Farming history in Williamstown subject of multimedia lecture

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Condominiums and faux-Colonial houses march across former hayfields and pastures here. But elsewhere in Williamstown, as throughout New England, once the mowers and the cows and sheep retreated, brush, then saplings, took over. Farms that may live on only in memory and place-names — or in their built remains and distinctive forest succession — are a special interest for Williams College biology professor Henry “Hank” Art, who is also director of the college’s Center for Environmental Studies. Art will present “Forests to Farms and Back Again,” a multimedia lecture at the Williamstown House of Local History, Sunday, April 7 at 2 p.m. In his presentation, Art will explore the history of agriculture in Williamstown, and interpret some of the indelible legacies of the past agricultural activities on the present-day landscape. A plant ecologist, Art’s major long-term research focuses on the relationships between land uses and ecosystem dynamics in Hopkins Memorial Forest. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale University, Art has been on the Williams faculty since 1970. He has conducted a series of oral history projects with the help of students on farming and social change in Williamstown. On display at the HLH are projects from this January’s winter study course, “Drawing to a Close: Illustrating Disappearing Farms,” which Art taught at Williams in collaboration with local artist Mary Natalizia. Art, who has been on sabbatical this year, is editing videotapes of his interviews with about 35 members of farming, and former farming, families in Williamstown. Eventually, he plans to create a DVD for viewers to explore various topics and subjects in depth. Earlier this week, Art talked about his research and the developments that prompted it. “There were several things, but primarily it was Norrie Phelps’ farm closing,” said Art, referring to Cricket Creek Farm on Oblong Road. The new owners, the Sabot family, who live in an old farmhouse adjacent to the farm, plan to keep the acreage in agricultural production. But the purchase ends a farming dynasty with extensive landholdings in South Williamstown. The Phelps farm, said Art, was “one of the better-managed farms around, and was named Massachusetts Dairy Farm of the Year at least once. Its loss, said Art, reduces the number of active dairy farms in Williamstown from three to two. Previously, Williams alumnus and part-time Green River Road resident, financier Herbert Allen had bought Chenail’s farm off Luce Road, leasing it back to the Chenails who continue to farm it. “We used to think that the cow population was stable, but that farms were becoming larger and fewer,” said Art, but now, who knows what the future will bring.” “I thought my sabbatical would be a wonderful time to interview people who had been farmers,” he said. “I wanted to learn the reasons farmers packed it in, and those reasons weren’t all economic.” “We have the voices of farmers themselves, and images of farms, descriptions of gathering hay before bailers, for example,” he said. “We have what I hope is a pretty complete picture.” Art pored over historical data in his research, examining, for example, records of the town’s agricultural production in 1870. He brought his own background of research into the Hopkins Forest ecosystems. “If a piece of land is used for cultivation it has a completely different successional progression than if it was a woodlot, haylot or meadow,” he said. “The landscape we had was produced by previous generations interacting with it,” he said. “There is no clean slate.” “It’s enormously impacted by how our predecessors used the land.” Art credits the late Arthur Rosenburg with passing along his knowledge of the land. Rosenburg’s farm on Sheep Hill has now been acquired by the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, which plans to keep its hillside fields in cultivation, and to create a rural life center in the farm buildings. “Art Rosenburg,” said Art, “was instrumental in helping me interpret the landscape. Farmers, said Art, are “a diverse lot,” but linked by “a common characteristic, their intense respect for and love of the land, and their connection with natural, seasonal pulses.” “I came to know some people I did not know before, and a lot of them were incredibly important to the cultural history of the town,” he said. A New England family dairy farm, he said, faces competition not only from Wisconsin, the Midwestern powerhouse, but from Florida and California, where “things are done on an industrial scale.” “The reality of the situation,” said Art, “is that family farms are economic activities. Some people hold day jobs and farm at night, letting their day jobs subsidize the farms. But this can continue only so long. The economic reality is if people can’t make money by farming, they’re not going to keep doing it.” “But the landscape we all enjoy is the product of farming,” he said. “Some farms have turned into the Colonial Shopping Center, condos on Stratton Road, Simonds Road. But much of our landscape is the direct product of farming, and it’s ironic that a lot of land was kept open by an economic activity, that used to generate money. Now, it’s costing money to keep it in an open state.” “Dairy farming is hard work. There are lots more exciting and liberating ways of making a living. In dairying, you have to be there twice a day, seven days a week,” said Art. “Now there are only about 30 dairy farms in all of Berkshire County.”
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