An Excerpt on the Myth of the Small Farm from Daniel Hecht’s New Novel, “On Brassard’s Farm”

Just as I’d had imbecilic notions of the forest, I had childlike misconceptions about farms, farming, and farmers. I had an imaginary “farm” in my mind.

I knew that most of our food is grown on factory farms run by giant corporations. I knew that growing lots of a single crop or raising lots of a single kind of animal was the rule. I knew that the self-sufficient family farm was a dying institution. I’d read about these things in the Boston Globe and New York Times.

But as a kid, I had learned my letters by poring over picture books that depicted cozy farms with red and white barns, some friendly horses and sheep at the paddock fence, the fuddy-duddy farmer and his plump wife, the rows of vegetables, the henhouses, all surrounded by fields thick with grain. I loved Charlotte’s Web. At school, we sang “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Every TV ad for cereal still reinforces the myth: A hale middle-aged farmer sits to his breakfast—whatever cereal is being marketed—in his sunny kitchen. Behind him are flowery curtains and a counter displaying other totems of rural life: a colander piled with just-collected pure-white eggs, a bowl of blueberries, a bunch of fresh carrots, and some greens ready for the missus to chop for dinner. Cut to him heading out, full of vigor, to his spotless small-farm compound, then fade to a close-up of the nodding heads of golden grain in his wheat field.

The myth lives on in our beguiled minds; it resonates inside us, a template of all that is good and honest. I have a theory that we grow much like trees, that every period of our lifetimes remains fully intact inside us, just covered over with the next layer and the next. Later layers may not accord with the early ones—we know there’s no Santa Claus, but the five-year-old is still in there, waking on Christmas morning delirious with expectation.

So I came to Brassard’s farm with that blurry-edged cameo image still underlying my expectations.

I had begun acquiring a truer sense of things even before my Hindenburg imitation. I literally got an overview, because I’d sometimes sit in a comfortable glade just above the steep cliffs facing the farm, where, through gaps in the trees, I could see everybody’s comings and goings. I’d go there to write in my journal and then get distracted and just watch, pages unmarked.

If it were a film played fast, you’d see humans zipping here and there, trucks and tractors whipping about. In summer, you’d see a mottled tide of cows funneling into the milking parlor, then spraying out again across the pasture. In winter, as I learned later, the cows moved indoors and then you’d see manure being moved, piled, and spread on the fields, stall bedding and silage being carted here and there. And snow being pushed and heaped.

Inside the barn, there’s no three-legged stool and bucket: Milking is done by machines. You usher the cows into the milking parlor—they don’t need much coercion, because their udders ache and they know there’s relief in there—where you attach suction devices to the four teats. Once all the cows have been drained, you have to purge the whole apparatus with near-boiling water, scrape up the fresh manure, and then hose the whole area.

The milk in the holding tank gets picked up every other day by a big stainless-steel tank truck that holds thousands of gallons. That’s the Agri-Mark truck, from the farmers’ cooperative that processes and markets the milk. It idles for a while as it pumps the stuff out, and the driver hands Brassard a computer-generated receipt. The milk goes to the processing plant; Brassard gets a check.

Brassard didn’t spend his time stroking the velvety noses of his horses and giving them sugar lumps, because he didn’t have any horses, and his pockets had keys and tools and rags in them, not sugar lumps. In fact, he spent hours each day in his office, once a first-floor bedroom, at his computer, working his spreadsheets, juggling cash and debt, writing checks for equipment loans, reviewing the price of milk and feed on the exchanges. Farming is a business, and he was a capable businessman.

Manure was a big part of his day. In colder months, when the cows lived inside, the manure flowed to a sort of pond; Brassard periodically pumped the pond’s contents into a special tank trailer that he towed behind the tractor across the fields, spraying the stuff onto the soil. The shed for the younger cows, those not yet lactating, was set up so the manure fell into straw on the floor, creating a more solid form that he moved around with the bucket on the front of his tractor. He piled it in a big U-shaped concrete berm he called the “stack,” and in spring he loaded it into another specialized trailer that flung the stuff out in lumps as he drove. Both activities trailed a plume of odor that filled the valley.

He bought hundreds of tons of feed grain, but he also raised a lot of his own cow food. Think of it as a recipe for a cake or loaf of bread: To  110 acres of soil, sift in manure and chemical fertilizers. Whisk with spades and harrows, mix in corn seed. Let stand until it rises. Baste as needed with insecticides or herbicides. Bake in sun.

This wasn’t sweet corn, so it was never harvested for human consumption. The cobs dried on the stalk, and in autumn the golden-brown fields were felled by a combine that chopped both cob and stalk and hurtled the mixed chaff into a high-sided trailer. The fields were left with uniform rows of stubble, and the stuff was blown into the silo to feed the cows during the winter.

Brassard also grew ninety acres of hay, which he cut several times a summer, left in windrows, and then raked to fluff and flip it so it dried uniformly. He baled some but rolled most of it into huge wheels that he wrapped in heavy white plastic, leaving the fields scattered with six-foot marshmallows.

The farmyard, just to the side of this island of order, wasn’t pretty. It was shapeless and often muddy and marked by the braided ruts made by tractor wheels. Tractors and tractor attachments sat haphazardly when not in use, along with various cars and Brassard’s truck—a massive red double-cab Dodge Ram that he washed often and took great pride in. Earnest’s regular pickup was often there, and sometimes his big old warhorse stake-side, the one he used for his tree business, decorated the place as well.

So cows, manure, machines, and corn are the most obvious elements of the small dairy farm. I wasn’t exactly disillusioned by the realities of Brassard’s operation, but for a while it did leave a hollow in me where the ideal farm used to glow. The six-year-old in me, you could say, mourned the dream’s passing.

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