jewish men with a flair for the hip chip and the cool crunch managed to turn ice cream into an East Coast cult.
I had great expectations for the Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury production plant, not far from where Agriculture rises above the State House in Montpelier. It hosted 752,000 visitors last year. Here’s a chance, I thought, for a corporation touting its “caring capitalism” on every brochure to give visitors a true picture of dairy farming in Vermont.
But what a dud. The first sign of agri-cleansing was the clash between the constant black-and-white color theme (to reflect the color of Holsteins) and the utter absence of actual cows except for the smiling, tidy ones on calendars and on the wall in the “Cow Over the Moon Theater,” where the airy Ben & Jerry’s story is shown to all visitors. The tour guide joked about taking us through a barn, a telling condescension that shouldn’t have been a joke so much as the centerpiece of the tour. Instead, we were treated to a brief jaunt through Ben & Jerry’s corporate scrap book. The story is about a business that wants to seem cool, involved, fair, about its 700 “amazing people,” about its “Guide for Resolving Conflict Creatively,” about its non-chlorine-bleached packages, about its “Bovinity Divinity” and “Chunky Monkey” flavors. About Disney on ice cream, in other words. About actual bovines or farmers, it is not.
For all the company’s earthy claims, if visitors understand family farms as bucolic little retreats and cows as smiling astronauts, nothing has really been achieved for the farmer ankle deep in manure and years-deep in debt. Farming is still an alien world. With the likes of Ben & Jerry’s plowing the divide further even as they pretend to do the opposite, “the most valuable citizens,” as Thomas Jefferson called farmers, “the most vigorous, the most independent,” are now the most marginalized.
And no one is about to protest.
VERMONT IN BRIEF
Total area: 9,615 sq. mi. (rank: 45)
Population (1997): 590,883 (rank: 49)
Economy: Agriculture, tourism, trade
Motto and nickname: Freedom and unity; Green Mountain State.
Entered union: March 4, 1791.
Notable fact: The tiny town of Cavendish, a spot in the southern part of Vermont that doesn’t always make it onto maps, was one of the nerve centers responsible for bringing down the Soviet Union. It was there that the Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s greatest living writer and once its best-known dissident, waited out his exile from the mid-1970s to the end of the Cold War, continuously battling the Soviet regime in his writings—“a task whose successful achievement would,” the critic Joseph Epstein wrote in 1996, “be beyond the imagining of Joseph Conrad or any other novelist or poet. Even the word ‘heroic’ does not seem quite adequate to describe this accomplishment.” Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 as its prodigal patriarch, but his fame nose-dived quickly thereafter. It was also in Cavendish that he wrote much of his “Red Wheel” opus.
The state in quotes:
Here green is king again, Usurping honest men.
Like Brazilian cathedrals gone under to creepers, Gray silos mourn their keepers.
Here ski tows And shy cows Alone pin the ragged slopes to the earthOf profitable worth.
(From “ Vermont,” by John Updike).
Books: “Families on the Land : Profiles of Vermont Farm Families,” edited by Gregory Sharrow and Meg Ostrum (1995) includes profiles of Fairfield farms. Although not about Vermont, Jacqueline Dougan Jackson’s just-released “Stories From the Round Barn” is an affecting and illustrated memoir of growing up on a family dairy farm in Wisconsin. (Available from amazon.com for $17.47).
* Ben & Jerry’s:
* Vermont tourism and history: www.linkvermont.com
* Sugarbush Farm virtual tour: www.sugarbushfarm.com/index.html
* Vermont government: www.state.vt.us