Six Decades of Farming Come to A Close

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(Host) Six decades of farming on an East Montpelier hillside have come to an end.

The Christiansen family called in the auctioneer to sell off their equipment and their herd of registered Holsteins. But it wasn’t low milk prices that forced the sale. Peter Christiansen has health problems from years of hard, physical labor. And he can’t find anyone to help him work the place.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The auction starts first with the miscellaneous items – spools of bailing twine, new coils of barbed wire, a few orange electric fence charges, a huge box of bolts. Farmer, Peter Christiansen, watches quietly from the side of the crowd. He’s smiling. But it’s a day full of mixed emotions, he says.

(Christiansen) “Well, it’s something I’ve been fighting for a year or two, you know. This isn’t something I wanted to see.”

(Dillon) Sixty-six years ago, on the tenth of April, 1939, Christiansen’s grandfather drove the cows up the hill from Route 14 – the first of three generations to work the land. This isn’t a case of chronically low milk prices driving another family farmer out of business. Christiansen doesn’t complain about his milk check.

(Christiansen) “Prices are great! But I’ve got this foot to deal with. And then I found a few months ago, kind of what really did the decision, was that my shoulders are shot and they can’t get fixed. It’s really too physical for me to keep it going.”

(Dillon) At sixty-one, his ankle is wracked with arthritis and covered with a plastic walking cast. His rotator cuffs are damaged from years of hard work, making it painful to extend his arms when milking. He thought about hiring an extra hand, but few people want to spend dawn and dusk in a milking parlor.

(Christiansen) “We looked into that, and milking is kind of hard to find help for. Everybody wants to do field work and stuff like that. But milking is another thing. I’ve been doing most of the milking now for a long time.”

(Dillon) The auctioneer lures the crowd to a corn field that serves as the outdoor equipment showroom. Jacque Royer came down from Derby with his wife Vicki and sons Tyler and Parker.

(Royer) “Looking for new equipment, can’t afford to buy new.”

(Dillon) Royer has just bid successfully on a John Deer disc harrow. And like Christiansen, Royer is happy with milk prices these days.

(Royer) “Price of milk’s very good. Farming is actually good for right now.”

(Dillon) Despite the steady decline in the number of farms in Vermont, milk production is increasing. The reason is that cows produce more milk these days, and the farmers that are left buy more of them.

Andrew Christiansen, Peter’s brother, says this trend toward consolidation has been a factor for decades.

(Christiansen) “This farm itself contains the Hammett Farm, the Snow Farm, part of the Guyette Farm. This farm itself is made up of a bunch of small farms that were different farms back, well not that long ago if you think about it.”

(Dillon) But now this aggregated hill farm may be too small for anything but a specialized operation.
But it won’t grow houses. The land is protected with conservation easements, and the family is thinking about leasing the fields to an organic producer.

Peter’s brother, Andrew, is making a videotape of the auction for their father, who’s eighty-seven. The senior Christiansen, didn’t want to see the sale, but asked his son to make a record. Andrew says the family is happy the land is protected, because someday, he says, we’ll need all the local farmland we can find.

(Christiansen)” Right now, we import, what, about eighty percent of our food into the state. Between the cost of oil and transportation and possible terrorism down the road, it’s pretty poor national security policy to get all your food transported across the country.”

(Dillon) The cows are the last to be auctioned. They’ll go through the milking parlor for one last milking before they’re dispersed around the state. Christiansen says they’re acting nervous, as if they know.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in East Montpelier.

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