Davenport tells officials: No farmland without farmers

The Recorder, June 17, 2018, by Diane Broncaccio

Each morning, Norman Davenport wakes up and steps “into this Hallmark greeting card” of a classic New England landscape: 365 acres of hills and green pastures dotted with cows on the farm his family has owned for more than 100 years.

This is the open space that everyone, Davenport included, wants to preserve. But land preservation measures designed to save farmland — by buying up development rights — don’t save small-scale, family farmers that are struggling to keep their land and keep it as farms for younger generations in the future.

Davenport is hoping to engage the town in conversations about how to keep farmers — as well as farm landscapes — as a continuing part of the community. He doesn’t have the answers, but hopes more discussion of this reality might result in more community support for local farm produce and products. As he sees it, we need more local consumers and support for their survival.

In his statement to selectmen, Davenport said he “finds himself facing extinction in a community that is more interested in making the loss of dairy farming acceptable than in dealing with the legacy of the destruction and eradication of the local dairy farmer.”

If farmland isn’t farmed, said Davenport, it will revert to woodland and “we’ll be tunneling through the trees.” The loss of open fields would mean changing habitat for wildlife.

When Davenport left high school in 1978, he graduated into an agricultural era in which the country was moving away from family farms and toward an industrialized agriculture — one in which massive farms could out-produce small farms, sell foods at lower prices and still make a profit.

“Back then, it was ‘get big or get out,’” Davenport said. “That, in a nutshell, is where this nation is heading. Milk marketing by design is based on industrialized dairy farming, by a pricing mechanism with no significant variant pricing based on farmers’ costs.”

“I have spent my whole career being paid less than my costs,” says the fourth-generation farmer.

The Davenport farm was purchased on April 1, 1913. “How’s that for a curse?” Davenport jokes. “Or, as we’d say, when you start from that point, there’s no where to go but up. It was dairying and sugaring since Day One.”

But over the last 40 years, the farm hasn’t been able to charge enough for its milk to cover the cost of its milk production. “The farmers who have an operational cost of $2 per gallon or more are only getting $1.50,” he said. “Every gallon you make is a 50-cent beating.”

Milk prices for the national market are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and milk prices are dropping to levels seen 20 years ago.

“My issue is, by design, you have an economic system with a four-decade legacy that is destroying the economics and the dairy community. Is this where you want to go in the future?”

Davenport said the idea of Agricultural Preservation Restriction or “APR” program was to help the farmer, who is short on capital, by buying his development rights and preserving farmland, which could be passed on to other farmers, as the land owner dies or becomes too old for farming duties. But there are not enough younger-generation farmers lining up for land.

According to CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), Franklin County now has about 35 dairy farms and there are only 142 in the entire state. Forty years ago, according to Davenport, the state had 1,400 dairy farms. “In the last 40 years, 90 percent of the dairy farms have ceased to exist,” said Davenport. “We’re an endangered species. Soon to become extinct.”

But it’s not only dairy farms that are struggling.

After most of the Davenport dairy herd was sold off earlier this year, some of his pasture land was turned into hayfields. But with fewer farms in the area, there are fewer animals to eat the hay.

“The hay market is crashing as we speak,” he said. “Everybody raises hay to sell. If the farms raising animals go out of business, who’s going to eat it? Hay has no value if you can’t sell it.”

Davenport said he will have to compost about 200 bales of hay harvested last year that didn’t sell. He said his hay sales just covered his tax bills last year.

Last month, Davenport, who was Conservation Commission chairman, resigned from that board, after serving for 18 years. Part of the reason for leaving, he said, was frustration over the fact that “preservation of the land has nothing to do with the economic stability of the farmer.”

“To have a grandchild that’s interested in farming is not going to happen without change,” he said. “Can I turn this into an environment that my grandchild would be interested in? If so, there has to be a change in the economic structure.”

His fellow commissioners refused to accept his letter of resignation, and then, after discussing farming economy issues with the Selectboard, the selectmen reappointed him to the Conservation Commission last June 11.

Selectmen also agreed that survival of the small family farm is an issue worthy of more town discussion.

“What the Davenport family has brought to this community is a legacy that supports this town,” said Selectman Robert Manners.

“I think there is a chance to have a bigger discussion on this,” Selectman Matt Marchese said.

“The farmer maintains his property by the depth of his roots,” Davenport told selectmen. “Others maintain it by the depth of their pockets.”

“As chairman, when these APR (agricultural preservation restrictions) come, I lose a lot of sleep, because the focus is not on sustaining the farms themselves,” he said. “If we can’t have a conversation on how we sustain these farms, it’s going to change the land, which will convert to woodland.”

Davenport said he would like his family’s farm to be there “for the grandchildren and the generations we will never see.”

“Like planting sugarbush,” he said, “you are starting a tree for a generation you will never see, and you hope it’s a family member.”