Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Day The Cows Went Away

We bought our farm ten years ago - three months before Julia was born. The Farmer and I had always wanted to live in an old house on a bit of land. The fact that this particular farm was just over the mountain from where he grew up was a plus. We already had a sheep barn, woodland, and sheep pastures on that side of the mountain. We needed a place to live and we both liked old houses. We jumped when this farmhouse came up for sale. Our friend Will called The Farmer and told him it was for sale. The minute we drove up, I said “Okay, let’s make an offer now – I don’t need to see what the house is like.” Mind you, The Farmer wanted to buy the place without me even looking at it. We didn’t think about how or when we would live there, we just knew we had to get a mortgage somehow and buy the place.

As things went, we sold our place in eastern Massachusetts when Julia was ten months old and moved here in 1999. For The Farmer, it was moving home. He was regarded as that Duprey boy from Boston who had married a city slicker from New Jersey. “Oh, how did he ever marry a woman from there?” I assumed they all were thinking. For me, moving here was a new adventure. I had “played country” in our home in eastern Massachusetts - keeping my exotic chickens and an occassional lamb or two in the chicken pen when it needed nursing. But I knew this place would be real country. I anticipated all the interesting new things I would learn about and new friends I would make. We were both happy and excited to raise our little girl here in rural western Massachusetts.

Our farm is set halfway down a rather large hill. Our road was the old stage route. It’s all so hard to imagine now – stagecoaches, Indians, the Revolutionary War, subsistence farming, clearing woodlands for pastures, building stone walls. We were just taking over the land the colonists had tamed and home they had built. How they ever made it through a winter boggles my mind. I’m just glad our house survived and am thankful to live in it.

There aren’t many houses nearby. In fact, just a handful of houses are close enough to be considered official neighbors. Living in this town, most of our fellow townspeople are considered neighbors, even if we don’t know them all.

Up the road from us, not too far, there is a farm that has been owned by one family for a very long time. This farm encompasses almost 1000 acres greatly contributing to the ruralness of our little town. Although that may not seem like a lot of land to some, it is a lot of land to own in Massachusetts. The family is dairy farmers, raising Brown Swiss and Holstein cows. Three brothers own and run the farm. The Farmer knows all of the brothers. His mother and father were friends of their father and mother. I was accepted into the neighborhood because I was married to him, maybe at arm’s length and skeptically, but accepted.

As with almost all New England dairy farms, the last few decades on this particular farm have been a real struggle. Keeping up with the times, staying current, paying taxes, and the general daily slog of farming dairy cattle can wear anyone down. You could see the place and the people were tired. There was no money for repairs and improvements.


When we moved here, we knew there was a chance that this neighboring farm might be sold and split up. Every day as I traveled the hill by foot or auto, I tried to breathe in the rural character of this dairy farm, the rough countryside, the decaying barns. To me, there is a real beauty in things like this. A history that is fast slipping away. People in the year 2008 don’t want to work as hard as a dairy farmer works anymore. They don’t want to go in debt to keep the farm going only to never get a vacation and have a retirement. I lived in fear of what would happen to this beautiful piece of earth, landscape, and agricultural lifestyle.

We kept hearing scuttlebutt and town-wide gossip. The Farmer and I didn’t want to ask any questions. We didn’t want to pry into our neighbors’ business. I kept walking the beautiful old-fashioned dirt road and landscape, delighting with my dogs in every critter be they farm or wild animal, big or small. We looked to see if the cows were waiting by the milk room door or if they were out in the field munching happily away on some hay. We checked the pastures to see which field they were grazing, watching the cows’ huge lumbering bodies gently climbing up and over the hillside pastures. We talked to the cows like friends, looking into their big brown eyes, trying to imagine what they were thinking.


And then it happened. I heard through the wind that is a small town that the cows might be leaving one day last January. With regret in my heart, I walked up the hill to visit the cows one last time. I took these photos that day. An hour later they all were gone. It makes me cry even today to think about that day. Less than an hour later I drove past the farm as the cattle truck was loading the animals. The cows were sold at auction to go to other farms and live out their lives as milk producers. I can’t help but think they weren’t in as lovely a spot. The cows had lived on the top of the world, wandering over the fields with a 270 degree view of three states. They obviously didn’t know this nor how lucky they were. But I’m sure they loved their hill and home.

With the dispersal of the dairy cows, the agricultural, working lifestyle of the hill slowly disappeared. A working farm can never be replaced. The animals, the rhythms of their lives from sun-up to sun-down, grazing the hills, munching the hay and silage they were fed, being milked twice a day, every day of the year.... The harvesting of the hay for them..... All of the off-farm people who visit -- the cattle breeder, the grain truck, the vet…. When the animals leave, the agricultural soul of a farm dies away. Left are the empty buildings bearing witness to their past rugged and utilitarian usage. Slowly they fall away into the ground. Roofs cave in when there is no reason to keep spending money on them to shelter animals.

Around town, not much was said (or else noone said anything to me). I never mentioned the cows' leaving to anyone but my family. It was like a neighbor being ill. If noone talked about it, maybe it would go away. And so the wait was on. What was going to happen to this large piece of beautiful, wild land. What would it mean for all the people living on our road, in our town. All we could do was wait and see.

The “For Sale” signs went up and we waited. And we wondered. I kept sending good thoughts to the place we considered our own. Saying my own little silent prayers. I wasn’t born in this town nor on this hill but it’s the place I have come to consider my home. I didn’t want to see it change. I wanted my daughter to delight in the natural beauty and agricultural cycles of the year… to learn about where milk and hay come from. It felt like it was all crumbling away. Rumours of developers looking at the maps at the town hall spread like wildfire. Any vehicle seen on our road from out of town was considered a threat. We all lived in fear.

And now today, we have new neighbors. The Farmers who owned the land are still living in the old houses they have always lived in. Through the work of several different organizations and with the cooperation of the farmers, the land is now owned by others. Some of the land was purchased by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game for wildlife management. Some of the land has been sold to one of the brothers for him and his family to farm and will always be preserved for agricultural usage. And the last piece of land, where the cows slept each night, has been put into farmland preservation too.

I breathe a sigh of relief every time I take a walk up our road. I feel so fortunate that I can keep enjoying the pristine beauty of nature. If I have to share it with a bunch of out of state hunters once in a while that is okay. We’ve already noticed a large increase in the wildlife population. More deer, bobcats, coyotes. With the cows gone, others move in. We’ll all co-exist.

It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending and beginning for our neighbors. They aren’t farming cows anymore. Their lives have changed. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it is for them -- carving out a new niche in the world for themselves. Farmers are always farmers. I know this – I married one. The land will change also -- new species of plants and woodland and forest will grow up over the pastures. It will all take time and new things will settle in.


I feel fortunate that I was able to witness this hillside the way it was farmed for many, many years. I'll try not to forget it. We have the farmers and their family before them to thank for this beautiful piece of land my family and many other families enjoy. They cared for the pastures and woodlands for generations keeping it whole until it became impossible. Without their concern and love for the land, we might not be so fortunate.

24 comments:

Lily Boot said...

Thank you for sharing this story and the beautiful photos with me. I too feel sad for the cows. The dairy farmers here in Australia have also been dealt a very harsh hand over the last 15 years with supermarkets selling their milk for less than it costs to produce it. I'm so glad your neighbours were able to preserve their land and stay in their homes when the change had the potential to be so destructive.

rebecca.hunt said...

That last photo reminds me of an illustration in the book "First Snow" by Kim Lewis. If you don't already know her books, then I think that you and Julia would both enjoy them.

Anonymous said...

What a sad and sweet story. Thanks for sharing in your elequont way.
rooth

asakiyume said...

It's so sad, isn't it, that dairy farms can hardly survive anymore--or just plain can't--around here... it was very sad in Belchertown when the last working dairy farm shut down. Fortunately the family decided to try to continue with beef farming. I hope they can make a go of it.

Joan said...

Our little town in PA has changed so much in the past few years. What was surrounded by farmland, grazing cows and beautiful views is now being replaced by big industrial centers. There is one road not far from me where I can still see the beauty of the farms but I suspect that will be gone. Traffic is horrendous and the big trucks rumble on the road. Gone are the deer that feasted on our meadow. Thank you for your story. I can appreciate it.

Wool Enough said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I was glad to see that at least the land is being kept open, even if the old dairy farm is lost. This country needs its small farms; I, too, wish a way could be found to keep this part of our heritage alive.

ColoradoColumbine said...

I add my thanks for writing this story. My grandparents had a small ranch in eastern Colorado when I was growing up. It has now been subdivided into 5 acre ranchettes and covered in mobile homes. I have so many good memories of what it was like - hot prairie in the summer, icy cold winds in the winter. I went out to look at it once a couple years ago - I'll never go back. It hurts too much. I am so thankful that the property near you has a different story! We are losing so much of our history through out of control developement.

Janet said...

Kristin, you write so well. Thank you for crafting this account. Examples similar to yours are happening not only in rural parts of the U.S. but also here in Ireland.

ellen said...

Thank you for your beautiful words. Change does come, but not always for the better. Loss like this fills my heart with sadness, but thank goodness the land is being respected and cared for.
Perhaps one day people will wake up and value the small farm enough to support it, although it will probably be too late.
Here in Oregon we have fancy-shmanzy houses being built on land that used to be farmed. It galls me when these people complain that they can smell the cows or pigs from a nearby farm that is still hanging on.

Dianne said...

Those of us who love the country side and want to preserve it often find ourselves at odds with the older farmers. The value in their land is their retirement fund and of course they want to get as much money as they can for it. Hardly anyone can afford to buy large tracts of land to use only for farming these days. Unfortunately, dividing it up into subdivisions seems to be the most financially rewarding. I'm hopeful that the "eat local" movement will inspire more of us to be willing to pay a little more for our food and buy it from a local farmer who is still working hard to maintain farming as a way of life.

Leslie said...

Thank you for the beautiful essay.

Lindsay said...

It makes me sad to think how much our rural landscape is changing. In the Chicago region farmers are being offered huge amounts of money to sell their farms. The money is nice, but as many say, they end up giving up a life known to them for 6-8 generations. I watched one community go from farm fields to strip malls in just two years. All that gorgeous black soil gone.

Penny said...

my heart was in my throat hoping for the best outcome to this ... where i grew up (eastern long island, both forks) farms are disappearing and those evil subdivisions are taking over. *sigh* this news while still sad has made my day for what it is not ... thank you for sharing it.

KSee said...

I read fearing what the result would be. I read and scrolled. Thank goodness for the outcome. I am so glad for you and your family.

Sharon Rose said...

Incredible story, beautifully written! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I struggled to read your last paragraph as tears were rolling down my face.I work for Tuttle's Red Barn the oldest farm in America still owed by the same family. I am not a Tuttle but I share your love of the farms and know the hard work it take to get from one year to the next.When March comes we all celebrate knowing that although the hard work is yet to come we have made it thru one mare year.Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am to be connected to something so special.

Leslie said...

Oh man, my heart was pounding as I literally raced to the ending. I grew up in a small town in RI, and my grandparents (immigrants from the Azores)were farmers. Some of my most vivid memories are of visiting them each Sunday after church, feeding the chickens and looking at the green peppers floating in a big metal trough, getting ready to go to the market in Providence.

My dad used to have to walk to a neighboring farm every day with a metal pail to get the milk. He even walked in his sleep to do it! Last year, my dad bought the farm property and all that's left is a small "barn" with a few cows which are owned by an old man and which my father has allowed to stay. When I visit, my dad takes me to see "his children" and I feed them apples. It's funny to see these huge beasts literally running up to us. What a hoot! I don't know what is going to happen to this property. I'm hoping that it'll stay the way it is and, some day, I'll get to retire there on a small piece of that land and have my own chickens and grow my own peppers. All this beautiful, wide open land with so much history is being developed and it breaks my heart. I'm crossing my fingers that this won't be the case in this instance.

Thanks for sharing your story and reminding me of those special times. Blessings,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your heartfelt story. It's so comforting to know others share these familiar feelings and values. I married an 8th generation dairy farmer, and am blessed to have been welcomed into his very large family and small, tight-knit rural community. Our land has been in his family nearly 200 years. We make our living milking 50 cows. I am also one of a group of farm people - mostly dairy wives - who came together to create and support a statewide agricultural land trust that preserves working farmland. Reading your words, and the comments of your readers brought tears to my eyes. I will share your sentiments of hope and inspiration with our group.

Melissa said...

Let me add my thanks for this story. I am reading The Omnivore's Dilemna now, and was reading this morning about the industrialization of the organic food movement. We live in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, in what was once a dairy farm county. We were relieved to see the largest neighboring farm go to a couple who breed Appaloosa horses. They don't have much money and have worked hard to build their own fences, plant shade trees, build the place back up. There were three brand new foals this week.
We used to wake up some mornings to find a ring of cows circling our house in the mist - that hole in the farmer's fence! But the other nearby farm is now rented - the house to one family, the fields to a cow calf operation. It's still country, still mostly open and lovely, but how are we going to feed ourselves in this country?
Don't get me started!

Felicia said...

Perhaps those cows still dream of the beautiful place they lived on top of the world.

Susan said...

Thanks so much for sharing this beautifully written story. I've lived much of my life near rural and wilderness areas that border on big cities and I've seen the steady encroachment of the city on this beautiful land. Once it's done, there's no going back.

I'm glad that your hillside, while different than it was, is safe. I hope the cows have found themselves in another beautiful spot.

southern gal said...

This post is one of the reasons i read your blog. Such wonderful writing on an important topic.

congrats that it worked out so that the hillside is safe.

knittingiris said...

Oh, Kristin! I read this with my stomach tied in knots, at the edge of my chair, exhaling a huge sigh of relief along with you as I scrolled down, reading, and finally got to the part with the Wildlife Management sign. Phew.
You do the land and the people who have farmed it, and the animals, too, such honor here with your words and pictures, and also by appreciating how much you lucked out, too, with the changes that have taken place.
We have a friend here who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. He doesn't farm here aside from a small orchard and a patch of potatoes and corn, but he still wakes up before the crack of dawn as was bred into him as a small boy.
Yeah, I'll never be a true local here, either, but at least our boys will be.

Tina said...

That is a sad story that didn't end up so badly. Being a fan of land conservation, very glad it didn't go to developers!