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Guest Column: Pea Viner Corners: Farm Community in Retrospect and Prospect

Excerpted from a presentation by dairy farmer James Vincent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, July 12, 1999.

While driving down the road the other evening, hurrying home from the pea field after delivering some parts to keep the harvest going, I stopped at an intersection. To the west, the sun was setting in a glorious array of amber and red. There stood the old foundation that had appropriately named the town, Pea Viner Corners. That foundation was where, forty years ago, stood the viners that each July held promise and opportunity for that community as the many hardy souls fed the elevators with the vines that yielded those tender peas.

In early July, there would be hundreds of people involved in bringing in the pea crop from the area's farms and vining them out at that corner. It would have involved many tractors with mowing machines, as well as swathers, countless trucks, hayloaders, and a community coming together to harvest nature's plentiful bounty. Together they would accomplish so much because the race between the plow and the stork was dependent upon their effort. That community and American agriculture achieved a dramatic victory in that race.

The Victory

I thought of the community as it had existed, with its common goals and enterprising spirit. That community of forty years ago, and so much of rural America, has experienced its own sunset. Forty years ago, there was the general store, hardware store, feedmill, farm equipment dealership, a school house, and the community church bustling with activity at that time of year. They are gone, all gone. This has been a victory so bittersweet for rural America, and has caused me so much anxiety.

I hear the crackle of the two-way radio as the pea harvesters talk to the canning factory. I thought of how those three machines with three people running them around the clock have replaced that row of viners and those hundreds of people. For a moment, I am overcome with guilt. Have I been part of a coup that has led to the decline of rural America, its way of life, and its community? I think of the town, those vacant storefronts, abandoned dairies, and broken dreams. I think of the sons and daughters from those farms for whom economic reality presented no promise, no future, and no more ties to the land. Farming presents so much apprehension and uncertainty. I don't need this darkness, this guilt.

Prospects for the 21st Century

Can light come from this darkness? Can I keep the victory going? Should I keep the victory going? I think about the challenges. Agriculture and its capacities, that were once held almost holy, are now taken for granted. Will I be able to recognize the new accountabilities as America redefines itself? I have come to recognize that as each generation is removed further from their agricultural heritage, we also have a new clientele. I think of the agents and elements of this change. Even my own sons, with their differences of defining experiences, with less ties to tradition, a desire for an easier life, and a broader perspective of a new world order, are questioning this farming vocation.

Revitalizing the Community

Again, I think about Pea Viner Corners. It is still a community. It has a diverse agenda, a renewed agenda. It is redefining itself. Its residents have unpredictable political ties, and they question government, business, and even science. It is a community of commuters, commuting because the industrialization of agriculture and its efficiencies have lead to no economic or employment opportunities at home. I am frustrated because they don't understand my vocation. I am frustrated because they seem to have a different environmental consciousness. But I have to remember - it is collective responsibility that will make a revitalized community. As a farmer I haven't done enough to understand their diverse perspectives, while dwelling on their inattention to mine.

I reflect on the opportunity that is, perhaps, in our own backyard. Maybe, just maybe, this intermeshing with suburbia is what agriculture needs. My new neighbors' perceptions of quality and freshness, as well as their environmental consciousness, have certainly changed my marketplace. Perhaps there is common ground for understanding. Maybe if I, and all of agriculture, put forth some effort, we can work together again with our neighbors to bring back to rural America everything that makes community.

I think of the void that has been left in rural America. I think about that old foundation at Pea Viner Corners and of foundations all across rural America. Whether or not agriculture is the cause, I feel an obligation to fill that void with meaning.

James Vincent
Byron, New York