Sunday, September 07, 2008

Whittier Farms: A 100-year-old Family Farm Battles History and the Odds.

At Whittier Farms in West Sutton, Mass., fields of corn stalks stand in precise rows: tall, straight, proud, resplendant in identical tasseled green, an army on parade, an army ready for orders. Its ears of corn are ripe and ready. Mission accomplished, Sir!

Near two giant silos, registered black and white Holstein cows munch placidly on green meadow, producing some of the purest, most wholesome milk around. The herd of 350 is fed a combination of grass, corn silage, and commercial grain. Ready for milking, Sir!

If this sounds like armies in the field, they are. If it sounds like Whittier Farms is at war, it is. The scene may be a picture postcard of an old-time New England farm, which it is, but it is also a battlefield. Whittier Farms, like many family farms in Massachusetts and across the U.S., is under attack.

A half century ago, there were about 5,000 family farms in Massachusetts. By 1980, the number had been reduced to 630. In 2000, the number was 247. Today, Whittier Farms is one of just 189 working family farms.

Even though the Whittier family has been farming this 500 acres since the early 1900's and doing so successfully; even though it is considered an important community asset with many friends and supporters, it faces an uphill struggle.

Against Whittier Farms are economics, such as the rising costs of energy; large-scale corporate farming, which keeps growing and squeezing farm families off the land; federal farm policy whose subsidies favor the big agribusinesses, but don't do much to help family farms like Whittier Farms; and longterm trends of rising farmer productivity and falling farm prices.

The amazing productivity of American family farmers has actually hurt them. In the non-farm world, when you produce more, you get paid more. In the world of farming, you can grow more and actually earn less.

Big agribusinesses get around this by employing big-time lobbyists to game the subsidy system. Family farms like Whittier farms get crushed by the immutable laws of supply and demand and farm policy willing to relegate the family farm to history.

You've noticed that food prices are going through the roof. But farmers get little or none of this extra cash flow. Almost all of it goes to those that "add value" in the many production stages from farmer to consumer. The price of oil has recently fallen back but increases in packaged food derived from corn, such as Kellogg's Corn flakes, have held. They're also loaded with high fructose corn syrup, which many nutritionists say is unhealthy and even dangerous. See earlier blog on high fructose corn syrup.

Kellogg executives argue that the company must recapture lost profits. Yet complex formulas under the federal farm bill leave family farmers no way to do the same. The only way Whittier Farms can make more money from federal subsidies is by producing more -- which depresses corn prices.

The first thing I notice when I go into the Whittier Farms store are the low prices. I ask the woman on duty at the store, "Is that corn any good?" She laughs and replies with an emphatic, "yes." I buy fresh sweet corn of 25 cents an ear and red grapes for 1.67 a pound, the lowest prices I have seen anywhere. (In a taste test later that night, both turned out to be fresh and delicious.)

After paying, I asked her if I could talk to someone about corn. She said, "Sure, that would be Wayne." He was not around around, so she gave me his card, saying she was sure he would be happy to talk to me. I later learned that this was Wayne's wife, Mary, who runs the store.

So here I am, old, ignorant of corn and farming except for macroconcepts -- such as those above from my obsessive reading of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. -- and unbelievably nosy. A few days later, I show up unannounced in the middle of the afternoon asking for Wayne. That would be Wayne Whittier of the 4th generation of Whittiers to farm this land. Also self-important, I expect Wayne to halt work and talk to me -- someone he has never set eyes upon and who could be a kook or con man or worse -- about how things are for the Whittiers. He not only does exactly that but does so with warmth and candor.
"Sure," Wayne Whittier said, "We can sit out on one of the picnic tables." We walk out together. He is 45, tall, trim, muscled, with large, powerful hands. His face is weathered. Towering over me, a runt, he could probably pick me up and twirl me over his head.

This is no desk jockey. This is no absentee agribusiness executive living off federal farm subsidies (though Whittier Farms does receive modest federal subsidies that are "not enough to count on"). This is a working farmer, as I would shortly find out.
On a beautiful early September mid-afternoon, we sit face to face on a picnic table in a combination public common and family compound. This patch of land has been the center of Wayne Whittier's whole life. He points out the house where he was born and where his father before him was born and where his mother and brother, Todd, now live as co-owners with him.
He tells how he lost his dad to cancer in 2005 after a 13-month struggle. He was 67 and had spent his entire youth and working life at Whittier Farms. The way Wayne tells it, softly, wistfully, there is no doubt that his dad's loss is deeply felt and not likely to go away any time soon.
A stone's throw away is his own solid, middle-class house where he lives with his wife and three children, 16, 13, and 9. The oldest and youngest are daughters with his son, John, in between. All work on the farm when they are not in school. He said, "My oldest, Samantha, can run the store by herself. A while back, my wife was in the hospital with a ruptured disk and the two girls opened and ran the store and my son did all the picking."
As his father did before him, Wayne has devoted his entire life to Whittier Farms. He worked on the farm as a youth and never went off to college. Instead, he commuted to technical school and became certified in welding. A truck rumbled by. "See that truck," Wayne said. "I built it's frame."
Wayne quickly gets to his greatest concern: galloping prices. "Fertilizer is a thousand dollars a ton. Diesel fuel just hit five dollars, though it's pulled back a little bit. Everything we do -- fuel, storage, cooling, -- consumes energy. It's tough."
He rattles off costs that seem very small, but that that worry him because he has no control over them and they add up fast. "The bag for five dozen ears of corn costs me fifty cents. A pallet costs seventy-five cents. That's a cost of a buck twenty-five before delivery and transportation. It becomes significant."
The look on Wayne's face says it all. He is clearly worried about the longterm future of Whittier Farms. "We're looking into all other sources of income -- selling house lots, selling development rights to the state, changing crops to something more lucrative, and other alternatives. In some ways, we're a 4H project that got out of hand. You know, picking 250 dozen of corn by hand is hard. I looked into buying a mechanical corn picker, but it costs $5,000."
And, like all family farmers, he talks about increasing his income by producing more. The federal farm bill encourages him to do so. Corn is one of the commodity crops that the farm bill subsidizes to the tune of "$25 billion a year ( the other four are wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton) "We used to have a twenty ton per acre target," Wayne said. "We moved that up to twenty-five. Now our target is thirty ton of corn per acre."
Wayne's face brightens, however, when he talks about the quality of the corn that he grows. "We sell corn in the store for twenty-five cents an ear, the same as at Wall-Mart. Our corn is top quality and fresh. I won't say how long I thought that corn I saw in Wall-Mart was sitting in there because I'll get in trouble. All the corn in our store is freshly picked. The best goes into the store and the rest is wholesaled."
In addition to "cow corn," Whittier Farms grows three genetically modified varieties of sweet corn. The SE variety, for example, stands for sugar-enhanced and, Wayne said, "produces good corn flavor and the sweetness that people are looking for."
He is a strong believer in genetically modified corn. He says it helps him "grow a near perfect crop without pesticides. I can give you a perfect ear of corn and guarantee that there will not be a worm. It will have never been sprayed with pesticides. It's a management tool for better quality. It produces higher yield at less cost."
We're interrupted by an impromptu meeting. With a helicoper pilot-customer coming out of the farm store, Wayne tries to arrange for a helicopter to spread rye seed for winter cover. Planting rye saves on fertilizer and is used for feed and cow bedding, among other things. Nothing is wasted at Whittier Farms. But flight scheduling and the cost of the helicopter are not working for Wayne.
"Can you see what you can do and get back to me?" Wayne asks the helicopter pilot-customer."
"I'll try and call you," he replies as he leaves.
Earlier in the year, as if Wayne did not have enough to deal with, Massachusetts Department of Health officials linked a wisteria outbreak to the Whittier Farms milk processing plant in Shrewsbury, Mass. Three elderly men died and a woman in her 30's miscarried and lost her baby. Wayne voluntarily shut down production at its milk processing plant. Since then, Whittier Farms has been selling its milk to other processors.
The investigation is ongoing and Whittier Farms has issued a statement saying that it is cooperating fully with the investigation. Wayne hopes to "find out what happened" soon and get clearance from the state to reopon it's Shrewsbury plant. Whittier Farms has a growing "to-do" list from the state as requirements for reopening. Meanwhile, the plant has been closed for eight months and there is a large"For Sale or Lease" sign on the street. The front entrance is overgrown and mail is sometimes left on the front stoop.
"I can't really talk about it," Wayne said, "but the longer it goes on, the more it hurts. A lot of people hear about it and decide to stay away. Traffic to our store is definitely down because of this and it hurts us."
Which leaves Whittier Farms in limbo.
I ask about the longterm prospects for Whittier Farms. He pauses, looking around at his life. "Things are tough, " he said, "but our plan is to keep going for the forseeable future. You know, one thing we found out is that we have a lot of friends in the community. We are so grateful for all the support we are getting."
But now he must get back to work. He invites me back later in the day when he has some high school kids coming by to help him pick sixty bags of sweet corn for an order to be picked up the next morning. "I like pick-up orders," he said. "No transportation costs."
"High school kids working? I never heard of such a thing."
"Come back. You'll see."
I return around four in the afternoon to witness a remarkable feat of extreme cornpicking. It is unusual for three reasons. First, it involves high school kids, known more for hanging out than for physical labor. Second, a co-owner of Whittier Farms, Wayne Whittier, works side by side with them. Third, cornpicking by hand is hard work done at lightning speed.
So that I don't get lost in the cornfields (don't laugh; I easily could because once in this cornfield you see nothing but cornstalks and they all look the same), I am escorted by a young woman from the store. As we approach the cornfield, they are supposed to be picking in, I see and hear no sign of life. All I see is a beautiful sea of green.
"Nobody's here," I said.
"They are here," she said, pointing."Walk straight there and Wayne will meet you. Bye."
I walk and, sure enough, come to an opening, a cornstalk-strewn path with bags of picked corn all along it. Way into the field, an arm pokes out into the path, waving. And then outsteps Wayne Whittier, a formerly towering presence dwarfed by giant cornstalks.
I get there and he and the high school kids are furiously picking corn. No intros. No smalltalk. Wayne's friendly demeanor has disappeared, replaced by a breathtaking work intensity. I don't think I have ever seen human hands move so fast.

"We got an hour and a half to pick sixty bags and have them ready for pick-up,"Wayne said, shoving maybe a half dozen ears into a bag held open by one of the high school kids. And then he disappears and returns within seconds with another armful.
I watch in awe, snapping pictures. "You're no desk jockey, are you Wayne."
"No. I work." And the reason is simple. The corn has to be picked. And while he picks, Wayne also takes calls on his cell phone. Talk about multi-tasking!
Not wanting to get in the way of the work, I stay maybe twenty minutes. I say my goodbyes to mostly hidden cornpickers (visibility in a cornfield is near zero)and the rustling sounds of speed-picking human hands. If there were an Olympic event in cornpicking -- and I think there should be -- I would nominate Wayne Whitter and his high school kids.
I find my way out by the same path I came in, not daring to deviate left or right. Truthfully, it is with a certain minor relief that I emerge onto open land and can see where I am. A big cornfield at its peak can give one a sensation of being swallowed up by nature.
I turn and look back at the vast cornfield from which I had just emerged. Serenely quiet and peaceful, it shows no sign of the frenetic work going on within it, reveals nothing of its bountiful intimacy with a family farmer named Wayne Whittier.
It is his life. And he wants nothing more than to keep on doing what he has done all is life -- and to pass on the legacy of Whittier Farms to three young Whittiers who already have no fear of hard work.
So long and keep moving.
Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story



At September 10, 2008 8:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uncle George -
how nice of you to write about Whittier Farms & family. I grew up with Wayne's wife Mary, and used to bring their older daughter, Sam, up to the barn where Linda & I kept our horses. I had taken some photos of the milking process - [in with the cows] - a while ago for them and enjoyed every minute of it - like you did. They are truely an amazing family, great americana people, and extremely hard working!! I can't wait for the day that they sell their own milk again! I will join the long lines that will form again for certain.

~ Barbie

At September 11, 2008 8:56 PM, Blogger Jimbo said...

At ease sir!
Put down your mighty pen - kick back, relax, savor the moment and reflect.
Yes, sir - mission accomplished!
Indeed, you painted a magnificent masterpiece with your mighty pen.The farm is a venue where you are at home- hard work, community and love.
Sir! I said relax!Put that pen down! Your fellow soldiers have consumed your literary composition and they are nourished.
Congratulation Honorable First Class George!

At September 13, 2008 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got back from corn country, Kansas. My mother, whose parents were farmers, always said, "if the worms won't eat it, there must be something wrong with it," in response to my complaining about worms in the corn.

At March 23, 2009 12:28 AM, Blogger Marva Kester said...

Dear George ,
I have a senior memory but \I am sure we know each other. I was stationed at ng'iya near Kisumu. I agree that donating is a great idea and I am glad for the info you provided. I studied to be an embalmer and passed the nationals. I never did the residency so I was not able to go into that as a career after my retirement. I am retired and livng in Central America. Hope to see you at the reunion in July.

At April 03, 2009 7:04 AM, Anonymous iris said...

I'd like to know if the Marva Kester who wrote on this forum taught in NYC public schools for a while.

At April 04, 2009 3:26 PM, Blogger Marva Kester said...

Iris , Yes,I did teach in the NYC for part of my career. Do you and I share a location?


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