To farm or not to farm. That was the question. Kathy Melnik remembers pulling her then-teenage son, Peter, off the tractor on afternoons so he would experience more than farming. "I'd remind him he had a soccer game," she says, standing in the kitchen of her farmhouse a stone's throw from the Melnik dairy barn in western Massachusetts.
"I wanted him to have plenty of off-farm experiences because farming is so demanding," she says. "If he was going to be a farmer, it was not his family's choice to make for him, but his to make for himself."
After college and a short stint at a bank, Peter made his choice: dairy farming. "I have no regrets over the way my family raised me," he says.
And on this bright, crisp day, some 10 years later, he stands with his new farming partners and old friends - Jay Savage and Don Patterson - at the crest of a 60-acre field covered with winter rye. Down the hill and beyond the trees, the Connecticut River flows through the historic French King Gorge.
Acting very nontraditionally, these young, ambitious farmers are part of an American Farmland Trust (AFT) project that purchased 660 acres of prime land in Pioneer Valley from New England Power Co. for $1 million. AFT then sold 210 acres to the three farmers for $385,000 - about half the cost on the open market - and also allotted 365 wooded acres to the state's Department of Environmental Management for protection. Local conservation groups also gained prime land in the deal.
AFT calls the transaction a "signature project" because it establishes a model of cooperation for small-scale farmers across the US, and keeps prime farmland in use for farming families.
Mr. Melnik, Mr. Savage, and Mr. Patterson, who each own or rent several hundred acres already, and have known and trusted each other for years, will now make decisions together about the new land and the all-important rotation of crops. To lay the ground rules they hammered out a 60-page agreement, and named their venture Split River Farms, a limited-liability corporation. "We all farm different crops," says Melnik, "so we're not competing for the same market. We are merging together as a team to make things more affordable and efficient for us."
For years farmers have joined together in cooperatives to purchase supplies or market their products. Many small farmers share equipment. But their scrappy independence has not led to much sharing of land. Now a new generation of farmers, faced with a global marketplace, increased competition, and the need to use technology are warming up to new cooperative ventures.
"Smaller farms form communities; corporations don't," says Tim Storrow, AFT's Land Protection Program manager, and the man who negotiated the sale of the land to the three young farmers. "It's a little scary to me to think about all our food production becoming so concentrated in big corporations. The really good farmers are born in farming families. We are losing people who are close to the land," he says, "and the pool of families that knows how to grow things is diminishing. Lose them and we lose our farms, and then rural communities have a tougher time surviving."
Each successful farming family is alike in adapting to the changing demands of working with crops or animals, but they differ in how they balance family needs with farming needs. Mrs. Melnik's father was a vegetable farmer. After she married, she and her husband had five children.
"We had a rule that when we ate dinner together, there would be no talk about farming business," she says. "And when we go on vacation now, the minute the car door shuts we don't talk about the farm. It used to spoil our vacations."
Melnik's choice to farm makes him a fourth-generation dairy farmer with a herd of 200 or more cows. He and his father continue to grow feed and silage for the cows on several hundred acres.
"People understand around here that if we are gone, more neighbors will move in," he says, "and the open space they moved here for will be gone."
Savage's grandfather and father grew potatoes and tobacco. Now Savage and his father, John, grow potatoes - under contract to Frito-Lay for potato chips - and also sod for lawns, playing fields, parks, etc.
"You really have to love this life," says Patterson, whose grandfather was a farmer although his father wasn't.
"It's great to be self-employed, if you can make it, and we live in a beautiful area." Patterson's crops are cucumbers (for pickles), peppers, and pumpkins.
"You won't make it if you don't love farming," says Savage, who is married and has a one-year-old daughter. "People think we are crazy for the hours we work. When Don and I are busy, we're working 80 to 100 hours a week. It doesn't faze us, but it hurts our families sometimes."
Savage's wife, Lisa, who did not grow up in a farming family, says, "At times it can really be lonely. We lived together here for a few years so I could see what it is like. He gets up anywhere from 3 to 7 each morning in the midst of harvest and comes home at 10 p.m. He eats, goes to bed, and does it all over again."
Patterson, who is kidded by his partners for being a workaholic's workaholic, has been married 15 years to Susan and they have four children ranging in age from 6 to 14.
"My wife often has to do my job," he says, explaining a fact of farming life. "She has to be the mother and father at times. It's kind of tough on her but she supports me all the way."
In growing cucumbers under contract to a local pickle company, Patterson gets paid by size, which means that when the cucumbers have grown to two inches in diameter, a small army is mobilized to pick them.
"You have to move fast," he says, often missing events in his children's lives because of harvesting. "If the cucumbers are ready on a Sunday night, you have to pick them."
The harvest can last eight weeks, seven days a week. At peak, Patterson often employs 20 people with a payroll reaching $15,000 a week. "It's a quick-growing crop," he says, "and very intense."
For Melnik, who is not married, operating a dairy farm can have a numbing regularity to it if you lose sight of why you love it. Milking occurs twice a day, 365 unrelenting days a year. And the cows, with distinct personalities, claims Melnik, always line up in the same order.
Recognizing the habits of cows is a far cry from the skills Melnick used as an agricultural loan officer. He tried it for a while, but farming easily won out over a desk job and clean shoes.
"I wanted to throw hay bales for seven hours and be sore," he says after realizing banking wasn't for him. "I wanted to ride on a tractor and enjoy nature.
"Farming is a business where you can get both, plus the mental challenge of a business, and you can work with your family."
With their new land, the farmers have the potential for more volume, and will rotate crops to benefit the soil and enrich the crops. Patterson grew cucumbers as the first crop on one section of the land, and Savage grew potatoes on another. "It gives us a bigger land base for rotation and expansion," says Savage. "Because we are locked into contracts, we are not raising as much as we want. The great thing is we are not tied up in renting land."
Despite all the challenges of farming, does Patterson want his children to be farmers?
"I want them to do whatever makes them happy," he says. "It's pretty important to enjoy what you are doing. I'd like to see them be interested in farming, but if they are not, it's not something I would force them to do."
*American Farmland Trust is a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to preserve land from development. For more information: Call: (202) 331-7300, or e-mail: www.farmland.org
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society