[This contribution come from Silverbelle Margaret (Ridge Road SBs). SB Margaret is a writer, illustrator, cook, and all-around outdoors-person who very much loves where she lives. Thanks to SB Stuart and SB Susan for also contributing to this piece. We hope SB Margaret will be a regular contributor to the Digest. SB SM]
by Margaret Osha (with a little help from her friends)
Farming is a lifestyle occupation with work and responsibility continuing day-in and day-out. Taking a weekend off and vacationing is difficult. Farming requires a love for the way of life it offers. Even by today’s standards, it’s a hard way to make a living. These days, it’s even harder for a small farm milking fewer than fifty cows to keep going. Actually, I doubt it can be done unless there is another income source. I’ve always loved old barns—the bovine cathedrals of yesteryear—if only they could talk. What a story they could tell us of good times and hard times, about love and loss. About the farmers and families that scraped out a living within these walls and the cows that came and went over the years. Cows of varying breeds and colors with names and unique personalities.
Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture, set the stage in the early 1970s with his advice to farmers: “Get big or get out.” Now, more than before, hard work and small monetary returns have discouraged more than one farmer over the years. Before the ‘50s, farms were likely to be passed from one generation to the next within a family. With the industrial revolution farming changed, and so did life for everyone. In 1957, town listers reported that 40% of Vermont farms shipping milk had fewer than 20 cows. Shortly after, farming went through a tremendous change. Milk used to be shipped in large cans weighing about 85 pounds. Milk cans were stored in small buildings separate from the barn in water-cooled tanks. Many older tanks were cooled by running spring water; eventually compressors cooled the water.
My father used to lift those heavy cans of milk from the water tanks, a feat I can’t imagine doing. Down the hill we would go in a rickety old farm truck loaded with full milk cans to deliver to the Wendall P. Gage creamery, located across a set of railroad tracks in Northfield village. It was about a five-mile trip from farm to village. Once we got there, my father would unload the cans. He was a strong man with a big set of shoulders.
The milk market was soon set for another change when milk began being sold out of state. With this came new expectations for shipping milk and stricter regulations. The pressure to produce more milk required the installation of bulk tanks. Farmers not only had to think about the cost of the bulk tanks but also had to factor in the cost of storing them too. Small milkhouses that accommodated milk cans were not large enough to house the bulk tanks. Often, another structure needed to be built and consideration had to be given to a place where milk haulers could back up to the milk house and pump the milk out and into trucks. Cows were traditionally stabled on wooden floors, but when Connecticut started buying milk from Vermont they required cement flooring. Many old barns had a second floor where cows were stalled and milked. Cow manure was shoveled through trapdoors and stored below for the winter to be spread on the fields come spring. These stables were not well suited for cement.
Many farms were lost in the ‘60s during this period of transition. Hill farms that were already on the narrow edge could not make the changes. People were also changing, and there were more opportunities off the farm to make a living that required less work with more leisure time and money. Passing on the farm to the next generation was not as easy as it once was. The up and coming generation was looking for a better life. After all, not everyone is born a farmer. Years ago, many farmers didn’t have a choice; farming was what they had to do to survive.Today there are a lot of young folks who would like to farm, but don’t have the financial resources to buy a farm and stock it with cattle and equipment; a different problem with similar outcomes.
An appropriate poem expressing this transitional time period by Stuart Wood Osha:
Second Floor Wooden Stable
The old stable stands today
as it did when he turned
the cows out yesterday
Yesterday was a long time ago
but it has been left as it was then
and all we can do now
is close our eyes and imagine when
this barn was filled with cows
As farmers today try to survive
milk more cows, use more land
just to get by
their overhead is so high
You can’t help but wonder
what this farmer felt that day
when the last cow made her way
out the old barn door
Did he know there would be no more
cows in this second floor wooden stable
Why did he get done
was it because he was no longer able
or was it the same reason they leave today
all that work and investment just doesn’t pay
Old barns are disappearing at an alarming rate in the state of Vermont. Many are in disrepair and more yet are beyond repair waiting for that final winter when the snow load they can no longer bear. The landscape of Vermont is changing. We are seeing the results of pastures no longer grazed and fields no longer mown.
There’s not a better time for a road trip exploring Vermont than in the height of summer. What a great time to tour the countryside looking for old barns to admire, photograph, and perhaps even sketch.
This is Vermont, written in 1936 by Margaret and Walter Hard, tells about their adventures across the state in the ‘30s. There were an abundance of farms back then and many were still worked by horses. The landscape since that time has changed dramatically. The book will make you feel like piling into the car and taking a closer look at the state we call home to see how different the setting is now. What we see today will also look very different 75 years from now. Perhaps reading this book will inspire you too to want to retrace their steps and visit some of the same places that still exist.
It’s easy to take these old decrepit barns that sag and bow at the seams for granted. But it seems that there are some of us that still appreciate them. You can find groups on social media devoted to old Vermont barns, and the number of people passionate about these old places is astounding. Some old barns have been cared for well over the years. There’s something special about seeing one of these well-preserved relics of the past. Unfortunately, it takes attention and resources to keep old barns standing tall and proud. Many folks don’t have the extra funds to put into the upkeep of these largely unemployed structures. Vermont offers Historic Preservation Barn Grants that match dollar-for-dollar for up to $15,000. Applicants are responsible for paying the full amount of the project upfront. The state reimburses 50% when the project is completed. The barn must be at least 50 years old and be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Although it may be a benefit to some folks, this doesn’t work for everyone who would like to preserve their barn.
I truly believe the familiar scenes that we’ve become accustomed to, whether it’s a part of nature or an old barn, become important to us, and we look for ways to help and preserve them. So the next time you drive past an old barn, I hope you’ll slow down and take a closer look and imagine all the engrained stories. Better yet, stop and take a picture because it won’t be there forever.
The dairy farm where I grew up was my playground. An old barn stood before it that collapsed the year I was born. It was a massive old barn with two stories, wooden floors, and a slate roof. We kept cows, heifers, horses, and a mow filled with loose hay in it. My brother was in the barn one winter day when he heard creeking. He ran to the house and got my father, and they had just enough time to get the cows out before the barn collapsed into rubble. My mother said it was one of the worst days of their life. I was two when my father built the new barn I grew up playing in. I stuck my hand in the wet cement when the floor was being poured, giving the barn my personal stamp of approval. My mother always made me feel special by saying the farm should have been named the “Helping Hand Farm”. I wonder if the new owners of the farm have ever noticed a small child’s hand print on the walkway floor and wondered whose it was.
This poem by Susan Reid says it all beautifully:
A Barn Like That
I knew a barn like that
When I was young
and had strong, farm-girl arms
I can almost hear the gossip of swallows
as they slip home to the hay mow
I know where I would find
fat, grey spiders
patient, waiting for horseflies
to blunder into nets
strung where whitewashed walls meet
I can guess at the family of mice
drilling into the grain bin
like thieves cracking a safe
how could they resist the scent
rich as porter or good bread
I see those weathered boards
warped by the shrug of frost
from the inside
letting in narrow, dusty sunbeams
And imperfect as those walls are
when sheep or cows
or horses crowd to mangers
with steaming breath
I know the bitterest morning
will be warm
smelling of manure
and last summer’s grass and clover pasture
I knew a barn like that
when I was young
and had strong, farm-girl arms
I knew it inside and out
An old barn that was especially dear to me collapsed in the spring of 2021. After the milking was done, my parents often took a ride around the backroads to see how other farms were coming along in their work. One farm we drove by in West Brookfield was the one my parents almost bought before finally deciding on purchasing the family farm in Northfield. I used to imagine growing up there and exploring the nooks and crannies of the farm on my pony. I’ve always had a special connection with the place. In the fall of 2020, I photographed the old barn.
It was still standing pretty straight and true from the angle I photographed, but one end of the barn was badly compromised. We drove by in the spring of 2021, and the barn was gone with only a pile of rubble remaining. My husband and I were both shocked.
Today, most conventional dairy farms are milking over 100 cows and upwards to 1,000. Small- and mid-sized farms tend to be the ones producing organic milk. Some organic producers are going grass-fed, which pays even higher premiums. But the squeeze is on organic as it is on a conventional farm. Horizon recently dropped 28 farm families and 89 across the Northeast region because of consolidation plans to move to farms in other regions that are larger and more dense. Organic Valley has stepped in as a new market for many of these producers, but these farms still need our support. Learn more about the Horizon contract termination and what you can do to help by visiting saveorganicfamilyfarms.org.
Vermont has a diverse number of farms that produce local goods from grass-fed beef, pork, and chicken to vegetables and fruit. Farmer’s markets and farm stores are becoming more common. When you purchase local food you are supporting Vermont agriculture, local business, and families. So while you are on your old barn tour, I hope that you will stop at a farm store along the way and support a Vermont farm and farmer.
Grass-fed beef makes a fabulously lean and delicious hamburger. Here are some tips for cooking the ultimate hamburger from the Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook: The ideal patty is six ounces of meat shaped into about a 4 ½ inch circle, ¾ inch on the edges, and ½ inch in the center. To achieve this, form the burger and press in the center to make a small depression.The patties will cook evenly and not puff up in the center. Grass-fed beef is lean. Make sure that your grill is hot, clean and the grates oiled to avoid the burgers from sticking. A six ounce burger done medium requires approximately 2 min and 30 seconds on the first side and 3 minutes after flipping. And, don’t press on the burgers with your spatula — you’ll squeeze out all of the delicious juices!
If you like cheeseburgers try shredding the cheese and mixing it in with the ground beef before you make the patties. The cheese will be more evenly distributed, and you won’t risk overcooking your burger while you’re trying to melt the cheese on top after your burger is done.
Summer is a great time to treat yourself to some local butter made from cows grazed on grass. Not only can you taste the difference, but the color of the butter is as yellow as the sun itself. I recently purchased some of this artisan butter at a local co-op. Quality butter stands on its own, but compound butters are a delicious idea. Fresh herbs are abundant now in the garden and are easy to source if you don’t grow them yourself. You can use any combination of herbs. My favorite compound butter is chive blossom. It’s delicious and beautiful. I simply chop up the chive blossoms and incorporate them into salted butter. Since the chives have gone by for the season, this basil garlic recipe from Ellen Ecker Ogden’s book, From the Cook’s Garden is another great choice. Herb butter is delicious on vegetables, cooked grains, grilled fish, and meats. You can’t go wrong!
Basil Garlic Butter
4 ounces of unsalted Vermont butter, softened (I prefer using salted butter)
⅓ cup finely chopped fresh basil
1 ½ tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
Mash the butter with all of the other ingredients in a medium bowl until well combined. Transfer to a 12 – inch square of waxed paper, spooning the butter into a 6-inch-long strip. Use the waxed paper to help roll the butter into a log, and wrap tightly in the waxed paper. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours, or overnight. Store the herb butter in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks. Herb butter can be frozen for up to 4 weeks. Use a sharp knife to cut off pieces as needed.
Mix, spread, and savor!
Margaret and Stuart Osha are native Vermonters and retired organic dairy farmers. With a passion for local history, food, and nature, Margaret’s stories are delightful morsels of true Vermont lifestyle.