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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 14, 2006

Honoring our founding farmers

Why do we feel such a sense of loss when old farmers die"

We wrote in late November about the death of long-time Berne farmer Morris Willsey, about how part of a way of life died with him.

"He was a legend on the Hill," his daughter, Priscilla Schaap, told us.

Mr. Willsey farmed the Helderberg land where he grew up and watched it progress from the days of horse-drawn plows. He chronicled his life and times in a 1992 memoir, "The Past Not Forgotten."

Old farmers, like Mr. Willsey, embody a piece of our history. Not that he was stagnant; his was a history of progress. The Willseys embraced and promoted change. Mr. Willsey’s father and grandfather built a round barn in 1912, a rarity and a model of efficiency.

Mr. Willsey chronicled the first milking machine on the farm, purchased in 1932. "We also had a 32-candle power generator, which furnished lights when milking," he wrote. "What a great thing lights!"

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, there was progress on the Willsey farm. A milk cooler replaced ice cut from the farm pond. And, Mr. Willsey wrote, "In May of 1938, I purchased a new Farmall F-20 International with steel wheels on back."

Nothing went to waste. "Used the steel wheels until late ’40’s when rubber tires were purchased," wrote Mr. Willsey, a master mechanic. "I still have this tractor running in fine shape."

Mr. Willsey summed it up well when he wrote, "Farming on 140 acres was rather simple — hard work and long hours."

This week we lost another long-time farmer, Orloff Bear, and we lost a woman with a strong and unwavering voice for farmers, Sheila Powers.

For more than two decades, Mrs. Powers was president of the Albany County Farm Bureau. We could always count on her to give us the farmers’ perspective. She was outspoken about personal and property rights, and she didn’t mince words.

We remember in the 1980’s as the Helderberg Hilltowns were in the midst of a controversial revaluing of property, Mrs. Powers, who was not a tall woman, stood on a chair at a packed Knox Town Board meeting so she could be seen and heard; she was. She maintained farmland should not be valued at building-lot prices.

Mrs. Powers did more than speak; she took action for farmers when they needed support. She stood by them.

Her daughter remembers her standing in front of bulldozers, and the Vojnars, a Guilderland farm family, say that Mrs. Powers and The Altamont Enterprise saved their farm when it was threatened four years ago after suburban newcomers complained about the smell and the mess.

Dorie Vojnar described Mrs. Powers as "a fighter for all farmers in Guilderland," and went on, "She wasn’t a pushover. She got her point across with dignity."

Mrs. Powers knew not just agricultural issues but individual farmers, really knew them. Two years ago, when Harry Garry, a Berne farmer and Hilltown icon, died, Mrs. Powers described for us, in detail, his many accomplishments, ranging from developing birdsfoot trefoil into a useful crop to his being "the guiding light for the changes in the federal estate tax law."

Mr. Garry was an original member of the Albany County Farm Bureau and was its president for 13 years. "I learned a great deal from him," said Mrs. Powers. "I learned to be not quite so unvarnished...He taught me to have patience."

She concluded, "Harry never lost his touch with people. If you’re going to be protective of agriculture, you can literally work around the clock. Harry put in a lot of time...I feel badly to know he’s gone. Farmers are saddened by his departure. They always knew he was out speaking up for them and they were grateful for it."

We can say the same of Mrs. Powers. Her voice and her verve will be sorely missed.

Orloff Bear died on the same day as Mrs. Powers. His legacy is left locally at the Altamont Fair. He died last Friday at age 88 in the Greenville farmhouse where he and his wife, Jeanne, had lived for most of their 63 years together.

Ever since he was five years old, Mr. Bear had not missed a year visiting the Altamont Fair. In 2005, he and his wife were given a gold pass, to attend the fair for free for the rest of their lives

Events at the fair in the 1920’s, when Mr. Bear was a boy, included a cattle parade where, said Mr. Bear, "Fellas would lead bulls all the way around the race track." When Mr. Bear was a child, his grandfather let him lead his bulls in the parade.

"We also had milking contests then," Mr. Bear said. "They’d weigh the milk and take the butter content of the milk to find whose cow was the best cow. My grandfather won a trophy for that one year."

Mr. Bear would polish the horns and hoofs of his animals to make them shine. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Mr. Bear showed his first cow in 1932, when he was 14.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he exhibited not only cattle but also showed goats, sheep, and ponies. His two sons and daughter also got involved, and, today, some of his grandchildren show beef cattle at the fair.

"Orlie’s devotion to the Altamont Fair was demonstrated by his 30 years of service on the Altamont Fair board," his family wrote in a tribute.

"It gets in your blood and you can’t get it out," Mr. Bear said of the fair.

The fair is a place where farmers can share what they know and impress with their best. It’s a place where young people can learn from their elders and represent the greatest part of a farming tradition. And, today, the fair is a place where city dwellers and suburbanites can get a glimpse of another way of life.

When we mourn the loss of farmers like Orlie Bear, or Harry Garry, or Morris Willsey, we’re mourning the loss of a working-class way of life that valued ingenuity and independence. The fabric of our community has changed as we’ve gotten further from our agrarian roots.

We were once a nation where most of the citizens were farmers. It is part of our heritage. Daniel Webster said in 1840, "When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers therefore are the founders of human civilization."

Now just a small fraction of Americans are farmers. The decline in farmland was rapid in the last century. Most of us can think back a generation or two and remember farmers we knew. Now children must be bused to farms on school field trips to see a cow or an orchard. At the turn of the last century, about three-quarters of our state was actively farmed; now it’s well under a quarter.

We still eat, with more choices than we used to have. But much of our food comes now from across the country or around the world. Many of us have lost our connection to the land.

The Berne Historical Society this year depicts the Willseys’ round barn on its annual Christmas ornament. The barn itself was destroyed by an arsonist in 1976. The ornaments are a lovely tribute to a bygone life and we hope they hang on many trees for years to come.

But we can do more to support and encourage the farmers who are still hard at it. We can buy locally-produced food that is often of better quality and lower cost than imported food.

And, as many of our towns are involved in charting their futures, we can speak out on the value of preserving farmland, and enacting zoning that favors farming. Farms pay significantly more in property taxes than they receive in services, unlike residential developments that consume far more in services than they pay in taxes.

This would be a good way to honor the "hard work and long hours" of the farmers we mourn. Really, it’s in our blood, all of ours.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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