April 7, 2010
Visiting the Hartland Historical Society in Vermont, historian Bill Hosley of Enfield, Ct., came upon a paper written in 1907 by a prominent local farmer, Byron P. Ruggles.
It was a hand-typed, 10-page manuscript with the less-than-compelling title “Modern vs. Conservative Dairying.” Hosley began reading.
One of the joys of poking around in the archives of a local historical society is that almost invariably you come upon something – letters, old photos, documents, something – that amounts to a revealing window into long-ago life. Sometimes that window gives us perspective; sometimes it helps explain how we got where we got, for better or worse.
Vermont farmer Byron P. Ruggles. Photo courtesy Hartland Historical Society, Hartland, Vermont
The Ruggles paper, Hosley discovered, was one of those windows. He photocopied it.
In it, Ruggles (1838-1917) was skeptical of the advice farmers were getting from academia, government and commerce.
Farmers were told: “We must use a seed drill, a land roller, a corn-planter, a corn-weeder, a cultivator, a corn harvester, a corn husker, a potato planter, potato hoer, potato digger, a reaper, mowing machine, hay tender, horse rake, horse pitchfork, ensilage cutter, threshing machine, drag and circular saws, and an engine to run some of the machines. We must have a silo. It would not do to think of stock or dairy farming without it.” He goes on for two pages complaining of what he was supposed to be buying, doing and not doing.
Most notably, though, Ruggles was bothered by the advice “to own and run large farms; that small farms are not profitable.” That of course became the government mantra of the 20th century, and led to the industrial farming dominant today. Industrial farming may be good at producing lots of food comparatively inexpensively, but it is fair to say, I think, that we are still sorting out the hidden and not-so-hidden environmental, nutritional and societal costs of the bigger-is-necessarily-better philosophy of farming.
Ruggles was one of those independent, civic-minded old New Englanders, the kind of guy, Hosley learned, who also founded the Hartland Nature Club and assembled its impressive natural history collections. He was an influential local leader in a small town along the Connecticut River that remains to this day a community of only 3,223 people. He also was a photographer. But first, he was a farmer. Bigger is better? After decades of farming, Ruggles figured he could shuck nonsense as easily as an ear of corn. He offered his own advice.
Megan Haney kneels in a cover crop of rye and vetch at Marble Valley Farm in Kent, Ct., where she raises vegetables and flowers on 3 acres of land beside the Housatonic River. Photo courtesy of Tom Lapham.
“Do not be a farmer unless you like the business and prefer it to another trade or occupation.”
“Do not buy a farm larger than you can do all the work on yourself.”
“Do not have a great multiplicity of farming tools. A plow, a harrow, a roller, a cultivator and a hoe are all the tools you need for working the soil.”
“Do not use any commercial fertilizers. You can raise good crops and increase the fertility of the soil without them.”
“Do not buy any meal or grain feed for your cows. Feed them with what you raise on the farm; that is what your farm is for. They must have good pasturage in summer; plenty of nutritious grasses… They must have good water to drink, such as you would drink yourself.”
“Do not keep cows in the barn all of the time in winter, nor most of the time. You cannot raise good calves from cows so kept. Let them out in the yard at least five or six hours a day except in stormy or very cold weather for sun and air and water and salt and exercise and general enjoyment.”
The Ruggles message was fundamental: respect the land, treat farm animals humanely.
It all sounds a lot like the kind of small, sustainable agriculture emerging in Connecticut and many parts of the country in recent years. I think, for example, of Megan Haney growing vegetables and flowers on three acres of land along the Housatonic River in Kent, Ct.
She starts and ends a long hot day in the field with a sunbonnet and a smile.
Oh, when she was starting out the representative of one federal agency told her that if her farm store wasn’t open every day she could fail. But her Marble Valley Farm store is open to the general public only two days a week in the growing season. After three years she has no plans to change; she is doing fine. Her Community Supported Agriculture program, in which families pay a farmer up-front for a season’s worth of vegetables provided weekly during the growing season, attracts more customers every year. Her farm store is a hit.
She uses a 60-year-old Allis Chalmers G tractor with 11- or 12-horsepower that looks, as she says, more like a Go-Kart than a serious farm tractor. It helps, for sure, but most work, all of the planting and much of the weeding is done by hand anyway. She farms organically. She does most of the work. She keeps it simple.
Her farm and her philosophy, it seems, are not unlike what Byron Ruggles was talking about all those years ago.