Monthly Archives: June 2010

The other night at Parker Pie…

by Bethany M. Dunbar, June 25, 2010

The other night at Parker Pie…  That phrase is becoming much more common in my daily life.  Why not?  It’s right down the road from where I live.  The food is incredible — made with fresh local ingredients — I get to try a variety of microbrews, and every Thursday there is some kind of interesting live music.

Last night we heard Evan Crandell and the Too Hot to Handle.  This is an amazing group of college-aged jazz musicians.  The place was rocking out.  So much fun.

My sweetheart, Jim Bowes, works with Chris Crandell, Evan’s father.  The first time we saw them at the Langdon Street Café in Montpelier I realized I was looking at some familiar young faces — some of these guys had been coming to the blues jam at the Grange Hall in Greensboro for years each summer.

Sadly the blues jam has come to an end, but the music lives on and we heard it at Parker Pie last night.

About a week earlier we heard Mark Greenberg playing the banjo, and I thought, isn’t that the same musician who created the kitchen tunks CD I reviewed a few years ago?  Sure enough.  I’m posting that story below.

Thanks for the music everybody.  Keep it coming.

Take time out for a little kitchen tunk

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, 12-17-03

“Oh, those golden slippers, oh, those golden slippers.”

It is a familiar tune and has been heard in a million renditions in kitchens and town halls, church basements, school gyms, and fiddlers’ contests in pastures, in the rain, under makeshift wooden stages.

But if you think you’ve heard every version imaginable, think again.  A new compact disc called Vermont Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs includes a version of “Golden Slippers” done by Harold Luce who plays the fiddle, harmonica and piano all at the same time.  The listing in the pamphlet includes a parenthetical note explaining the situation:  “(foot operated rig).”  Apparently he plays the piano with the foot-operated rig while playing the fiddle with his hands and the harmonica with his mouth.

As I work on a review of this CD I find myself playing this song over and over again.  It’s not the quality of the music that is so astonishing.  It’s the idea that one guy could play those three instruments all at the same time.

A note in the pamphlet on Mr. Luce, who lives in Chelsea, explains that he started playing the fiddle at age 14 and in the early 1930s played with Ed Larkin’s Old Time Contra Dancers.

“While still in his teens, Harold devised an ‘outfit’ from wooden slats, rubber bands, an old harness, and sewing machine parts that allowed him to use his feet to play banjo accompaniments to his fiddling.”

This has to be quite a guy — not just a musician but an entertainer.  My bet is he was pretty popular with the ladies in those days.  He probably still is.

Of course if Mr. Luce was just getting started as a musician today he could do the same thing electronically by recording each instrument separately and blending them together into one recording.  But what a pale imitation that version would seem compared to the incredible talent involved in playing all three instruments at once.

This CD, compiled for a series called Music of the Earth, is all about pure, unadulterated music.  Raw music, we might say.  There is nothing pale about this stuff.  Its colors are rich and strong and deep.

Notice I did not say polished.  Kitchen music should not be polished, it should be spontaneous.  The only thing that really should be polished in the kitchen is the silverware and then only for Christmas.

The man who compiled this CD, Mark Greenberg, has a lengthy essay in the pamphlet.  He quotes Newton Brown of Hyde Park:

“If only the best birds in the woods did the singing it would be a pretty quiet world.”

This rough, wild music is as familiar to me as a comfortable chair or the woods where I ski.  I grew up in Craftsbury selling buttered ears of corn at banjo contests to raise money for our high school class trips.  The CD is like a reference for me — so many songs I knew so well but never knew their names.

I remember these tunes from kitchen tunks at the home of my high school buddy Poodie Griggs, whose whole family would get involved.  I remember Wilfred Guillette of Newport as a sort of unofficial patriarch of the fiddlers’ contests that eventually got too rowdy for Craftsbury Common and had to move to Hardwick.

Mr. Guillette is featured on this CD as is Ozzie Proof of Newport and Mariella Squire-Hakey of Glover.  Ms. Squire Hakey sings a sweet ballad, “Froggy Would a-Wooing Go,” unaccompanied.

We also find here La Famille Beaudoin doing French-Canadian classics, and the less-famous La Famille Maille who play “St. Anne’s Reel” and “The Road to Batach.”  The latter is one of those I know by ear but never knew the name of until now.

My only complaint about this CD is a silly one.  There are 49 songs (many are quite short) and only 24 musicians.  I am wondering about the absence of Bill Clark, Burt Porter and Friends, Tony Washburn and Dave Rowell and the Radio Rangers, Floyd Brown and his Country Buddies (he is mentioned in the pamphlet) and the regulars at the Wednesday morning tunks at the restaurant in Westfield like 92-year-old Evelyn Warner who still plays a mean harmonica.

Possibly these folks are, with a couple of exceptions, too young or contemporary to qualify as first-generation “Old Timers.”  If so, it’s just proof that the tradition is alive and well — at least in Westfield where the once-a-month coffeehouses still draw a crowd.  This leads me to suggest that Mr. Greenberg ought to get to work on another CD called Vermont Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs part two.  For short we could call it Son of Tunks.

Meanwhile I’ll be dancing around my kitchen while I do the dishes and listen to the first one.  Thanks to Mr. Greenberg and Multicultural Media for a fine, fine piece of work.

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From the archives — the day of the auction

by Bethany M. Dunbar, June 11, 2010

New mown hay. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

In case anyone out there reading this is wondering why I write so much about agriculture and particularly dairy farming, I thought this article from the Chronicle archives might help explain my impulse.

I wrote this a short 19 years ago.  I am no longer married to Harvey Dunbar but still a part of his warm and wonderful extended family (or as one friend has called it, post-nuclear family).  The kids are all grown up and doing great things.  Time goes by.  Things change.

For 11 years I covered agriculture from inside of it.  I went to St. Louis to cover the farmer congress arranged by Willie Nelson back in the 1980s and met garlic farmers from far-flung states and all kinds of other farmers.  We had some basic things in common.  We had more in common than not in common.

For a year or two after our auction I did not do a very good job covering dairy farming or agriculture.  I guess I had to give myself a break.  I went to meetings still and wrote articles, but, well, it wasn’t the same.

In recent times I’ve had more enthusiasm for this beat as I see the organic movement growing and providing farmers more immediate control of their price and market, and energy farming options growing including methane digesters.  Consumers are becoming so much more aware of what they are eating and where it came from.  They want local food, healthy food.  This movement is exciting and promising for Vermont farmers, consumers, and everyone who likes to drive by a beautiful hay field.

Things are still wicked tough for the dairy farmers, especially farmers who ship to the conventional market, who have no control over the price they are paid.  That price is controlled by an antiquated federal system that must be changed.

We only have about 1,000 dairy farms left in Vermont and many more will go out of business this year.

I continue to write these stories in hopes that people will better understand these struggles and support the farmers both politically and economically as consumers.

Here’s the story I wrote on the day of our farm auction.

The day of the auction

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, May 8, 1991

I don’t remember the first glass of milk from our own cows that I drank, but I’m sure I’ll remember the last.

Jersey milk is extra rich in butterfat and protein.  Raw Jersey milk takes some getting used to at first — it’s almost as thick, creamy and rich as a milkshake, only not sweet.  But once you develop a taste, the store-bought stuff is a little like eating canned tuna fish when you’re used to lobster.

The last glass was on the day of our auction, last Monday.

• • •

April 29.  I didn’t sleep much last night, but apparently enough to dream.  I dreamed that along with the cows, my five-year-old son’s cross-stitch sewing kit that his grandmother gave him was up on the block.

I know why I had this dream.  It’s because Tristan considers a couple of these cows his, and he doesn’t think we should be selling something that belongs to him.  He’s right, so I have a hard time explaining to him why we are doing this.

Tristan is not here today.  It was his own decision not to be.  I’m sure he was right about this, too.  Tristan’s first sentence was, “Help Daddy milk cows.”

It’s easier for two-year-old Katie Ann.  She doesn’t really know what’s going on, and she’ll get to see more of her father now, after all.

My last glass of milk is as the sale begins.  I have to get away for a minute, it’s too emotional.  I go to the house and have a glass of milk.

In a minute I head back to the barn.  My husband Harvey is nervous.  He’s sitting on the side of the bank surrounded by friends — Bryan, Lowell, Ben, others.  Some of them may buy something, others are here just to see how he’s doing, and how the auction goes.  They are sitting on the bank watching while across the road, the auction starts with the machinery.

That stuff goes quick.  Generally, machinery isn’t bringing much these days with the price of milk as low as it is.  There are so many farm auctions, people can pick up equipment anywhere.  It’s definitely a buyer’s market.

Ours goes okay though.  Harvey seems to be relaxing.  Now for the cows.  This is the hard part to watch.  He goes in the barn, where he won’t have to watch it happen head-on.  He milks each cow as she comes in from being sold.  He had to wait until 10 p.m. to milk last night in order to have them full of milk for the sale.  They look better that way.

He stayed up almost all night, anyway, drinking coffee and sitting in the barn with his cows.  He had hired a man, Tim, to help us over the last week, and the two of them took shifts in the barn, keeping the cows clean.

Over the last few days, it’s been hard to tell whether our farm had the air of a wedding or a funeral.  The crew of Northeast Kingdom Sales came Saturday to set up the bright blue and white tent in case of rain.  As it turned out, it wasn’t needed and the sides are left off.  Anyway it certainly adds a festive air.

Under the tent is a plywood platform with a podium on it.  All this is at one end of our barn.  Sunday, the crew came with a pressurized spray cow-washing machine and hosed the girls off with Wisk detergent, one at a time.  They shivered in their tie-stalls, wondering what this was all about.  It’s not every day they get a bath and their tails combed.

It was only two weeks ago that Harvey made his final decision.  This came after months of wrangling and rassling with various options.  Expanding the herd size, then when that didn’t work making it smaller.  Nothing worked.  Our cost of production is still higher than what we make.

We figured over the summer we would lose about $2,000 a month.  I know this sounds like a lot, but others are losing more.  At the meetings, the unending meetings, farmers consistently say they are losing $3,000 to $8,000 a month.

These meetings, ostensibly to meet with politicians or advocates or other people who promise they have the power to do something, wind up being helpful in the way of support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.  People stand up and tell about their situation, and a murmur of sympathy runs through the crowd.  We all feel better afterwards, knowing we’re not alone.  Farmers Anonymous, these should be called.

A few of the lucky ones are breaking even right now and will hang on.  I say lucky, but it’s not luck.  It’s men and women who are in their sixties or seventies and have farmed since they were old enough to carry a milk pail and have finally paid off their debt.  If you have no debt, you might be able to make it at the current price of milk.  But so few have no debt.

Others will hang on because they simply have no other choice.  The whole economy is bad, there are no jobs.  The price of milk has to go up again sometime, right?  They will try to weather this.

Some have no choice because they’ve already sold their development rights, so they have no chance to get money out of the farm.  Others can find nobody to buy the farm in the flat economy.

What will happen is the economy will pick up in southern New England long before here, so those people will have money to snatch up bargain properties in northern Vermont.  Ten-acre lots, their dream come true.  Vermont’s nightmare.  Vermont will start looking more and more like suburban Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, the farmers try to hang on.

The people to whom they owe money understand.  We had a call not long ago from one guy who breeds cows.  If we could send $44, we would be caught up to within 150 days, he said, sounding apologetic for even asking.  I said I would ask Harvey, I thought we could come up with the money.

But when the milk check comes, you have to pay the electricity or they’ll shut that off.  You have to pay certain bills, or other services will get shut off.  The nice guys are the ones you don’t pay, because they’re the ones that don’t take you to court.   Then you feel like shit when you walk into their stores to charge something else, or when you run into them in town.

Harvey and I and our two children have an option.  We will move in with his parents, become an example of how the extended family is coming back into fashion by sheer economic necessity.  He will work for our present landlords putting up feed, and in the winter make some income boarding heifers in our heifer barn.  We’ll also continue raising sheep on the side, and I have my job at the newspaper.

With that heifer barn, one day, if the price ever got better he could build on to it a little, raise some heifers and get back into dairy farming.

At the auction, Jeff, another farmer, tells me Harvey will be farming again in a month.  He means Harvey has farming in his blood.

That’s the trouble, farming does get in your blood and then what can you do?  The reason farmers don’t get any money is that they’re willing to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week with very rare vacations or even an entire day off, if only they can break even.

It’s like an addiction, and that’s why we need Farmers Anonymous.

Of course the milk dealers take advantage of us in this situation.  And you don’t see the price of milk for consumers dropping in the stores.  The middle-men, Kraft cheese and everybody else, are making out like bandits.  Long live Corporate America.

By the time I’m talking to Jeff about how long Harvey’s likely to stay out of farming, I’m a little more relaxed, too.  The third or fourth cow that sold brought $2,600, which is much more than we expected.

I start looking around at the crowd and find people looking at me with a certain expression.  How is she handling this, they wonder.  I alternate between relief that it’s going well and sadness at not wanting to see this part of our lives over.

I’m holding up pretty well until I start talking to Liz, Jeff’s wife, in the milkhouse.  Jeff wouldn’t even be able to go to his own auction, she says.  Things shouldn’t be like this.  I start to cry, and then she quickly changes the subject to a funny sign on the wall so I can think about something else.

It works, and I go to look for Harvey to see how he’s doing.  Farming is his dream more than mine, and I expected him to be heartsick today.  But he’s mainly relieved and gratified that it’s going so well.  A lot of important people in the Jersey breed in the state, and even some from New Hampshire and New York, are here today.

He’s pleased to see that 11 years of work, breeding our cows to the best bulls, raising the best heifer calves, has paid off.  Despite the low milk price, the price of cattle is still good.  One couple from Burke who bought 17 of our cows is just going into farming.  I hope they have good luck.

Our landlords, Al and Joan, bought a few.  So those will stay here, including some of Tristan’s pets.

As the auction rolls along, I am starting to get excited.  I see the subtle battles fought with slight tips of the head as auctioneer Reg Lussier rattles on about this or that cow.

The sad part comes at the tail end of the sale when our older cows go for $700 or so.  Eve is like one of the family.  She was named Eve because she was the first calf we had born to one of our own cows, 11 years ago.  She was the beginning of our beautiful herd.

Over the years, she gave us almost all heifer calves, and that cow family is one of our best.   She is a lovely cow, mostly black and dark brown with a funny white marking on her flank.  Her face is so wise.  I’ll miss her.

At about 3 in the afternoon, it’s all over.  We have done well.  The cows brought a lot of money.  It will all go to our main creditor — the check is even made out to them — but that will get us caught up to a reasonable level on that debt.

Harvey has saved out his round baling equipment, and that will be his way of making some income this summer.

By the end of the summer we should have the leftover day-to-day bills paid off.   We should be able to go into the stores in town without getting that sinking feeling.

The auction started at 11.  So much riding on so few hours.  But it went okay, and we’ll sleep better tonight.

Keep Current Use

by Bethany M. Dunbar, June 6, 2010

The Governor has vetoed a bill that would change the current use program.  And the Legislature has decided not to go back to try to override the veto.  This is good news for farmers, forest land owners, and anyone who cares about keeping the working landscape working — at least for now.

The Vermont Farm Bureau worked on the bill that the Governor vetoed.  The Farm Bureau supported it, with the idea that it would be better to have some reasonable fee increases than to have the whole thing cut even more — which is quite possible next year.

Current use is expensive.  But it works, and it’s the one thing that Vermont can really do to keep its remaining farms.  Dairy price policy is set nationally, and Vermont can’t change it by itself.  But property tax policy is a different matter.

The current use program allows landowners to pay a lower property tax based on “use value” instead of fair market value.  In other words, the land is taxed at a rate more in keeping with its working value than what it might sell for if it happens to be near a lake or mountain views.  Those views can really increase the real estate prices but don’t make the cows’ milk or vegetables or logs or firewood worth more.

In exchange for the lower taxes, the landowners agree to keep the land open and undeveloped.  If they take some of the property out of the program, it can be developed, but the landowner pays a penalty.

When money gets tight, current use is always looked at.  But this is the most important time to keep the program if we want to keep Vermont as a working landscape.  A recent poll shows that 97 percent of Vermonters have that goal.

One of the criticisms of the current use program has come from folks who point out that wealthy landowners or people who have recently moved to Vermont are taking advantage of it.

This view makes current use into a welfare program — which it’s not.  It’s about land use.

What frequently happens is the landowner allows a farmer neighbor to use that land for hay or pasture, sometimes for nothing.  So the landowner is gaining the tax advantage and so is the farmer.

If some land stays in farming, the benefit is not only to the landowner and the farmer.  It’s also to every business in town that has anything to do with agriculture or tourism.  What do you think the tourists come here to see?  Shopping malls?  Condominiums?  That’s what we will all get to look at if that farm and forest land gets developed.

In some towns in the Northeast Kingdom the businesses that happen to depend on agriculture or tourism might be every single business in that town.  No joke.

So thanks to Governor Jim Douglas for vetoing the legislation that would have increased fees.  From an economic point of view, current use should be absolutely the last program that gets cut in state government.  It’s basic to this state.  We just plain need it.

Not that I have a strong opinion about this or anything.  What do you think?