Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

When we arrive, the cows are out grazing in a distant pasture; Victor Sylvia, gray-haired and trim, is standing inside the spotless barn. He is wearing a neatly pressed, matching-green cotton work outfit: pants, shirt, and cap. A collie and a cat, white and butterscotch, are nosing around in the empty stalls. Sylvia talks quietly, as if someone is taking a nap nearby. "All our costs are going up," he says. "But grain is going up more than most. In the last few years it's doubled in price."

"Grain prices, like beef prices, tend to move in cycles," Isaacs explains later. "It's all based on supply and demand. After a bumper year for grain prices, like this year, grain farmers start to feel bullish, and they expand production in anticipation of continued high prices. Unfortunately, supply eventually outruns demand and they are forced to cut back on their operations. At the trough of the cycle, things often get very bleak. Several years ago, for example, cattle farmers faced with this kind of situation went out and shot five million head of cattle. All these farmers are subject to these market fluctuations. And the energy shortage has made things worse: during the haying season, for example, a farm like this could burn 40 gallons of gas a day."

Victor Sylvia does not know what is going to happen to his farm. He talks about how his great-grandfather, a Portuguese immigrant, bought the land from the town's largest landowner, after he had worked for him for most of his life. One of the farmers in the neighborhood died recently; Isaacs and Sylvia discuss the fate of the man's farm. There is talk of developers. In this oceanfront area, where a single farm like Isaacs's could be turned into a seaside resort, the threat of developers looms large. More than once, Victor Sylvia looks out the doors of his barn. "I don't know," he says. "I don't know."

Back in the car, Isaacs says, "There has always been a great incentive for farmers to sell out. Traditionally, farms were passed on from father to son; that kind of family structure is breaking down. Consequently, many farmers sell their land when they get to retirement age. After you've been working for 50 or 60 years, paying yourself a dollar an hour, an offer from a developer may seem very attractive. The Agriculture Preservation Restriction Act takes a big step toward reversing this trend. It just needs funding from the legislature in order to be effective.

"I think people are beginning to appreciate the value of open land," Isaacs says later. "For one thing, open land costs a town less than developed land. In college, I did a study of the effects of the Farmland Assessment Act on the town of Dartmouth. I found that if an average-size farm was developed, the incremental costs of schooling, police protection, etc. would increase the tax rate by $1; on the other hand, the lost tax revenues from the lower assessments mandated by the act only raise the tax rate 20 cents." Local property taxes were once among the farmers' biggest burdens. Now a number of other problems have taken its place, chief among them inflation.

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