Friday, December 28, 2012

State of the field(s): What history adds to a snapshot of the present

The final narrative chapter of the Martin Van Buren NHS Ethnographic Landscape Study was a snapshot of northern Columbia County agriculture in 2010, when I completed the research for the report.  Drawing on a quote from one of my interviews, it was titled "A Lot of Ways to Keep a Farm Going (1974-2010)" and brought the histories of some of the older farms I'd looked at across time up to the present.  It also added a handful of new sites as a way to cover a wider range of farming practices in the county.

2009 promotional map of CC farm products
The mix included everything from well-to-do horse farms to old Dutch farmsteads now converted to purely residential properties. I looked at one large and one small Community Supported Agriculture farm and an orchard business that was almost entirely reliant on pick-your-own and agritourism income.  I included a large (by Columbia County standards) "conventional" dairy farm whose owners had moved to New York state after being priced out of suburbanizing Connecticut, and who currently work other farmers' fields all over this part of the county to grow feed crops for their cows.  In contrast to this was a family who had been farming the same property for 200 years and who had purposely decided to scale back their operation to keep from falling into some of the cycles of expansion, debt, and over-production that have plagued dairy farmers.  Every farmer included in the chapter had stories to tell about the hard choices to be made in remaining solvent, maintaining yields and land fertility, and staying in sync with what customers want and will pay for.

Before the July 2010 fire at Harrier Fields Farm
One of the uses of this kind of "round-up" chapter is simply to show the continuation of very long patterns of volatility and change in what often appears to non-farmers as a rather slow-paced way to live and work.  Two dairy farmers I'd been hoping to interview went out of business between the preliminary and primary research phases of my project;  the pick-your-own orchard changed hands before the report was printed;  and in a particularly heart-breaking happening, the early 19th century barn complex at Harrier Fields Farm (pictured above) burned to the ground in a hay fire just a few days after I'd interviewed farmer Mike Scannell there and admired the hay he'd just laboriously gotten in.  The fire made all the stories I'd heard from farmers about past losses and disasters much more poignant and pointed, and it's also made me much more aware of the costs of subsequent events like the floods after Hurricane Irene last year or the drought of this past summer.

The other utility of this survey chapter, for me, was to illuminate the range of ways that farmers continually draw on ideas and discourses from the past in constructing their own approaches to keeping a farm going.  Neo-agrarianism of various kinds came to the fore in many of my interviews, particularly with farmers in the "sustainable" or "eat local" fold.  In one of his newsletter columns [PDF] for Roxbury Farm's shareholders, Jean-Paul Courtens talked about re-embracing the label of "peasant farmer" as a way to challenge the logic of purely profit-oriented or fully-industrialized agriculture.  Mike Scannell, on the other hand, harkened back to the Jeffersonian idea of the yeoman farmer, emphasizing the importance of land ownership, freedom from the burden of debt, and Wendell-Berry-inspired reliance on muscle rather than mechanical power.

Some of the farmers drew on more personal histories and memories, including those of distant and recent forebears.  A few even invoked Martin Van Buren, often referencing his early adoption of orchard produce as a cash crop or--in Mike Scannell's case--his attempts to rein in the growing political power of consolidated capital in the U.S. ("He was the last President to really stand up to the banks," Mike said during our interview).  It was fascinating and useful to trace the overlapping and diverging currents of conversation among farmers in the area, and to recognize agrarian, reformist, industrialist, and occasionally utopian notions whose roots went back at least two centuries and sometimes far longer.  History often complicates things, as several of these recent posts have shown, but it can also provide a sense of depth and perspective in a way that nothing else can.

In what's going to be my final post for a while, I'll talk next about how I tried to roll all of this into some concrete suggestions for the national park.  Then I'm going to hand over the reins of the blog to a great group of colleagues who will be sharing their own thoughts about the farm/food/history nexus over the next several months.  More on that tomorrow!

No comments:

Post a Comment