Since well before Thomas Jefferson, Americans have idealized small farmers. Distrustful of cities, they placed inordinate political power in rural districts until the Supreme Court upheld “one person, one vote” 50 years ago. Long before that, however, small farms had been in decline, the victims of public policy, mechanization and the power of corporate agriculture. To learn more about the state of the small farmer in New England, which is a tough place to farm, I visited Fred Dabney, a nurseryman in Westport, Massachusetts, with whom I squandered countless nights playing pool at college. Long active in state and local agriculture, Fred served as chairman of the Massachusetts Agricultural Board, until he was “booted” for publicly objecting to its politicization.
Threats to the sustainability of local farming come from the ever-expanding reach of federal regulations, which inundate small farmers with bureaucratic overload and compliance costs. They come also from Massachusetts’s famed political cronyism – “You’re supposed to do what they tell you to do,” Fred said of his firing, “and not ask any questions.”
But the biggest threats to the small farmer are (1) the corporate farmer, whose thousands of acres planted in a single crop, protected by Monsanto’s wondrous chemicals, massive machinery and Congressional committee rooms, long ago blurred the line between industry and agriculture; and (2) the real-estate developer who continues to devour prime farmland.