Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

Last year, Burns finally decided, grudgingly, that he would try to secure a loan so that he could get out from under his mortgage payments for awhile. Despite the apparent number of federal and state programs available, this did not turn out to be easy. "The Farmer's Home Administration said no," Burns says. "And they gave us a real hard time. If you ask me, they just want to make sure that their friends, the good ol' boys, get the government money every year. It was only when we went to a small-farmer's conference and caught the ear of the regional director from Washington, that we got the okay." As a result, the farm currently is $2000 in the black; unfortunately, the money is already earmarked for the Roto-tillers.

"Do you know how much cowshit a cow produces in a day?" Burns asks. "Between 50 and 75 pounds. That's a lot of fertilizer." By the end of the afternoon, the working hours and the talking hours have gotten sort of mixed up, but it's 5 o'clock and the cows have yet to be milked, so we're heading down the lower pasture, sidestepping cow pies, to get them. This is not as easy a chore as it sounds: in the first place, the two cows in the field let it be known that they do not want to leave; then, to make matters worse, Burns's horse suddenly gets skittish. At one point, all three animals are loose in the pasture, running in different directions and occasionally hiding behind trees and bushes. One at a time, Burns tracks the cows down and drags them back, in a headlock, to me. The horse proves more elusive, but eventually he, too, is corralled, and the trip back to the barn begins.

When we get there, Burns secures the animals, grabs a beer, and heads for the woodpile to split some logs for tonight's wood-selling trip to Massasoit State Park. His daughter, Sherry, lets the chickens out for some "scratching time," and they scatter all over the yard. At the same time, three geese, looking very insecure, run around in a trio. "They know that sooner or later they're going to wind up on the dinner table," Burns says with a grin. He leans against the trailer and takes a few last swallows of beer. "Sometimes I think that the reason why small farms go out of business or sell out is that the people just aren't willing to do the work. I'm not bragging, but this is really work. I got a message for all those farmers who sit around and complain all day about how government price supports and subsidies should be higher: get off your asses. Some of these farmers, especially the big ones, are spoiled. They sit around and expect the government to lend them the money for the seed, and then guarantee that they'll be able to sell the stuff at a nice profit. To me that's bullshit. I think if you're going to be a farmer, you have to justify your existence without saying 'gimme, gimme, gimme.'"

How does he justify his own existence? I can see the answer coming. Burns looks directly at the geese with mock seriousness. "Maximum utilization of all available resources." The geese seem to understand, and run away.

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