Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

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.

Burns, who is 38 and has that combination of rugged complexion, open features and dirt-stained hands which would brand him, even on a beach in Monte Carlo, as a farmer, is obsessed with squeezing productive value out of every square inch of his land. "Maximum utilization of all available resources" is the way he puts it. Currently he has his 85 acres divided into 50 acres of forest, 16 acres of pasture, and 18 acres of vegetables and fruits. The house and barn take up an acre.

The largest tract - the forest - is worth, according to Burns's calculations, "at least two cords of wood per acre per year." In Raynham, a cord of wood sells for $55. "Last year we made about $3000 on cord wood alone," he says. "But we also burned eight cords of wood last winter and bought no oil." This year, he hopes to make at least 50 percent of his income from his woods. Already a forester has paid him $720 to harvest a small section, and Burns recently bought the rights from the state (for under $20) to sell firewood to campers in nearby Massasoit State Park. "In April we made $11 from the sale of wood," he says. "In May, when the campers started to arrive, we made $611; in June $947." He says it again: "Maximum utilization of all available resources."

When we get near one end of the forest, Burns pulls up to a wind-blown red oak lying on the ground, revs his chain saw and begins to attack it, sawdust flying, with the zeal of a pumped-up Alex Karras. Robert, who has his own, much smaller chain saw, strips the branches. I load the logs on the trailer. When the ripping noises from the two saws cease simultaneously, Burns brings up his favorite subject - what the government has done to help him as a farmer.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Robert Burns,  More more >
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