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Bad times for the good earth

How are we going to keep them down on the farm?
By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009


This article was originally published in the July 31, 1979 edition of the Boston Phoenix.

The sign, an odd-sized piece of particle board with FARM STAND scrawled on it in red paint, is fastened by a single nail to a telephone pole on the busy corner of Route 44 and Orchard Street in Raynham. The arrow on the sign points down a street that at one time snaked through quiet farm land but has since come quite a ways from its rural past: one resident has stocked his front lawn with four or five late-model Valiants and Mustangs and renamed his house "Robert I. Currid Auto Sales"; Ella Perry has hung out her "Registered Electrologist" sign; and the Berrys have crammed their garage with bedroom sets and proclaimed it, by means of a garish, blinking sign on their front lawn, The Furniture Barn. After all this, John Burns's ramshackle farmstand, about a mile down the road, is almost defiant in its folksiness; the hand-painted wooden signs scattered in front relay a variety of messages: STOP, PRODUCE, PULL UP ON LAWN, and HONK HORN FOR SERVICE. Featured items, similarly advertised, include: eggs, cabbage, peppers, beets, raw milk, beans, summer squash, zucchini and corn. Mulch hay is a dollar a bale.

The people who live nearby obviously enjoy pulling in and honking; it's easy to feel good about a farm stand. But if Burns decided tomorrow to cash in his chips and open his own Furniture Barn, they'd understand. Because Burns, a no-nonsense farmer who never hesitates to tell people exactly how he feels, has neither the time nor the inclination to contemplate the scenic, soothing aspects of the farm stand and his farm. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to make economic sense out of 85 acres, four cows, 48 chickens, a rooster, three geese, and a horse. In Massachusetts, this has never been an easy thing to do.

You could say that the plight of the Massachusetts farmer began during the Great Ice Age, when the Laurentide Ice Sheet scraped over New England leaving poor soil and, as one farmer put it, "rocks, rocks, rocks." Add to these geological results the occurrences of the last 40 years: rising property taxes, increased competition from the huge truck farms in Florida and California, and tempting overtures from high-pressure developers have all taken their toll. The statistics are alarming: 30,000 Massachusetts farms have gone out of business since 1945; in the same period of time, farm acreage has shrunk from two million to 600,000. Even today, with an increased interest in homesteading and small farming, Massachusetts farms continue to fail at the rate of 200 a year, and productive farm land is decreasing by 12,100 acres a year.

The effects of this decline are concrete. Massachusetts, which was once close to self-sufficient, now has to get 85 percent of its food from out of state (an estimate so frequently quoted that Frederic Winthrop Jr., the Massachusetts Commissioner of Food and Agriculture, refers to it as, "that damn figure.") The recent Independent Truckers' strike proved how vulnerable the state's food supply is. Yet even with things running smoothly, Massachusetts's dependence on food imports is often cited as the major reason why the state's food prices are six to 10 percent higher than the national average. With transportation costs from Florida and California (which between them provide 40 percent of Massachusetts's food) rising sharply, this figure is likely to go through the roof.

What can be done? Federal and state agencies have their plans: tax relief, loan programs, farm-land-preservation acts - good intentions and high-minded ideals abound. Yet in the end, everybody knows that these programs by themselves will not be able to save Massachusetts farming. Instead, the whole show will probably depend on how many John Burnses will be able to eke out a living on their 85 acres - and how long they will be able to keep it up.

John Burns has a lot to say on the subject of farming ("He's definitely a frank son of a bitch," one local farm official says, with a hint of irritation) but he doesn't have a lot of time to say it. "I'll tell you what," he says as he squints from under a ridiculously tattered straw hat. "You give me two hours of work, I'll give you two hours of talk. Otherwise, as John Wayne used to say in the cowboy movies, we're just burning daylight."

A few minutes later, a little after 1 p.m., Burns and I are rocking down a sun-splattered dirt road on a four-cylinder John Deere tractor. Robert, Burns' nine-year-old son, is behind us on an old wooden trailer - with chain saws, oil and gas, and gloves. With the exception of one small strawberry patch, both sides of the road are almost impenetrably thick with trees: mostly pine and red oak, with a healthy sampling of ash, cherry, white oak, and maple.

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Related: The Melting Pot, Pick what you eat, Editors' picks: Food, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, Politics, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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  •   BAD TIMES FOR THE GOOD EARTH  |  August 11, 2009
    You could say that the plight of the Massachusetts farmer began during the Great Ice Age, when the Laurentide Ice Sheet scraped over New England leaving poor soil and, as one farmer put it, "rocks, rocks, rocks."
    This article originally appeared in the July 18, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
    This article originally appeared in the May 30, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
  •   STONE SOUL PICNIC  |  October 11, 2007
    This article originally appeared in the October 5, 1982 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
  •   'PLEASE KILL ME'  |  August 20, 2007
    This article originally appeared in the August 16, 1977 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

 See all articles by: D.C. DENISON

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