Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tradition, Tradition (Cory)

Speaking of a pair of mutual acquaintances at Thursday's lunchtime workshop with the Benson family, Eddie and Becky's oldest daughter Kati said to Jennie, "Oh, they're wonderful. I'd have loved to have them at my wedding -- if only my family weren't so big..."

Our lunch meeting (Eddie: "It's a good thing you girls are pretty and bring lunch. I've never had so many meetings in my life!") involved only the very tip of that family iceberg, but with three generations of Bensons represented, the dining room felt quite full. The conversation took on a life of its own, with Eddie's mother's opinionated quips, Kati's high-spirited curiosity, and, of course, Eddie's bottomless supply of stories, advice, convictions, facts, and jokes. Even Allison, one of the 4H-ers we got to see compete last month at the Ossipee Valley Fair, got a couple of words in edgewise.

We heard the tale of Kati letting the cows back out one night in the hopes she'd be allowed to help the second time around (a natural desire for a little girl growing up in an environment where the most talked-about -- if most loathed -- job is "gettin' in cows"). We heard from Kati and her brother Eben about playing Search and Rescue with their dad in the sand pit ("Ever hear the expression 'land rich, money poor'?") and spinning around in the middle of a cornfield to get lost. Eddie's mom explained old methods used during haymaking and hay storage. Naturally, the tension between old and new was a topic that surfaced and resurfaced. It's on everyone's mind, anyway, since the collapse of the barn.

The Benson Farm Barn, about a month ago.

"What's something you hope you'll be able to pass on to your children?" we asked.

"Well, the barn was something," Eben joked, and everyone laughed but shot him a look. You could feel that one hit a bit hard. The barn had been a symbol, a presence, a physical reminder of the farm's and the family's proud and intertwining histories. Kati said that when the barn collapsed a flood of emails circulated among family members carrying memories of the old building. A mad rush ensued to get us a copy of The Benson Farm Barn Retrospective that Eddie's sister, Mary Benson Emerson, wrote for the Gorham Times in the wake of the collapse. The loss is something that the family feels deeply.

But the barn was also a real, functioning part of Benson Farm. It held hay and cows and Whistle, the pig, on top of all those memories. Its presence and its function influenced day-to-day farm operation immensely. I remember at our first Kay-Ben story circle, we asked Erica what had stayed the same on the farm over her lifetime. "Nothing," she answered. And yet, the barn was still there. Maybe the way it was being used had changed, but not completely. The factors of size and location, of the building's age and architecture, were limiting ones. Now the family has to figure out how best to replace that barn and the functions it served. Just watching Becky spread a map of the farm out on the table and shift a piece of paper cut to show the size and shape of the barn in the correct scale (a method I can't help noting that designers use in creating theatre sets) reveals the endless array of possibilities opened up by the collapse.

A commercial being shot on Tuesday, right where the barn used to be.

Tradition is a powerful thing, especially in a profession as historically generational as farming. Taking over a farm means inheriting the results of all the wise and unwise decisions made by its past owners; inheriting a relationship with consumers, community, and land; inheriting any debt, stigmas, and quarrels; inheriting the farm's limitations (in space, architecture, resources) as well as its potential; inheriting "the way it's been done." And if you're taking it over from family, you're that much more likely to be influenced by the ideology of the preceding farmers (likely your own mother and father!) about farming and, heck, life.

At 18, Phil Jordan, Bib's son, already knows he wants to eventually take over from his dad. The main concern he shared with us: not being sure of the right times to plant and harvest everything. He's got to gradually learn the Jordan's Farm cycle from Bib, over time. And one very strong tradition on the farm: Corn harvesting. Phil and Bib are almost solely responsible for harvesting corn, with a little help from Miguel when there's really a lot to pick. Bib did it himself until Phil got old enough, and Bib's father did it before him. The Guys harvest everything else on the farm, but for some reason, Jordan's corn is harvested by the farmer and it's been that way for a good long while.

In contrast to the other farms, John and Stacy, on Broadturn, have a greater share in helping to create tradition -- in more ways than one -- than they do in continuing it. They're first-generation farmers and their farm was little more than a run-down building amidst some fields and trees before they took it over. They've gotten to build a farm largely from scratch. They are also participants in a very young food/farming movement (Community Supported Agriculture), so they, along with other CSA farmers, are working to define this new tradition rather than figuring out how to continue an old one. But the ultimate success of the CSA movement will have a lot to do with its longevity -- its ability to be passed on to a next generation of farmers, and then a next...and that's all about tradition.

Tradition sustains. It also confines. It's a comfort, and that means it can be hard to recognize the benefit of change or re-evaluation. "Why do we do it that way?" "Because that's the way it's always been done." Hold onto something too long, and you run the risk of turning your life into the box stalls in Doc's barn we were clearing out last week to store Benson hay: full of crumbling legal-paper-stuffed boxes, dusty disassembled spiral staircases, metal typewriters, cracked claw-foot bathtubs, drawer-less chests of drawers -- once-useful things now meaningless.

The loss of the barn has forced the Bensons to re-evaluate in ways it's otherwise unlikely they would be doing right now, opening up options for change, and the creation of new traditions -- which will also, sooner or later, be broken and replaced. Because that's the way it goes: respect and learn from generations past, take what you can from them, and figure out the rest yourself until it's your kids' turn to try. Working on Kay-Ben last week, I noticed plenty of reminiscing; the mourning process certainly isn't complete; but there is also a sense of potential, of curiosity about the new and what's to come. Tradition's a powerful thing, and without it change wouldn't be nearly the thrill it is.