In 1911 electricity arrived and made Sterling a great location for cider mills. The mills in turn caused a bloom in orchards in our town, orchards we still enjoy today. Fifty years ago, Sterling was known as the Gem of Worcester County. We produced nearly all the Virginia Hams sold on the east coast. We raised a half million ducks. Our dairies fed Boston.
In 2001, there were only 57 farms active in Sterling. Today we have just 43 farms left. That’s a quarter of our farms, gone to houses like mine, in less than 20 years. Only 2,203 acres remain in our inventory of agricultural land.
Our remaining 43 farms make a big difference in Sterling. The orchards at Meadowbrook, the meadows and those companionable goats at Maplebrook, the statuesque cows at Rota Spring and at Rocky Acres, the rows of out-of-this-world tomatoes at Pineo, the cut-your-tree party at Evergreen Farm the day after Thanksgiving, sheep at Windcrest Farm, the white fenced horse farms, the rolling meadows of hay. And of course the entertainment at Davis Farm, educating children about animals and bringing live music to town. Sterling is beautiful and soothing for us, and a draw for cyclists and Sunday drivers.
And our farmers feed us. As I write this, we are all staying at home to slow the spread of the corona virus. Our farmers keep working, to our mutual benefit. Meadowbrook Orchards is producing takeout meals to feed our body and spirit. With eggs suddenly vanished from the supermarket, chickens at Maplebrook and other farms are working night and day to fill the gap. The meat freezer at Rota Spring is still stocked.
In addition to subsidizing our cultural well-being, farming subsidizes our residential services. Agriculture contributes 3.2% to our town budget, and consumes only 1.35% of our services. To put that another way, for every $1 of taxes, agriculture gets back $.34 in services. The residential sector gets $1.09 for every $1.00 in taxes paid. (statistics from the American Farmland Trust Survey 2009).
The dwindling of our farms is sad for another reason I recently learned: the loss of prime soil. Sterling has roughly 3,583 acres of prime agricultural soils, which are soils that produce the highest yields with minimal energy and economic resources, and farming it results in the least damage to the environment. Sterling sits on a goldmine of soil that seems to be destined to become lawn.
Why are we losing our farms?
Farming is squeezed between rising costs of producing food, and sinking prices paid for food. Federal and state regulations promote the safety and reputation of American food, but drive up the cost of making it. Imported food suffers much less regulation, and is often less expensive. Grass fed beef from Australia — Australia!—is price competitive with local beef.
The economics of farming has changed a lot since boom times last century. No one makes a living just from farming in Sterling. But as Hannah Miller points out, farming is too hard to do just for fun.
I talked with Jim French, Rick and Diane Melone, Hannah Miller, Bob Nickerson and Mike Pineo about the future of farming in Sterling. How many farms will we still have in 10 years? Perhaps 10, or perhaps just 1. At that point, Sterling will have been completely transformed to a residential community of commuters. No orchards, no goats, no cows, no Christmas trees, no horses. We become Stow, or Hudson, or Belmont. Nice towns, but they are not our Sterling.
What can we do to help our farmers, make farming a more viable business, and keep our farms? It isn’t complicated: spend some of your food budget at farms.
Locally produced meat can’t compete on price with Market Basket’s special of the week. But can you commit to buying it once a month? It would make a big difference to our farms, a small difference to your budget, and by the way, it tastes great.
Buy local produce every week in the summer. Perhaps the Farmer’s Market is not super convenient for you. So stop by your nearby farm – Pineo’s, Meadowbrook, Maplebrook, Deershorn (100 yards over the Lancaster town line), Rota Spring, Clearview, or Fat Daddy’s Apiary.
Local food is fresher than imports by weeks or months, and freshness makes a world of difference. Most of us know that sweetcorn picked and eaten the same day is a marvel of sweet flavor that makes you wonder how anyone can eat frozen corn on the cob. I had no idea, until I tasted them, that just-picked peppers and carrots and eggplants are also a world away from their out-of-season versions. Try them!
Find out what “fresh” actually tastes like. It will change your relationship with vegetables forever.
Here in Sterling, the average age of our farmers qualifies them for Senior Discounts. Who will keep our farms going? Jim French and Hannah Miller express hope for a future of thriving farms in Sterling. Hannah is the new generation of farmers. Both she and Jim know of young farmers who want to launch their own farms. New farmers and new business models could create a next-wave of farming here, and we will all be the richer for it.
Submitted by Susan Aldrich, Keeping Sterling