Weybridge author documents dairy farm life
WEYBRIDGE — When Weybridge photojournalist and writer George Bellerose asked Grayson Wyman to sum up his life as a dairy farmer, the answer was simple:
“It was 46 years of pretty straight going,” Wyman said.
This became the title statement of Bellerose’s recently published book, “Forty-Six Years of Pretty Straight Going: The Life of a Family Dairy Farm,” which follows brothers Larry and Grayson Wyman through the last years of work on their Weybridge farm before their retirement in 2005.
In the foreword to the book, Tom Slayton, editor emeritus of “Vermont Life” magazine, writes that, “the Vermont landscape that everyone loves is a farmed landscape.”
But each year, the landscape boasts fewer and fewer farms — a loss of 400,000 acres of farmland since 1982, by Slayton’s estimate — and headlines left and right proclaim the fall of milk prices and the decline of the dairy business.
“I wanted to do this while dairy was still relatively vibrant in Addison County, to create a historical record,” said Bellerose. “It’s so rare that you see anything but (the headlines).”
Among the headlines are ones he lists in the book: “Dairies on Roller Coaster Again,” “Farmers Face Feed Shortages This Winter,” “Efforts Undertaken to Address Low Dairy Prices.”
Family dairy farmers see the other end of those headlines, and that’s what Bellerose wanted to explore.
He had met his neighbors, the Wymans, while writing a feature on dairy farms for the Weybridge quarterly town newsletter. Larry and Grayson Wyman owned and operated their small farm off Quaker Village Road, which they had been working since they’d moved their 100 cows from Brownsville to Weybridge in 1968.
“For years people had been saying, ‘They’re the quintessential dairy farmers,’” Bellerose said. “Plus they’re great storytellers — I think that’s true of many farmers. You ask about their tractor or their cows, and then you just sit back and listen.”
So Bellerose approached several organizations with the idea for an in-depth project on a family dairy farm. Everywhere he went, however, he found a reluctance to invest in the project because of the economy.
“The response was, ‘Great idea, but we can’t. Too risky,’” Bellerose recalled.
Eventually the Vermont Folklife Center agreed to sponsor the project, which allowed Bellerose to seek a wider variety of grants that could only go through nonprofit organizations. Ultimately, he pulled together a variety of funding sources, including the New England Dairy and Food Council and the New England Dairy Promotion Board, which supported the distribution of the finished book to all Vermont public and school libraries. The Fieldstone Foundation in Ripton, among many others, also provided a substantial grant.
The brothers agreed to allow Bellerose to photograph their daily routine starting in March of 2004. At that point, they had employed outside help for over 20 years, but it was still solidly a one-family farm. The brothers had resisted the push of expansion in the dairy industry, preferring to keep their farm small enough that they knew all the cows by name.
“That was the hallmark of the Wymans — they wanted to be responsible,” said Bellerose. “They wanted to keep it family farm size, so that they could do most of the work.”
And indeed, the Wymans calculated that they spent at least 100 hours working most weeks. When Larry’s daughter Bev did the calculations during the 1980s, she found that Grayson had worked 3,492 milkings without a break.
“As they say, ‘We lived in the barn,’” Bellerose said. “Not many people want to do that now.”
After the brothers completed their last milking in March 2005, they leased their farm out to Dan Kehoe, who had been working for the family since 1997. The family sold off the dairy herd and Kehoe went on to raise veal, beef and replacement dairy heifers.
“If I had to depend on a milk check, I’d be out of farming,” Kehoe says in the book. “There’s not enough money in it.”
Following the Wymans’ retirement, the brothers had time to spend with Bellerose in the evenings. In 2006 he began interviewing them, sometimes together, sometimes in turn. Their stories and Bellerose’s essays on his observations of the farm, woven throughout with his beautiful black-and-white photographs, form the core of the book.
Bellerose said that through his stories, he discovered the remarkable sense of balance and perspective in the Wymans’ approach to dairy farming — the idea, as he said, that, “we’re such a small minnow in this dairy business that we have to take care of what we have control over.”
“It’s like dominoes,” he explained. “If you don’t watch this, you lose track of that. It’s a constant juggling of multiple variables.”
The book also contains excerpts from historical documents on farming, excerpts from Larry Wyman’s daily farm records and quotes from more modern experts on the subject, offering a context for the Wymans’ 46 years in the dairy farming life.
“The book is descriptive, not prescriptive,” said Bellerose. “You can come to your own conclusions — I’ve left it to others.”
“This is one family, and it’s their story. To the extent that their problems are (common), I think it helps.”
The Vermont Folklife Center will hold a reception to celebrate the book’s publication on Friday, Sept. 17, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the organization’s headquarters at 88 Main St. in Middlebury.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
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