The New York Times recently published an article about the difference between organic and sustainable farming practices which mentioned a dairy in upstate New York about twenty miles north of my hometown.
As a native of the Hudson Valley, where Ronnybrook Farm Dairy is located, it is shocking to visit and see the demise of the family farm. As a child in Dutchess County many of my friends were from dairy farming families. Most of these were very small affairs where one of the parents also held an outside job. Others were owned by the very wealthy who hired farm managers for the day-to-day business. Less motivating than the tax write-off was the desire for their children to grow up with the farm experience–hard work with intrinsic rewards that offset privilege. One notable gentleman farmer who always gave me a thrill when I saw him in town was James Cagney. He retired ‘upstate’ and personally raised Scottish Highlanders on his small farm. Another ‘wanna-be’ farmer was Meryl Streep. She bought a dairy farm near Amenia specifically to expose her children to a more healthful lifestyle. Within a month she sold all her stock. In a magazine interview she explained, ‘I didn’t realize that cows have an odor.’ (That comment didn’t make her very popular at the local grocery store.) To her credit, she does support the Connecticut Farmland Trust which is decently upwind from her NY property.
Notably, all of these farmers (excepting Meryl Streep) used some sustainable practices. A bike ride through the county from early spring to deep into the fall showed expansive hillside pastures dotted with meandering cattle, their black and white hides contrasting sharply with lush green or bright autumnal backgrounds. Cows, by the way, are incredibly resilient creatures. On warmer days in the winter and especially during the January thaw, they slogged through mushy snow and mud to soak in fresh ‘dairy- air’ and sunshine. (You can imagine, the Far Side was a favorite comic strip of my peers.)
While my mother was wary of ‘raw’ milk, my favorite dairy beverage was a fountain drink. We would line up in the barn–kid, cat, kittens, kid, waiting for an obliging older brother or cousin to shoot us a stream straight from the udder before hooking an ever-so-patient cow to the milking machine. My mother, by the way, was a wiz with laundry.
Because of its proximity to NYC, Dutchess County is now overrun with the affluent overflow of that megalopolis. With the influx of upper middle class professionals, the value of real estate skyrocketed. This had a two-fold effect on family farms. Acres of pastureland became hugely desirable to developers who cut up plots of land into tiny checkerboards of fractional acre lots. A small home in a bedroom community can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Secondly, the time intensive, backbreaking labor and financial costs of running a farm with a marginal profit at best became less attractive as the family farmers aged. Ronny, who took over Ronnybrook’s Farms from his parents, is in a small minority. Very few children of farmers can afford to stay in the area.
I see the same thing that began in the Hudson Valley over twenty years ago happening right now in Guilford County. While I understand that financial health is very important and the availability of jobs that pay a living wage is necessary, at what cost? The old Dutch farming families from Dutchess County are gone–died off, their birthright sold, their children drifted away. I am just now appreciating how privileged I was to grow up healthy and strong from the wonderful foods and outdoor lifestyle my parents so graciously provided me. It’s crucial that we pull together and support the local farmer, sustainable practices, and the agricultural lifestyle before it becomes so much dirt before the bulldozer.