A year ago, a 168-acre farmstead came up for sale in our neighborhood. The widow who had lived there for many years moved to a town after years of taking care of the place by herself and with the help of her neighbors.
The farm is a wonderful place, with timber along the creek, corn fields, hay fields, a few established, old-fashioned fruit trees and flowers around the house. Buildings range from a 1880 corn crib to a 1920s dwelling, large hay barn, machine shed, chicken coops, model T garage, and a wondrous assortment of sheds and bins.
The woman's move was the normal pattern of things when there are no heirs interested in taking the place over, but a farm sale strikes terror in neighbors' hearts. To a rural neighborhood, urban sprawl, CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), and land speculation are constant threats.
Everybody worried about who would buy the place. A developer? A corporate farmer living elsewhere who would bulldoze the buildings? A densely-inhabited trailer park to overload our school population?
When auction day came, everyone turned out. A local farmer bid the place up to $700, then gave up because there's no way this cow/calf operation can pay more. The bidding went on, bidders dropping out until it was down to three -- a developer, an industrial farmer and CAFO operator, and two young women who wanted to start an organic farm and sell directly to the public. The women had learned about organic farming in California, where sustainable agriculture is supported by the public and the state universities.
The buildings on the land meant little to the developer or the CAFO operator. To the sustainable farmers, however, each building had a possible use. The big barn could house wagons, hoses, other equipment, and be a pleasant refuge from the sun when they are sowing seed into seed trays. The model-T garage could shelter a tractor. A chicken coop could be re-habbed into a wash house for veggies. Another could house -- here's an idea -- a few chickens.
The land was good, too. Under the management of the elderly widow, the fields had enjoyed benign neglect. There was a small piece just right for an orchard, and another just right for a U-Pick strawberry patch. The old cattle ponds could provide water to the gardens. And so forth.
At about $1200, the developer dropped out of the bidding. Score a point in the battle against urban sprawl. But, not only was urban sprawl on the table, but the problems brought to the land by industrial farming and the solution to the problem of historic preservation were hanging in the balance. In the case of this property, which has about 50 acres of mature hardwood timber, even sustainable forestry was an issue.
The industrial farmer has bought many homesteads in the county -- you can tell which ones because he knocks down all the trees and plants his genetically-altered crops border to border. He bulldozes and burns the buildings, perhaps leaving an implement shed to house some of his huge machines. His places are planted with beans or corn as far as the eye can see, with nary a shelter for man nor wildlife.
The bidding went on. The young women were so nervous they said later they had no idea who was there, or who they were bidding against. A neighbor stood behind them and sort of propped them up. Other neighbors gathered behind. A painter might have painted the scene with the community facing the industrial farmer, a cluster of bankers and developers to the side.
If you wonder what kept our heroines in the bidding so long, the neighborhood has a tradition of supporting local growers. We want small farmers here, we have an active food circle, and we are 15 miles from a well-supported farmer's market.
OK, to make a long story short, the onlookers burst into applause when the organic farmers won out. Neighbors gathered around the young women, who signed the necessary papers and, overcome by the tension, fled the scene while the auctioneers picked up after themselves.
After the women moved in, neighbors helped them build a greenhouse and one retired neighbor has helped them with grass cutting, visiting, shared rides to town, and friendly advice. He even pulled them out of the creek one afternoon when their canoe was grounded miles from home. They will never be able to repay him, but that's not how neighborhoods work. Some day, they'll help somebody else and so it goes.
Over the summer, neighbors saw vegetable and flower beds go in and the orchard expanded. What might have been a blight is a delight. And, here's the best part: They've attracted other young people who want to be part of the neighborhood. We want them here. We need them here.
It's madness to train the best of our children to leave home and pursue success in corporate places, under alien corporate circumstances. The global workplace leaves individuals isolated, dependent on job connections rather than community for support. It's a common happening that retirees come home to small towns to retire, and find the place inferior to what they remember. What contributions would they have made if they'd stayed?
Terra Bella Farm has found restaurants to buy their produce, they sell to a natural food store, and have found loyal customers at the farmer's market. For a first-year experience, they are a success story although I imagine it will be a few years before the farm makes them a living.
In the meantime, they'll harvest some of the trees. They're looking for a logger who will work with them to select which trees to cut, and who will take the cut logs out of the woods with horses or mules instead of heavy machinery.
But here's the bottom line: In your neighborhood and mine, for the small, young, sustainable farmers to be successful, we have to keep markets growing.
Insist that your community sponsor a farmer's market. Then shop there, and ask the farmers how they grow their food. Some farmer's markets allow middle men to buy wholesale from the same sources as the big grocery stores. Insist that your farmer's market doesn't allow that duplicity.
Refuse to buy the imported foods and genetically altered foods at the big grocery chain store. Get to know some farmers. Visit their farms. Buy a freezer, then order meat from a local farmer who raises animals in a way that's harmless to the environment.
It's harvest time. Will it be a harvest of hope or despair? Local farmers need your support.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org