Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

"Just about nothing," he says at one point. "What do you have up there in those government offices? You have a bunch of turkeys earning 20 and 30 k for putting out little pamphlets and making recommendations. Nobody reads those pamphlets; I don't. I don't have the time. I'd like to know one thing that those guys have done to directly help a farmer - especially a small one like myself. I'd like to see those officials give up their jobs for a year and work on a farm. You've got to ask yourself: if they are such good farmers, what are they doing behind desks? With the exception of the Soil Conservation Service, which has given me some valuable information, and the Extension Service, which has given me some good advice, government agencies have been a pain in the ass. (These agencies are rather large exceptions, for the Soil Conservation Service and the Extension Service are the two principle government agricultural services a Massachusetts farmer has to deal with.) Frankly, I try to stay away from them. The best thing the state could do for me right now is loan me one of their trucks."

"Summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelons." An hour or so later, Burns is pointing out his crops as he walks between rows in one of his vegetable fields. In the distance corn and hay wave in the wind; on the other side of a clump of trees, the Taunton River flows by. Burns continues, "Tomatoes, we've got three kinds of tomatoes, beans, ornamental squash, pumpkins, peas, peppers, onions, beets, lettuce." At the end of the field, Burns looks up. "You know this land down here would be worth a lot of money," he says, "if it didn't spend at least part of the year under water." The upper part of the farm, especially the top 11 acres, with street frontage, town water, and most importantly open zoning, is another story. "It's probably worth anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to a developer," Burns says.

Considering the changing landscape all around him, development is something that Burns thinks about. He doesn't like the idea, but at some point it may be all that he has left. His mortgage payments are currently $650 a month; the cost of feed has recently gone up 60 percent; and buying and maintaining farm machinery - tractors, chain saws, hay balers, seeders, etc. - are getting more expensive all the time. This month, Burns is paying nearly $2000 to fix an old Roto-tiller and buy a new one. His annual tax bill is $1800.

The crops, which he sells retail from the farm stand and wholesale to a local restaurant and pizzeria, hardly put a dent in his expenses. Together with the wood and the two Jersey cows, which give him six gallons of milk a day, he barely makes ends meet. The chickens, 48 of them, just about earn their keep. "But then again," he says, "I like chickens, and we eat a lot of eggs." In any event, no matter how you add it up, the net income from the farm rarely reaches above zero. A few years ago, Burns tried working in Newton during the day and farming when he was home. It didn't work out. "When I got home I would do a lot of yelling" is all that he says of the experiment.

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