‘Quabbin Farm Album’ paints portrait of region’s agriculture

The Greenfield Recorder, July 17, 2017, by Richie Davis

ORANGE — It takes months for Mark and Jeannette Fellows to make their Herdsman, Tomme de Normande, Quabbin Blue and other cheeses from their pasture-fed herd on their Warwick dairy farm.

And it has taken three generations of working the difficult land for nearly a century to get to this point.

That’s just the point of a Wendell woman’s new book, “A Quabbin Farm Family Album,” which tells the stories of six North Quabbin farms, including Chase Hill.

The book, published by Haley’s of Athol, grew out of a collaboration between anthropologist Cathy Stanton and Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust in 2015. At the end of an educational tour of fairs and festivals, Robin Shtulman of Orange suggested to Stanton, “Add an introduction and recipes, and it’s almost a book.”

So Stanton did, adding a timeline, a closing chapter on the Quabbin Harvest co-op in Orange and other examples of cooperation and community and an introduction.

Unlike farmland in the Pioneer Valley, which has rich prime agricultural soils, the land across what are mostly hilltowns in the North Quabbin and western Worcester County, served by Mount Grace, is harder to farm.

“People have had to work within those limitations a really long time,” said Stanton, who teaches anthropology at Tufts University and decided to look at how these homestead families have managed to keep some of those farms going, despite economic ups and downs and changes in a market long dominated by the larger scale of commercial markets and farming operations in other parts of the country.

She found not only “tough, upland survivors” and community resilience in the face of relative poverty over the past four decades “in a place where we feel the sharp end of the stick,” but also a long-standing willingness to look at new ways of making farms work, with a rich history of co-operatives and farmers involved in community life and social action.

In the case of the Fellows family, who took over the dairy farm in the 1980s, it meant turning away from what Stanton calls the “receding horizon of profitability” that’s kept dairy farmers trying to keep up with the vicious cycle of market demands by getting bigger and making more milk.

“It’s a losing game” that’s gone on for years, she said, “where you get trapped in that logic, to keep doing what you’re doing.”

Instead, the Warwick couple — he with a degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University — turned to raising a small grass-fed herd for its milk to be sold raw on the farm and for making cheese. They were also among the founders of the Our Family Farms marketing cooperative.

At Moore’s Maple Grove Farm in Orange, the land has gone from dairying and maple syrup production — when it started at the beginning of the 20th century and was known as “Maple Farm Dairy” — to the vegetables, beef cattle, hay and maple syrup operation it is today.

Stanton, who concentrates her teaching on farming’s forgotten past, said homestead farms like those in the North Quabbin region are more vulnerable and are important to keep the land open and in cultivation as people grapple with food security as an issue.

Mount Grace Land Trust, using programs like Landscape Partnership grants, have protected homestead farms that are ineligible for Agricultural Preservation Restriction program but are ones that perpetuate the rural lifestyle in the hilltowns.

“Meat is being demonized for its carbon footprint, but if we don’t have meat, we wouldn’t have farming in North Quabbin,” said Stanton. “Meat and dairy is what led these farms to be viable. That’s what these farms are good at.”

What Stanton finds exciting in this region is, while there aren’t the connections and resources that stirred a farming renaissance in the Pioneer Valley 20 years ago, farmers have been able to adjust to changing conditions and rethink creatively how to keep farming.

Ironically, part of what’s stirring renewed interest in farming in one of the state’s most economically challenged areas is that the “industrial food system” delivers low-cost but not necessarily the healthiest foods, from thousands of miles away, said Stanton, who also co-authored a forthcoming book, “Public History and the Food Movement.”

The “Quabbin Farm Album” stories “show us what it is to work within finite resources, and what it takes to create new opportunities at a small but sustainable scale that’s rooted in community,” she writes. “The stories remind us that food and energy ultimately rely on a natural work with considerable limits, something we often manage to forget in an era when fossil fuels have let us live well beyond our ecological means.”