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Editorial: Success of today’s farmers relies on being innovative

  • Howard Grover empties a bucket of sap at River Maple Farm sugar house, circa 1950s. Maple syrup production has sustained farmers since the 19th century. From the collection of Patricia Shearer


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A set of stories and vintage photographs in a recent Recorder supplement, In Business Since, offers a picture of agricultural resilience that continues to this day.

Pioneer Valley farmers have always been innovators: Sugarcane ring a bell? Franklin H. Williams made 30 gallons of syrup from his sugarcane crop in 1857. How about broom corn? Dr. Josiah Trow of Sunderland grew 2½ acres of corn destined to be made into sweeping utensils. Cranberries? Aaron Fuller of Deerfield, in the 19th century, tried it but lost most of his crop to insect damage. Silkworms? Dr. Alpheau F. Stone of Greenfield joined the short-lived craze, circa 1838, planting 1,200 mulberry trees. Ice harvesting also contributed to many farmers’ piecemeal income, as described by the late Recorder columnist Ruby Hemenway.

Farming endeavors with more staying power include maple syrup production, pasture-raised beef and pork, and more recently still, organically grown vegetables destined for farm stands, farmers markets and the flash-freezing facility at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation commercial kitchen in Greenfield.

Our farmers of yore might not recognize the plastic tubing strung through maple groves, the sluice of shelled corn filling 50-pound bags to fuel pellet stoves, or the solar arrays and methane digesters that create renewable energy, but they would understand the market forces that drive today’s farmers to innovate and survive.

The owners of Brook’s Bend Farm in Montague, once known as the Bissell Place, realized that their acreage had more potential than they could utilize themselves, and thus opened it up to others. Now the property hosts Wolf’s Tree nature programs for children and adults, Clearpath Herbal, Sage Farm specializing in pasture-raised pork, and Little Song Farm specializing in lamb, chicken and free-range eggs. Owners Suzanne Webber and Allen Miller, who raise Shetland sheep for their wool, have a vision of shared stewardship of the property, with a long-term goal of creating a nonprofit land trust.

A love of the land is the shared theme throughout the supplement, from the 19th- and early 20th-century diary entries of Sarah Hollister’s ancestors, documenting the dates wildflowers first appeared in the spring, to the photos from the John and Lena Grybko family album of potato and tobacco crops, and the people who grew them using horse-drawn farming machinery.

Farming in Franklin County is a vocation that continues to evolve today but stays true to its deep roots. River Maple Farm in Bernardston, for example, which is into its fourth generation of Grover family farmers, hopes to get a solar array this summer. It would provide 5 megawatts of solar power and support the farm into the next generation.

Farming is not just a job, explained the River Maple’s present-day owners, Philip and Donna Grover. It’s a lifestyle.