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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Farm in Winter

Air Date: Week of

Author Jane Brox takes us on a tour of her family farm in Dracut, Massachusetts. Brox's 85 year old father John Brox also figures into this prosaic passage through a farm in its wintry decline. Mr. Brox passed away the week before this story aired.


CURWOOD: Prospect Park is an oasis in the midst of the asphalt desert of urban sprawl. Jane Brox also lives in an oasis. It's her family's farm in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. She's written about it in her book Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and its Family, published by Beacon Press. In it, she recounts the story of her grandparents who bought the land at the turn of the century when the area was mostly agricultural. And how now, cut through by a busy road, the farm is one of the very few left in the area. But as Ms. Brox tells us, even a small family farm in the shadow of the city in the dead of winter is rich with life.

JANE BROX: The barn has been cold for years, and in a hard winter snow accumulates on the roof. Back when my grandfather kept a dairy herd, the cows warmed the barn enough to meld a moderate snow falling on the shingles. This was early in the century, and the farm itself looked far different than it does not. An open country then, the pasture and fields running to the horizon, one set off from the next with walls built from stones that had been cleared from the land.

JOHN BROX: You know, that don't seem so long ago. But it was, 60, 70 years ago.

JANE BROX: When my father took over the farm, a small dairy herd could no longer support the family. So he gradually sold off the cows as he expanded his vegetable crops. The herd was gone by mid-century. The farm I've always known is 50 acres cultivated in crops we sell on our farm stand. People from the surrounding cities and suburbs drive here to buy sweet corn, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, peas, apples, peaches. Our winter barn is swept and neat and rowed with machinery. Harrow planter, cultivator, rice spreader. It smells a little oily and metallic, and is utterly still in the cold as I stand here. Not even a swallow lighting off the rafters. Remnants from its earlier use are hanging on nails struck into the back wall. A double yoke, a horse's collar, a rusting sigh.

(Metal on metal sounds)

JANE BROX: And the far pastures have grown into woods. Their soils are too poor and stony for our crops.


JANE BROX: Now I walk here among white pines whose soft tops sway. Those trees protect me from the brunt of the wind, so I can walk a long time.


JANE BROX: I can't imagine these woods as ever having been part of any farm. Though countless signs tell me otherwise. (Watch, there's barbed wire here.) There are stone walls here, too, squared off through the trees. I found strands of barbed wire, an ox shoe, an old milk cans half sunk in dust. I could probably find such remnants in any woods I walked through in these parks. At the turn of the century the farms were countless. All you could smell was cows, my father remembers. And he tamps his ash cane as he names down the places. Bragden had 30 cows; Dooley must have had 20 or so. Stevens, he had a small herd. Cox, Clough...

JOHN BROX: And John Perry Mashado and sons had about 25. And the Ritzes and all that cattle.

JANE BROX: What were once those families' homesteads and pastures are housing tracts now, or convenience stores, supermarkets, small industries. On the road, there's traffic at all hours, and tankers drive our milk in from the north and west in the middle of the night. I can count the remaining farms in this part of the valley on one hand.

JOHN BROX: Old man Cox used to come up with a wagon every night and take the milk...

JANE BROX: My father tamps his cane again as he counts the children who lived up and down the road when he was young. There were 10 at Bailey's, he says, 14 at Cloughs. We were 9. There must have been 50 of us just along these few miles. He pauses for a moment, then goes on. Now we're alone here, he says, speaking of my mother and himself. If you have your own house, your brother has his...

JOHN BROX: See the generations change...

JANE BROX: He talks as if we were, and I guess we are, some tough old remnant, too.


JANE BROX: Though it never seems so in the middle of summer, when everyone has a shoulder to the picking, hoeing, and packing. And there are days when workers are in and out of the fields until nearly dusk. But all that goes in a matter of months. Corn field after corn field is harrowed down and planted in winter rye. One cold star-hung night kills the tomato and cucumber vines, and frost settles in the low place in the orchard. The last yellow leaves fall to reveal the spare turned branches of the apple trees, and we face a stretched out white time. More than anything I miss the voices I'd hear calling across the field. Just simple orders really: okay! Don't forget the twine! I need more baskets. Or 2 or more talking as they rest on overturned crates or stop for water at the end of a row. They've all scattered to their own lives for the winter.

JOHN BROX: The weeds have grown in the greenhouse.


JANE BROX: Snow has settled in the fields and woods now. My father spends much of the day at his desk going over figures, or he puts his magnifier to the pages of the American Agriculturist. He tells me he's just read a piece about an organization that matches up people who want to buy working farms with farms that are for sale. And then we talk about how that sort of thing could never happen here. We're too close to Boston. The start-up costs, the land values, the taxes are all too high. It's talk we've fallen into more often than not this winter. Even a few years back he'd be thinking instead about trying a new supplier for the early corn seed, or about buying a new orchard mower. But this winter he's 85. He leans on his cane and counts another vanishing thing.

JOHN BROX: Blue birds. We used to have big blue birds every summer. That was our world, you know.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: John Brox died shortly after we visited him and his daughter Jane Brox on her farm in Dracut, Massachusetts. Jane Brox says the family plans to keep on farming.



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