Let's Not Complain About Farmers When Our Bellies Are Full

By Will Baker

Addison County is arguably, the "business end" of farming in Vermont. To demonstrate this one need only take the drive up route 22A from Fairhaven to Vergennes, or down route 7 from Ferrisburg to Brandon. Both of these drives feature an almost uninterrupted landscape of gently rolling farmland as far as the eye can see. Vermont is a state proud of its agricultural tradition. And Addison County is where the action is.

Two weeks ago my wife and daughter found themselves volunteering at the Addison County Fair doing "food prep" at the Future Farmers of America/Four H food booth. "Food prep" is a fancy way of referring to husking corn and cutting up melons. Anyway, not only did this give them an opportunity to do their good deeds for the day; they were able to enjoy the Fair from a slightly different perspective. We know and interact with a lot of farmers. They are our friends and neighbors, and the ones from whom we buy our food. However, my wife says that seeing them at the fair, showing off their wares and being involved in an annual activity that goes back, in the case of many farming families for several generations, gave her an opportunity to really see these folks shine. And shine they did.

I have a very good friend who has been farming in the shadow of Camel’s Hump Mountain, in a valley on the eastern slope of the Green Mountains, for his entire adult life. After World War II, he married a woman from Wisconsin, and then returned to his home state to try to make a living at farming. He is not in the majority of Vermont family farmers, in that his land was not handed down to him. But he is a fifth generation Vermonter, and is widely respected for his knowledge of dairy farming and his sideline, the production of the sweetest maple syrup that you could ever taste. He often laments, "By the Jesus, it seems that folks forget where the food comes from…The stores sure as hell don’t grow it." He makes this statement with the understanding that only a tiny percentage of the selling price of, for instance, a box of cereal, or a pint of ice cream reflects the amount paid to the farmer for the "raw materials" required to produce the product. That is why a growing number of Vermont farmers sell their produce at farm stands or at the many weekly farmers markets held at various locations through out the state.

These farmers markets give these folks a chance to sell the "raw materials" directly to the consumer, AKA their neighbors. It is a great situation for everyone involved. On any given day of the week farmers arrive at a village green before noontime and set up their tents. The produce is on display before the weekday lunch break, and then folks descend upon the market and pick it clean. The whole process repeats itself on the weekend, so that most folks in this state have the ability to shop for a dizzying selection of fresh produce at least twice a week. Not to mention the farm stands that operate on a seven-day a week basis. By the way, the prices at these markets and farm stands seem ridiculously inexpensive to the folks that do not live here. And I understand why. I have observed that in other states, there are farm stands too. However the price of produce at these stands is often much more expensive than that which can be found in the supermarkets. Not true here.

My wife and daughter had a great time at the fair. My little girl came home with cotton candy that she saved for me, "fluffy sugar" she called it. And as I munched on this treat she told me all about her experience. She particularly enjoyed the pony ride, and the miniature goats. I have a suspicion that before too long a goat may be taking up residence in my own back yard. At least based on the lobbying that is going on around here that is the way that it seems to be going.

I love the old saying "don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full." It is so true. In an age of government regulation in almost every aspect of our lives, including food production, it is great to see farmers selling to, and interacting directly with the folks that use the food that they produce. But based on discussions that I have had with many good folks who have, to what my mind seems to be a slightly warped perspective regarding farmers and what they do, it seems to me that a disconnect has developed between the reality of a farmer’s vocation, and the average person’s perspective on it. I would liken it to the manner in which schoolteachers are viewed. We sometimes forget how inherently important schoolteachers are to our society, and we forget or maybe never even realize how difficult a task it is to teach. Instead we think of how lucky teachers are to have summers off. The same thing is sometimes said about farmers: how lucky these folks are. They do not have to go to work. Instead they putter around on their land and complain about government price supports. What is the matter with these people, they should feel fortunate not to have to do real work! Some time ago I can remember reading the results of a study that concluded that, were farmers to be paid on the basis of the actual time that was spent in the production of the food stuffs that they produce, for instance in a manner similar to that paid to folks that manufacture shoes, the price of food would be many times the amount actually paid in the stores.

So here’s to farmers every where, and in particular to Vermont farmers: the most self sufficient of a very self-sufficient people. And here is to the agricultural fairs that celebrate their vocations. These fairs give us an opportunity to gain insight into the worth while service that they provide to society. So when you go to your local fair, enjoy the rides and the food and the excitement. But make sure to visit the agricultural exhibits. They are, after all, what these late summer fairs are really all about.

 

(Essay Collection)