Every good story I have ever read, or written, always starts the same way: with curiosity. Without an intense need to ask questions, to understand, to know the lives of others, there may well be words on a page, but I doubt they would resonate with readers.
“Fire on the Farm” — my column in the March/April Yankee about the Bachelder family in Epsom, New Hampshire, who should have simply shut down their farm, sold their land and dairy herd, and gone on to other things, like so many hundreds of small dairy farmers in the past 20 years — began on a night in late fall when I spread dozens of New England newspapers on a table and began reading. But here is what I saw.
I would put this region’s newspapers up against those of any region in America. Our cities tend to be smaller, so the newspaper coverage is more intimate. One of the best of the small city newspapers is New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor. Its circulation is roughly 20,000, and I don’t know of any paper its size anywhere whose use of photography makes such an impact. It was a photo of Keith Bachelder in his barn that caught my eye.
When I skim dozens of papers, looking for the raw material that may one day become a column or a longer feature, my eye must be drawn to a story quickly. Too many pages, not enough time. The photographer had come in close on the cows, and I started reading. I found out about the fire that had devastated the family farm, and the desire of neighbors to help them rebuild. I wanted to know more.
I drove out for the first time on a lovely Saturday. Keith’s mother, Ruth, proved a writer’s dream. She is a born storyteller, and it was as if she had waited to simply tell the story — not of the fire, but of the family, about her roots as a farm girl, about her courtship with her husband, Charles, all those years ago. “He was a farm boy. I was a farm girl,” she began. And I was hooked.
I wish you had all been there in her country kitchen as she talked about the utter joy of working from dawn to dusk, fighting to keep a little farm going. I had not known very much about the plight of the small New England dairy farmer when I entered Ruth’s home, but when I left, I felt, once again, why this work is so rewarding and special. For a few hours this day, and then for a few more hours when I returned shortly after, I was allowed to step inside the lives of total strangers. I had entered their world, their struggles, their hopes.
Until Ruth and her daughter Sarah talked to me, I had never realized how the huge corporate dairy farms in the West make it all but impossible for the traditional New England farmer to compete. There are dairy farms in Idaho, Sarah told me, with thousands of cows. She and her family were milking fewer than 40.
A hard life, Ruth said over and over, but one she would never trade. She talked about standing in the middle of the road on a spring evening and hollering that dinner was ready, watching her two daughters and two sons run from the barn where they’d been playing. And how all her children’s friends wanted to come for dinner because of the farm-fresh cooking.
Telling their story is why Yankee will always be a part of this New England landscape. The Bachelders are important. They matter. I hope when you read about them you’ll understand why.
Mel Allen is editor of Yankee Magazine and author of A Coach’s Letter to His Son.