ORWELL — “It’s the small family farm that made this country great,” said Steve Berry.
It was late afternoon on a Friday, and the red Mercury Cougar he drove had already covered many miles on the roads of Addison County that day. The back seat of the car was piled high with boxes, papers and picture frames, a warning light or two flickered on the dashboard and the speedometer sat firmly at zero.
But that wasn’t stopping 67-year-old Berry of Waterbury. He was hard at work on two missions: first, to identify and sell aerial photos of farms taken in the 1960s, and second, to catalog the history of those farms.
To Berry, the two tasks are not so different. He retired a few years ago from Champion Airviews, where he sold aerial photos of farms. Then another company in the business, State Aerial Farm Statistics, asked him to work for them.
State Aerial’s offer was intriguing: they had thousands of pictures taken in the 1960s, but the maps showing where the photos were taken had all been thrown out. The company wanted Berry to travel around New England, using the photographs and what information he could gather in order to locate the farms in each picture. Ultimately, Berry would be selling reproductions of the pictures to the farms that he found.
Berry accepted State Aerial’s offer, but on one condition: that he would not simply sell the photographs, but also document the location and history of each farm that he identified.
“The stories are there,” he said. “It’s like a portal. You can walk into the past and ask these questions.”
To Berry, it is a great shame that the salespeople reconstructing these photograph routes in other areas of the country are solely working for the commission, and few of them even make records of where they found the farms. Berry uses the commission — 30 percent of each sale he makes — to fund his search for farm history.
“I didn’t come in here to get the paycheck,” he said. “I came in here to get the history.”
Since he started with State Aerial in July 2007, he has covered counties in Maine, New York and northern Vermont, and he has been working in Addison County since early October.
The process of retracing the flight paths of each camera roll is a lengthy one. Berry finds the nearest airport and begins driving, searching each road for a landmark. Once he finds one farm, finding the rest becomes easier: the one-seater Cessna taking photos would hold an altitude of about 100 feet and fly along roads, snapping pictures of the farms on one side before doubling back to do the other.
Then, for Berry, it’s a matter of searching out information about each farm, finding past and present owners and inquiring into the history. This is also the most enjoyable part for him.
“I bond with everybody,” he said. “I love people.”
The best people to talk to, said Berry, are the older members of each family, and the very best resources are the families that have owned the same plot of land for five or six generations.
One of his stops that Friday was at the Young farm in Orwell, where he spent several hours and learned about the farmhouse’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. This was only the most recent of the unexpected stories Berry has collected over the course of his travels.
“They’re willing to lay it out for you if you’ve got a picture,” he said, gesturing to a clipboard stacked with photocopies of farm pictures.
In the kitchen of the Dream On dairy farm in Shoreham, owners Mary and Joe Warren, Joe’s uncle Robert and family friend Tony Quenneville leafed through Berry’s clipboards.
“That one’s fallen down. That one, too,” said Quenneville, pointing to one of the photocopies.
The Orwell farm that Berry was tracing was originally owned by Robert’s father. It was sold to new owners in the 1970s, but today Joe and Mary were buying a picture of it for Robert’s birthday.
When he saw the photograph, Robert stared at it for a long minute, his face thoughtful. Meanwhile, Joe described his own memory of the farm: at age three, he was riding the tractor with his father. Just after he got off the tractor it flipped, killing his father.
As the talk turned to the dangers of farming life, it also turned to frustrations with the state of current dairy farming and remarks on how many of the farms in the photographs had been sold or were no longer operational.
“Used to be you knew your neighbors,” said Robert. “When you had a problem you had 20 or 25 people come help you out.”
Berry worries that the people with clear memories of the times when the small family farm was in full swing will all have vanished before he makes it to all of New England.
His vision for his project extends further than simple historical documentation. State Aerial has already agreed to publish a coffee table book for the towns Berry has visited containing the pictures and the accompanying stories he has collected. And he plans to apply for grants, find people to sponsor the work and bring in writers and artists to help with the documentation.
One of his plans for Addison County is to hold a competition for area high school students, challenging them to find farm stories in their town and write them. The best ones, he said, will be published in the town’s book.
And as for Berry himself, he does not doubt that he will finish his documentation of New England farm history, even if he has to hire other people to help. By his calculations, he will be documenting until he is well over 100 if he continues on alone. But he is unfazed by that prospect.
“I’m pushing 68 this coming December, but what I’m doing is so exciting. This film is the beginning and end of the small family farm, and that’s what I’m documenting.”