“The sky getting darker, and you still working to the last sunlight.”
Daniel Salzer conjures a summer night in a barn after a long day. A man or a woman straightens tired shoulders and takes in the smells of warm wood, horses or cows in the stalls, wood shavings from the bedding, diesel from the tractor, a sweetness from second-cut hay or grain feed or a tang of fermented corn silage.
Around him, later, farmers are sitting on the lawn and talking.
“I have a porch, and I never sit on it,” says Morgan Morse.
Put up a sign, a friend tells him — I’ve only been here 10 minutes. Just dug a ditch.
They joke, but they mean it — they don’t want people to drive by and see them taking a break. They are sharing their frustration with the things people assume about farming without knowing it, like the well-meaning neighbors who ask a woman who will plant beans every week into late August, Is your garden in yet?
My garden? says Grace Sgambettera, and she gestures at the ploughed field behind her. Like Salzer and Morse, she is standing on stage in a black box theater. But these are the voices of real farmers.
Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., will celebrate its annual Winter Carnival with The Farming Plays Project, a new work by executive director David Snider.
Snider began this work almost year ago, and he has had long conversations with some 20 farming families, starting in the summer. He talked with people in the community, he said, and got students in local middle and high schools involved. He led workshops on farming, the land and food with students who often had not had a chance at creative writing before this.
Snider gathered hundreds of pages of writing and condensed them, with help from colleagues, into this new play. And the work will go on, he said. Performances will run Jan. 21 to 29 with conversations after each one.
Farm to fable
This kind of theater drawn from the community has inspired Snider for many years. Before he came to Hubbard Hall in 2014, he said, he had served as producing artistic director at the Young Playwrights’ Theatre in Washington, D.C., and performed new works there, including commissions for the juvenile justice system.
In The Farming Plays, he is tapping into a living dilemma. Farming is still the number one employer in Washington County, he said, but the landscape is changing fast. If farming doesn’t hold onto young people, what will happen here?
So he asked local farmers to tell him the story of their farms. He talked with families that have farmed here for five generations. He talked with couples who have moved up here from the city with some working capital, looking for land.
Farming means long hours, no vacation, early mornings with calving cows, they told him. It means ice cream and strawberries. It means sweat and satisfaction and fear.
“Farming means putting land to good use,” said Sgambettera, in the spotlight. “It means moving on from a bad crop season and being nothing but hopeful for the next year.”
In the face of this uncertainty, Snider asked people why they choose to farm. They told him they loved working outdoors. They cared for their animals. They liked the independence and flexibility. They liked knowing their work created something tangible and mattered to the community. They said the farm was part of them.
“Plenty of people here can’t make any money,” Morse said on stage, “and they feel good about what they do.”
Where have all the farmers gone
But not making any money is not sustainable in the end. Farmers live on a narrow margin, and a change in the weather can be devastating.
In his conversations, Snider said, he has has seen three models of farms succeeding today — the large-scale operations, dairy farming on 1,000 acres; niche farmers raising high-end products for city markets; and farmers who have income from another job or an earlier career.
Washington County has more farms than it had two or three years ago, he said, and most of the new ones are small farms on the hybrid model. But new farmers face stiff competition for potential farmland.
“A lot of people talked about new farmers coming in,” he said: They have window of five to seven years to establish their farm and make it work — and some don’t make it.
Today many middle-sized dairy farms are closing and merging into larger ones because they can’t afford to keep on — the price of milk now is near what it was in the 1970s.
In the play, a journalist driving by a farm pulls into the driveway to see the light falling through the barn doorway. She sees the farmer standing by the barn and weeping. He is in his 80s, and he has to sell his place. He has to sell his dairy herd into Pennsylvania, to a larger business, and he knows, he tells her later, that his cows will probably never get outside to pasture there. And they will probably not live long.
“Right after being a police officer, farming has the number one suicide rate,” Morse said from the boards.
The future is now
One thing the play makes clear. Farmers come from many backgrounds and bring many strategies to their work — but farming is changing. The play touches on difficult questions that today’s farmers are facing: new technologies, GMOs, immigrants who are willing to work when locals are not, the complicated meaning of organic — which is not the same thing as no-spray or without chemicals.
“I always knew how much work it takes, Snider said, “but I hadn’t realized how much farmers need to know — business, science, labor. They’re renaissance people.”
Looking back, kids who couldn’t go to school because they were working on the farm got a kind of home-schooled college education, he said. Today they take agricultural courses at Cornell and graduate with advanced degrees.
One of his advisors on the project, Richard McGuire, is a third-generation farmer at Penope farm in Cambridge, and was also an advisor to the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations and former president of the New York Farm Bureau who served as the New York Commissioner to the state department of agriculture from 1989 to 1995.
“He has a museum on his farm with a library of farming books from the 19th century,” Snider said, knowledge passed down from parents to children.
But today, who will take over the farm in the next generation? The Farm Project takes on this question from many perspectives. Younger people are leaving Washington County for college, and families are debating whether to keep the farm if no one in the family wants to take it over.
Some young people leave for the cities because they want to live in urban areas, Snider argues, but many leave to find fulfilling or sustaining work — or a community of people their own age. Both can be hard to find in the country.
“We have staffers in their mid-20s, and it’s rare here,” he said.
He also asks how much the younger generation knows about farming, even those who grow up here.
Jessica Ziehm, a dairy farmer with Tiashoke Farm, is trying to get a vocational agriculture program back into the Cambridge schools, he said. Greenwich still has one, and Cambridge farmers go there for resources, for veterinary help, for tractors.
Two actors in this cast, Leah Jaffe and Kristoffer Ross, are from farming families, and off-stage Sgambettera remembered when she was young and her family got chickens. They lived inside at first, as babies, and the chicks would climb into her lap and fall asleep.
But most of the cast does not have the kind of experience one farmer remembers in the play. They have not spent summer days in the fields when the younger kids rode in the hay wagon, helping to stack the bales.
She gives it a sense of exhilaration, standing on top of the moving wagon with the sweet smell of alfalfa and timothy grass, grabbing the twine around a 35-pound bale with both gloved hands and swinging it with a full-body movement — into place.
What: Winter Carnival — The Farming Plays Project, an ensemble new work
Where: Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main St., Cambridge, N.Y.
When: Jan. 21 to 29, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sundays at 2
Admission: $10 general or $5 for students.
Information: 518-677-2495, hubbardhall.org
At the top, a dairy cow stands silhouetted at Million Acres Farm. Photo by Jon Katz, courtesy of Hubbard Hall