October 09, 2017

Forgotten Farms; A Film You Won't Forget

Forgotten Farms; A Film You Won’t Forget
By John R. Greenwood

I got lucky. 

A few weeks ago I was browsing the Skidmore Events Calendar looking for upcoming lectures or exhibitions. An upcoming screening of the documentary film “Forgotten Farms” at the Gannett Auditorium caught my attention. I’ve spent the last several years of my life paying close attention to those little taps on the shoulder. Stumbling upon this film is a perfect example of why I don’t ignore them. 

Being the spouse of a Skidmore College employee entitles me to a Skidmore ID along with an endless list of opportunities that I enjoy taking advantage of. I’m grateful to Skidmore for those opportunities. I’m also impressed by the fervor in which they encourage the general public to participate. Providing a venue for the screening of the film “Forgotten Farms” is but one small example. 

This is a multipurpose piece. First I would like to publicly thank all those responsible for making the screening possible. Skidmore provided the venue. The screening itself was sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension, Saratoga County and its membership. Secondly, I want to thank the film’s director Dave Simonds and producer Sarah Gardner for making such a beautiful and eye opening gem. Thirdly, I want to encourage others to seek out the next screening so that you might enjoy the film as much as I did. Bring an open mind—leave with a renewed view of your food, milk, and dairy farming neighbors. I’ve enjoyed food, chugged my share of milk, and admired dairy farmers all my life. This film didn’t change my opinion—it sure did reinforce it. 

Rather than focus on the struggles dairy farmers face, I want to emphasize the need for the general public to support and encourage their survival. I’ve lived my life on the fringes of dairy farms. I spent the very best years of my youth in the early 60’s making hay bale forts in the haymow of Brookside Dairy in Greenfield Center. As a child you only absorb the fun that exists on a working farm. You recall sitting in the shade of a large maple at the farms entrance sharing lunch with the men who’d already been up for hours milking. You got to ride through the fields on the hay wagon, oblivious to the work that went into getting the hay from seed to bale. You ran free like a farm dog from one adventure to another never understanding the complexity and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. Not until I’d logged ten or fifteen years working in a milk processing plant, peddling milk, and raising a family did I truly understand a 24/7/365 working lifestyle. You mature quickly when the fuel bill comes in your name and the winter temperatures freeze the half gallons of milk on your truck. When I look back at my work life it pales in comparison to that of a dairy farmer. Most of my work life I had health insurance and a retirement plan. Even during the ten years I owned my own business I always seemed to have enough money to do the things I did find time for. Being a dairy farmer is another story. Every acre comes with a sore back, little free time, and no instructions. The film “Forgotten Farms” spells out the challenges of today’s milk producers in a way that emphasizes their pride and love of doing something they can’t always explain. I see it as a ground level embrace of independence. The difficulty lies in their lack of control of the world outside the stone-walled boundaries of their farms. They are at the mercy of consumers and corporate America. Watching this film acknowledged and highlighted the lessons I’ve learned in the last several years in my job which falls dead square between the two. It is an interesting place to make a living between the farmer and the place that picks up their milk and puts it on the counter for the consumer. My chest carries the logo of my employer but my boots and responsibilities carry the soil of the farm as well. I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy the best of both worlds without carrying the burden that comes at the tips of either end. 

In a world where compromise is finding it a tough go, the dairy farmer has little choice but to bend until he breaks. They must continually reassess, readjust, and react to the problems everyone else has created. As I witnessed the integrity and resolve the farmers in the film displayed, my mind kept looping round and round in search of some light at the end of the tunnel. One thought kept flashing through my head. 

“We have to find a way to make a glass of cold milk cool again.” John Greenwood

Like vinyl records and Sinatra, some things simply can’t be replaced. 

As I watched this wonderful documentary I was saddened by the lighter than expected crowd. It’s not surprising that dairy farms are forgotten. Today’s fluid interests lie in microbrews and wineries. The internet is bloated with negative press about diary products yet our children are guzzling caffeine and sugar laced energy drinks at an alarming rate. This isn’t a nostalgic whine about trying to turn back the clock to the good old days, it’s about common sense, good health, and our future. 
We need to look out for our farming friends. We will someday realize that no theme park can replace the sights, sounds and smells of a working farm. Driving by a freshly mown hayfield in late June and I’m instantly transported back in time. Back to a time when wading in a cold farm creek soothed you like a mother wiping your brow with a cool washcloth. I’m certain the first view I have if I’m lucky enough to travel north when I leave this crazy planet will be a green pasture surrounded by a moss covered stonewall, blanketed with a blue sky, and brimming with a herd of Holsteins grazing in the shade of a giant maple. 

I always carry a notebook and pen when I attend a lecture or presentation. Many times I use the notes to write a piece like the one you're reading here. As this film unfolded my pen never stopped. I jotted everything that stood out or spoke to me. When I began to compile my thoughts I noticed a distinct pattern. 

Here are several of my notes just as I as wrote them down. 
  • First couple of cows at age nine
  • Choice
  • My father was my biggest role model
  • Perseverance 
  • Dedication
  • “Everyday” Got to be there
  • “I had 40 hours in by Tuesday noon”
  • Animals need you
  • So many things
  • Weatherman
  • Businessman
  • Doesn't miss a beat
  • Don’t show up to play around
  • You adjust
  • You never know how long you're going to last
  • Each cow generates $13,000-$14,000 per year in revenue to the local economy. 
  • “The only business that buys at retail, sells at wholesale, and pays shipping both ways”      —JFK
  • "Good years, last a year"
  • Break Even
  • Challenge
  • Fuel, seeds, veterinarian, Workmen’s Comp
  • “Years to build, in minutes it was gone” — a farmer describing a farm auction
  • 11 million dollars in lost economy when a dairy farm goes out of business
  • Nice to drive by a dairy farm
  • Lose history—How we got here
  • Deep roots
  • Great, Great Grandfather
  • 13 generations
  • 2% feed all the people
  • They’ve been here for centuries—What are they doing right?
  • Gets in your blood
  • Keep going
  • “Class Issues” —Milk not part of the food movement 
  • Education v/s Stinky kid on the bus
  • Isolated 
  • Criticized
  • Invisible
  • Disparaged
  • Don’t care
  • Hopeful

The pattern I gleaned from watching Forgotten Farms and reading my notes is this; dairy farmers are the most dedicated, committed, knowledgeable, and hard working people on the planet. I’ve always known this to be true, but after watching this film and adding it to my 60 plus years of quiet observation it became abundantly clear. As the film came to an end the crowd remained politely quiet. I however stood up and clapped as loudly as I could. It was my private standing ovation. Yes, it was for the beautifully crafted documentary but it was also for my personal admiration of the work ethic and pride that goes into every delicious cold glass of milk I drink. Since 1974 I’ve fed my family, and paid my mortgage and car payments by picking up, processing, and delivering milk. Add to that the fact that milk is my favorite farm product and you’ve got yourself a real live milkman and dairy farm advocate. 

I hope everyone who reads this gets an opportunity to watch this film. I provided links to the Forgotten Farms website. In searching their site I found they provided dozens of links to other dairy and farm related sites. 

Bravo, Dave Simonds and Sarah Gardner! You should be very proud of this film.

"All my friends say, You should retire and do something you enjoy. 
Well I guess I've been retired my whole life." - Dairy farmer 

                 “There are three people that know how the cost of milk is calculated. 
                                     Two are dead and one doesn’t remember.” 

Forgotten Farms Website: http://forgottenfarms.org

Cornell Cooperative Extension, Saratoga County: http://ccesaratoga.org

Skidmore College Events Calendar: http://calendar.skidmore.edu/MasterCalendar/MasterCalendar.aspx

September 04, 2017

Door #88

When I first posted the simple poem below it was immediately mis-interpreted. Within minutes I began seeing congratulatory comments about retiring. I was quickly reminded of how careful we must be with our words. I am not retiring. I don't want to retire. I do not like the word retire. In fact my plan is to work myself into the ground at a ripe old age. This piece in fact, is about fighting back. It's about standing your ground and yelling at the top of your lungs when you feel someone pushing you from behind.

One of the centerpieces of my book shelf is, "Working," a book written by author Studs Terkel in 1974. "Working" is a collection of interviews with the working men and women of our country. Armed with a reel-to-reel tape recorder he would interview people from all walks of life trying to reveal how, "ordinary people" feel about their working lives. Since he's not here to interview me I guess I'll speak my piece on my own. 

Ironically 1974 is the year my wife and I were married and the year I began my "working career." The days of spending my summer job money on dirt bikes and Converse All-Stars was over. Raising a family with a high school education involves dedication and commitment. When you add in two sons it involves long hours and seven day work weeks; none of which I would trade for the world. 

Work to me is a privilege. There are millions of people in thousands of countries all over the world, including our own, who would give their right arm for a steady job. I've always had one or two. I see that as a gift, not something I want to toss to the curb. Retirement is not entitlement. To do something so hard for so long, so you don't have to do something, doesn’t work in my head. If you've spent a lifetime doing something you didn't enjoy I feel sorry for you. I have spent a lifetime collecting side splitting work anecdotes, all of which I cherish like a wad of $100 bills. The more I write this piece the more passionate I become about it. Hundreds and hundreds of unforgettable characters have crossed my path during my forty-three years of working. I can't express the joy I get out of knowing I carry a sliver of memory about all of them with me every day. 

Who built the seven towers of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?…
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished 
Where did the masons go?… 
—Bertolt Brecht

I’ve always considered myself the most average man in America. Average height, average intelligence, average life. I see that as the greatest gift you could imagine. If I was above average I would have more to worry about losing. If I was below average I would always be searching for something greater. I feel like I enjoy the best of both worlds. I can strive for more but if I am happy living in the middle of the field why not enjoy the view in all four directions. Work keeps me honest. It helps me better appreciate what I have, while showing more compassion for those who are simply trying to poke their heads above water. Unless I’m broken I need a reason to set my alarm every night. I kid about being a shit-fixer at work. There is an army of us. If I didn’t have shit to fix I’d probably go stark raving mad. Yes, there’s plenty of shit fixing to do at home but the pay is much lower. And, sometimes at home I break more shit than I fix. 

I hope this short disclaimer helped to clear up any misunderstanding about me retiring. It’s not happening. When I’m ready I’ll be sure to let someone know.  


Not yet.

Right now, I just want to know what time to set my alarm for?  


Door #88

By John R. Greenwood

feeling out of place can happen to anyone
it creeps up on you without warning

a fiberglass cow loses its way
a barn, a pasture, a warehouse loading dock

take her to the fair and celebrity kicks in
I, on the other hand, lost at sea

retirement, a word I hate, stalks me
relevancy, a word I chase, eludes me

the next phase is a mine-field
avoidance prolongs the implosion

the scent of impending doom 
spreads a damp fog above

my scrappiness, like a Trump lie
doubles down, ready to start kicking and screaming 

August 17, 2017

Moving Adventure

Moving Adventure 
By John R. Greenwood

The Play Set's New Home! 
My cell phone buzzed Friday afternoon around three o'clock. It was my son Kevin. 



This is the way conversations between men begin these days. 

"Where are you?" 

When sons throw this one out at you right off the bat, listening to the tone of their voice is paramount. In this case it was more--I need an extra set of hands--versus I just ran off the road. Voice tone recognition is an acquired skill when you raise two sons. In this case I sensed a tone of immediacy and crossed fingers. 

"I'm sitting in the supermarket parking lot. Your mother just ran in to grab something. Why, what's up?" 

"I'm trying to get a crew together." 

Gulp, this sounds like more than, I need a hand moving the fridge.

"I bought a used swing set from a lady but I have to take it apart and move it" 

SuperFriend Jim and his life-saving equipment
Swing sets today aren't like the simple four-legged, two seater's I remember in other people's yards. Today's backyard play sets are more massive than the ones you used to find at the school playground. They come equipped with rock climbing walls and monkey bars, tree forts above and sandboxes below. Some cost more than my first car. For the son with three boys between the ages of four years and four months, a backyard play extravaganza could be considered a true necessity. Even though I had the day off and had planned to make some headway on my home repair list I knew this was one of those times when you respond with an immediate, "I'm in". Within the hour "The Crew" and their equipment were pulling up in front of the homeowners property like we were about to begin filming an episode of Extreme Makeover. Minutes later we had accessed the backyard by removing two sections of stockade fence. This allowed us to back right up to the play set. Then like a swat team we began unbolting and disassembling. Because the set was only two years old the hardware was in relatively good shape and everything came apart easily. Less than 45 minutes later three friends and one grandfather had everything apart and safely strapped to a trailer. Like a team of professional house movers we caravanned across and out of town on route to the swing set's new home. 

This text message from my wife sums up the Friday afternoon adventure perfectly:
"I was so lucky to be looking out the kitchen window to see the trucks go by the house with the play set. All of you men bringing a big surprise for 3 little boys. They will be so excited!! Love you guys!" 

Climbing Caleb
This was one of those events you dig out of your memory bank several times throughout your life. Whether you're the two or four year-old child or the thirty or sixty-something father or grandfather, projects that involve multiple friends and family like this one, you don't forget them. They stick to your brain like the taste of ice cream or the smell of a pine log campfire. I knew as I watched my grandsons absorbing the sight of this monstrosity rolling up in front of their house that someday after I was long gone, they would look back and smile on the memory. They will tell their sons and daughters how their father executed such a monstrous task just for them. While the world was going mad just outside this quiet little neighborhood, I was witnessing heaven and one of those small little priorities we all need to pay more attention to. The joy those little boys will have on that play set pale in comparison to the joy a father experiences watching them. My sons are good sons and better fathers. They teach their sons right from wrong and they make them laugh. They drive by the golf course to take their sons to the park or hockey practice. They wear worn out work boots so their sons can have fresh out-of-the-box sneakers. They make me proud. The friends they have accumulated make me proud too. 

Thank you Jim and Jeff for the friendship you've shown my son. Thank your wives and your own children too for sharing you on this Friday night after-work adventure. Thank you to both of my sons for putting your families first. Someday soon you too will be a grandfather looking back in admiration and joy on the life you've created. That's when the old work boot dividends begin to come in by the swing set full. 

Look out World!