Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

Most farmers are accustomed to offering first-time visitors a rambling tour of the premises: down dirt roads past brooding bulls and nervous chickens, through tall corn fields, over rolling pastures, and so on. Ken Isaacs has a better idea. We walk over to a row of three silos. "Here, get in the bucket of this," he says, pointing to a large red front-end loader, whereupon he starts the engine and raises the bucket and its passenger 10 feet, to the first rung of the largest silo's 50-foot ladder. "You'll get a good idea of the farm's layout from up there," he says, pointing straight up.

From the top of the silo, 60 feet up, the farm, in South Dartmouth on the coast, spreads out like a map: 700 acres of corn fields and pasture that stretch straight down to Buzzards Bay. In the distance there is the outline of Cuttyhunk Island and a glimpse of the clay cliffs at Gay Head, on the southern tip of Martha's Vineyard. The vista that would make most developers weep.

A silo-top tour is somehow typical of the way Isaacs views Bay State farming. Lanky and rugged-looking, with a shock of brown hair over wire-rimmed glasses, he has been growing corn and hay and raising beef cattle on his family's farm for most of his 26 years. However, four years studying economics, as an undergraduate at Harvard and another year at the Harvard Business School on his way to a two-year MBA, have considerably sharpened his perception of the Massachusetts farmer's situation.

Back on the ground, the farm still seems slightly larger than life. In front of the garage there is a small army of tractors, plows, seed spreaders, corn choppers, and harvesters; one of the tractors, a huge red International Harvester Hydro-100, has wheels well over six feet high, filled not with air but with a combination of calcium and water. Across a field, a horizontal silo holds more than one hundred thousand cubic feet of feed. Even the Herefords, 350 head at 1800 pounds each, look otherworldly. All in all, it's quite clear that this is a wholly different thing from John Burns's 85-acre spread in Raynham. Or is it?

"Actually," Isaacs says, "most New England farmers, regardless of size, face the same basic problem: the costs - machinery, grain, labor, etc. - are rising faster than the produce prices. This affects everybody. Also, all farmers feel the pressure of rising machinery costs and parts-availability. When it's August and you're faced with a two-month wait for a part for your corn chopper, you're in trouble.

"One of the main differences, " he continues, "is that big farmers have the advantage of what is called economics of scale; that is, the larger farms can spread the high fixed costs - machinery, insurance, maintenance, and so on - over more products and get lower per-unit costs."

As if to prove his point, Isaacs takes me down the street to the Sylvia brothers, Victor and Edward, who run an average-sized dairy farm: 60 acres, 35 Holsteins. "This farm," Isaacs says, "has been run by the same family since the turn of the century. And it's probably one of the most efficiently run in the state."

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