Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

John Boan, a Westport potato farmer, stands in front of his potato-harvesting machine. It looks almost like a house on wheels, except there are pullies, chains, sprockets and belts everywhere - a mechanical nightmare. "Ten years ago it cost me $16,000," Boan says. "Today it goes for $36,000." Like the Sylvias, the Boans have owned their farm for a long time - since 1887. "Things are tight, no doubt about that," Boan says, "but this gas crisis has actually helped us. Because of the high transportation costs, Idaho potatoes are coming into Massachusetts at a price we can compete with."

"Don't forget," Isaacs says as we drive away. "Families that have owned their farms for generations, like the Boans, have probably already paid off their mortgages. Think of how hard it is for farmers starting out: they face the same profit squeeze that the older farmers face, plus they have to pay for the huge capital outlay for the land."

On the way home we pass a field with a large sign in the middle: FOR SALE: One Acre Lots. "Developers are like vultures," Isaacs says. (Some local residents refer to them as "land pimps.") "They circle around waiting around for farms to fail. The state programs are helping, but the farmers' problems play right into the developers' hands."

In the future, of course, things may be different. Farmers may be buying up unprofitable developments and turning them into farms in order to supply much-needed food to a burgeoning population. Until then, however, Massachusetts farm land is vulnerable: people don't need Massachusetts farmers the way they need clean water. California, Florida, and others states currently supply enough cucumbers and beets, peas and corn to go around. Fifty years from now, the survival of Massachusetts's farms may be an economic matter; until then, for better or worse, it's largely an aesthetic one.

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