A Farm Of His Own

The moon has just risen behind Mt. Abraham. Something is splashing around in the beaver pond--probably my dog, Beau. No, there he is, nosing around a brush pile, unfazed by the yipping of coyotes in the neighboring Green Mountain National Forest. It's 10:30 p.m., and I'm planting asparagus. Why 10:30? Why not? It's a starry September night in northern Vermont, I've got the headlights of my tractor to work by, and there's no one around to laugh at me.

I'm what used to be called a gentleman farmer, and although the term might sound dated now, the concept of being a part-time farmer isn't. According to the Agriculture Dept., we now make up the majority of all farmers. And while it is true that big farms--those covering more than 2,000 acres--are on the increase, a less well-known fact in all the clamor about the demise of the family farm is that the number of farms under 100 acres is also rising.

True, these new farms might not have the postcard-pretty grazing cows or the silos that have dominated the rural landscape. My little 20-acre operation, outside the hamlet of Downingsville, does have some of the familiar trappings--to wit, a barn and a big green tractor--and is only a half-hour by pickup from the heavily capitalized orchards and dairy operations in the Champlain Valley below. But up here in the hills of eastern Addison County, we're a world away--specialized and, more often than not, micro rather than mega. I measure output in jars of jam, jugs of cider, cords of wood. My neighbor to the south raises fallow deer and fish for restaurants on his 25 acres. Down the road a bit are larger spreads raising sheep, llamas, and beef. Some of the most impressive farms--set off like jewels in mountain settings--are professionally managed for millionaires, some of whom recently moved here and might not even know the difference between straw and hay.

BOOMER MONEY. Well, we're all learning. Many of us are farming because of two decidedly nonagricultural trends: the growth of the Internet, allowing folks to telecommute and live where they want, and the billions of dollars being handed down as baby boomers come into their inheritances. At the monthly magazine Mother Earth News, Senior Editor Sam Martin guesses his typical reader is middle-aged and earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year. But he acknowledges that advertisements for tractors and other expensive equipment hint at higher wealth levels than those of the "back to the earth" homesteaders who have been the magazine's mainstay since it was launched in 1969.

Here in Vermont, as in other states, an economy is growing around the part-time farmer--small, specialized packing houses; weekend markets in the village squares; and a network of restaurants that purchase local produce, some of it custom-grown to the restaurateur's specifications. But most of us aren't in it for the money alone. "It's a way of life rather than a living," explains Jon Satz, who runs a 100-acre farm and roadside market in Brandon, southwest of my place. "Years ago, the majority in farming didn't have that choice." In 1995, Satz crossed the country, staying and working on two dozen farms, and remembers: "There was only one where the people had actually grown up on farms." The place he ended up buying in Brandon had been in one family for 110 years.

My own demographics? I'm a 51-year-old magazine editor with a compressed, three-day workweek in Manhattan. My wife, Susan, works in nearby Burlington as an accountant for Truex Cullins & Partners Architects. Despite being desk rats, we enjoy the outdoors and outdoor work. Susan used to own a small horse farm, while I, in my younger days, worked on construction projects, tree farms, and a highway survey crew.

I bought my place in 1992 as a country retreat that could, upon early retirement, become a full-time home. But by 1995, all the unlimited hunting, fishing, and skiing was getting--well--kind of old. (Hell, some say, is a place where you catch the same beautiful trout, over and over and over.) I began working on schemes to improve wildlife habitat, cutting little clearings to "release" aspen and apple trees by eliminating competing growth. At that point, my farming ambitions weren't even a gleam in the John Deere salesman's eye.

But the more I sweated away, the more I enjoyed myself--and the further in I was drawn. I began to see my property with a new eye. I had a grand canvas to work with: a beautiful old abandoned hill farm nestled against a 4,000-foot mountain that, clouds or sunshine, was a feast for the eyes. Could I put the place back into use?

Fifty years ago, my plot had been the upper pasture of a larger farm. With only a cow or two, a wood lot, and a vegetable patch, the original farmer was so poor he was one of the few Demo-crats in the county. He tried raising sheep, but "the bear were too thick," his son told me. (And still are. More on them later.) The land still has some formidable liabilities, not the least of which is a latitude and altitude that limit the growing season to four months, with luck. The soil is acidic, and glaciers left a hodgepodge of sand and clay deposits.

In addition, the land had been literally trashed by the former owner, the son of the original farmer, who used it to dump (he would say store) everything from old lawn mowers and freezers to bottles and cans. For two years, I took ton after ton of scrap to the dump every Saturday. My weapon of choice was a new pickup that soon had enough dents and scrapes to feel right at home outside the general store.

But Millennium Farm (the name sounded fresh when we picked it back in '98) has its good points, too. The altitude discourages ticks, fleas, and many of the other pests that plague farmers just below us. The acreage is well-watered by three brooks and has several slopes with sunny, southern exposures-- ideal for berries, orchards, and the raised beds where I grow vegetables, using topsoil brought from elsewhere. And, after two winters of work, my barn is back in good shape.

MARAUDING BEARS. We probably won't see a profit for another two growing seasons. For starters, it'll be another year, at least, before the asparagus is ready to harvest. Meanwhile, I have enough fruit to feed my cider press and keep Susan busy making jam and jelly. In the winter, I cut trees and sell both firewood and cherry logs for furniture-making. But it seems as if every time there's income, there's also new outlay. Last year, in part to pollinate the orchard, I started beekeeping, but bear raids have ended that until I install a welded cage.

That's another drawback. While it's a treat to look up from work and see some beautiful bird or animal, the trouble with wildlife is that you can't pick your guests, let alone suggest how they might behave. Beavers help themselves to any apple tree that isn't protected, deer disco dance on my vegetable beds, and moose just plod right through them.

Given such travails, my old motorcycle buddies wonder why I sold my bike to pay for a brush hog for my tractor. Zipping from Point A to Point B, I tell them, is nothing compared with scooping up Point A and depositing it atop Point B with my front-end loader.

A Farm of His Own (int'l edition)

BEWILDERED EYES. The real downside? Toil, toil--and then heartbreak, like that tiny taste of honey I took off a destroyed apiary frame with my finger after the final bear attack, my queen bee dead. Pure and fresh, the honey was incomparably delicious. But often, you can't even blame nature. When I'm working hard, the brain fades before the body, and there have been some close calls: In the early days, a chain saw kicked back and somehow sliced my jeans but not my skin. Another time, I slipped carrying two cans of gasoline and regained consciousness soaked in gas, looking up into the bewildered eyes of my dog. Two summers ago, a fellow down the road died in one of the worst ways--pinned under a tractor. These images of accidents and no one to help are the equivalent of fluorescent safety warnings that I carry around in my head.

But when I'm down in New York, where I have long since given up my apartment, I go to sleep in a motel room thinking about rain on my land and how, month by month, it's turning into an efficient little showpiece of a small farm. What it all comes down to is that up there in those hills, I'm doing something I love.

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