2010-05-13 / News

Conanicut Grange Report

By Bob Sutton
In her novel “Postcards,” E. Annie Proulx tells a story of a 1930s Vermont farm family witnessing the social, economic and literal collapse of their small family farm.

Minkton Blood, the old farmer working in his falling-down barn, with his sick cows and his children abandoning him for paying jobs in the city, is at the end of his rope.

Surrounded by other failing and abandoned farms, Blood is helpless to change the forces at work. Amidst all the deterioration, what he seems to miss most are the people leaving – the loss of his neighbors and the community of the small family farms that had defined and supported his quality of life.

“The people went when the horses went” is all he can figure out.

The 19th century industrialization and urbanization of the U.S., which had its roots in Pawtucket, changed everything. At the outset of the 20th century, more than 38% of this country’s working population worked on farms and 100 years later, farmers and farm workers represented less than 1.9%.

Not all New England farms disappeared immediately. The very rural, essentially subsistence farms, deep in the country could not exist in an increasingly mechanized and cash world and were gone. Those on the urban fringe continued to operate. These dairy, vegetable and poultry farms provided much of the fresh food for the growing numbers of city folks. Local bakery, dairy and egg men delivered door to door on city streets, with wagons and horses that knew the route as well as the delivery man. Farmers markets in the downtown business district, and small neighborhood grocery and butcher shops most convenient to pedestrian access, provided fresh local produce.

Urban dwellers, many just off the farm, brought agricultural skills to the city, planted small backyard gardens and preserved local vegetables for winter meals. Some took their children back to Grandpa’s farm for a holiday visit or to fetch a fresh Thanksgiving turkey. Immigrant populations, new to the city and this country, brought farming skills from their native lands, and also continued small-scale backyard agriculture, diversifying the food culture of the city. Local breweries, the pride of every city, utilizing local grains and local water, fueled the neighborhood bars and tap rooms. In spite of becoming an urban nation, we maintained local food connections.

Suburbanization and growing middle-class prosperity following World War II, in combination with an aging farmer population, was the near knockout blow to the local agriculture that still remained mid-20th century. The cheap, increasingly abandoned farmland that existed on the outskirts of cities was gobbled up for development.

Houses with blacktop driveways, garages with basketball rims and flashy 1950s Oldsmobiles, and kids on bikes replaced the last remnants of our local farming industry. The wide suburban streets befuddled the city-street navigation system of the aging delivery horses. These miles of new streets, cul-de-sacs and spread-out house development destroyed the economics of home delivery of local produce, and it disappeared forever.

Farmers bringing produce to the city’s farmers markets got old and died, and the markets disappeared. Small corner markets with local produce essential to urban neighborhoods could not provide either the volume of new manufactured food products or the requisite automobile parking to satisfy the new suburban family. Urban farming and food preservation skills were lost. Local breweries went out of business, guzzled down by national brands. Moreover, the image of the farming profession portrayed by radio and television was reduced to a kind of hillbilly “Hee Haw,” no-count way of living that had no impact on the quality of our “modern” lives or the quality of what we were eating.

In 2010, the contents of our nightly dinner have traveled an average of more than 1,500 miles to get there and increasingly, much of our food supply originates in Central America or as far away as China.

Jamestown farmers survived the near-knockout blow of the 20th century and today are working hard to provide local produce, which means local consumers have to make the effort necessary to support this production. If we, as a community of friends and neighbors, commit to buying local, wherever and whenever possible, we regain an important connection to our food supply and best of all, we will be eating healthier.

Out standing in the field

Driving down Carr Lane? Take a look into Nick Robertson’s “North Meadow Farm” and you will see a couple of really big guys out in the pasture.

“Jake” and “Mac” are Nick’s Percheron workhorses and they are two beautiful, big strong animals. A good team of workhorses was a critical, invaluable component of the family farm before tractors. They provided the muscle to pull the plow and the farm wagons and with the exception of Sundays, worked every day of the year without complaint. They ate the hay and grain grown on the farm and generally stayed healthy, working for 15 to 20 years. Percherons were the breed of choice for farm work and city delivery wagons, and it was this work relationship between man and animal that fed this nation for more than 150 years.

What’s available in Jamestown

Dutra Farm: Hay, 560-0230

Hodgkiss Farm, North Main Road: Horse hay, home-knit wool caps, 423-0641

Watson Farm, North Main Road: Grass-fed Red Devon beef, lamb, Conanicut Island and Rhody Warm wool blankets; hours: Thursday, 3 to 6 p.m.

Windmist Farm, 71Weeden Ln.: Grass-fed beef products, fresh eggs; hours: Friday, 3 to 5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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