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.