Defunct Agriculture Tour

It was the economist Joseph Schumpeter who coined the term "creative destruction" and authored the line "This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism."  We see economic assets around us constantly being re-deployed into new uses, but rarely pause to look at them or consider the underlying processes.

In recent years I have probably read in the neighborhood of a hundred or so articles about the "locavore" movement -- a movement of people advocating for eating food grown and produced close to where it is consumed.  The idea seems to have something to do with preventing global warming, such as by using less carbon-based energy in transporting food from distant farms to places of consumption.  If there is any criticism of the locavore movement out there, I have never seen it.  At Yale they have the Yale Sustainable Food Project, lobbying the dining hall system to seek food that is "local, seasonable, and sustainable," as part of the project to save the planet.  Who can be against that?

Unfortunately, the forces of creative destruction seem to have other ideas.

In upstate New York and New England the largest traditional use of the land has been for agriculture.  In 2010 I attended a presentation at the Audubon Center in Sharon, CT where the presenter gave the following approximate statistics:  At the time of the arrival of the first European settlers in Connecticut in the early 1600s, the land was close to 100% forested.  Over time the settlers cleared the land for agriculture, and by the peak of agriculture in Connecticut in the mid-1800s about 80% of the land was devoted to agriculture and only about 20% of the land remained covered by forest.  The decline of agriculture began in the mid-1800s.  Today, according to the presenter, the amount of forested land in Connecticut is back to about 60% or more.  The remaining cleared land is not evenly distributed, but rather is concentrated in the southern areas along the coast, and in the Connecticut River valley.  This remaining cleared land is as much urban and suburban as agricultural.  In northern Connecticut things are mostly back to forest.

Salisbury is the most northwesterly town in Connecticut, bordering on both New York and Massachusetts.  If you hike up the Appalachian Trail from the village of Salisbury to a lookout called Lion's Head, you will get the impression that almost all of the area is now forest.  Here is a view from Lion's Head.

View from Lion's Head Lookout on the Appalachian Trail, looking south over the town of Salisbury, Connecticut

However, there is still a considerable amount of agriculture in the Town of Salisbury, as well as in adjacent areas such as the Town of Sharon (immediately to the south), and the Towns of Northeast and Amenia (in Dutchess County New York, just across the border).  Yet even after some 150 years of decline, the remaining agriculture continues to decline further.  

The photos in the tour that follows were taken by myself and my daughter Emily in May 2012.

The first pictures are in the Town of Salisbury, along U.S. Route 44, just east of the New York border.  As recently as a couple of years ago this was an active farm, and there was a barn next to this silo.

In the next picture you can see some traces of the foundation of the former barn.

Along U.S. Route 44, just east of the New York/Connecticut border, town of Salisbury, CT

A sign across the street tells the story:  513 acre farm for sale.

Along U.S. Route 44, just east of the New York/Connecticut border, town of Salisbury, CT

The realtor John Harney Associates has the listing.   The local newspaper reported a couple of years ago that the long-time farmer was ready to retire, but his children did not want to continue farming.  So far there are no takers.

Crossing the border into New York and the Town of Northeast in Dutchess County, we head south from the Village of Millerton along Route 22/44, and soon come to this site:

Route 22/44 south of Millerton, NY

This one appears to remain active as a farm, although from the phrase "4 individual parcels available" one would conclude that future uses other than agriculture are likely.  

Right across the street there is another one:

Proceeding south along Route 22/44 toward Amenia, on the east side of the road, we come to a massive farm that appears to be abandoned and is quickly falling into ruins.  As recently as a few years ago, several of these buildings seemed to be the sites of activity:

East side of Route 22, town of Amenia, NY

East side of Route 22, town of Amenia, NY

Here's the abandoned farmhouse.  It's rather spooky:

East side of Route 22, town of Amenia, NY

Just one more shot of some of the many defunct buildings at this site.  It is remarkable how quickly they fall into ruin after people cease to maintain them:

East side of Route 22, town of Amenia, NY

Just a little farther south toward the Village of Amenia, this time on the west side of Route 22, a no-longer-used but still mostly intact barn:

West side of Route 22, Amenia, NY

From the Village of Amenia, Route 343 heads back east into Connecticut.  In the middle of the approximately four miles between the Village of Amenia and the Connecticut border is another farm in an advanced state of ruin:

South side of Route 343, town of Amenia, NY

And there's a barely-still-standing barn that looks like nobody will be using it again any time soon:

South side of Route 343, town of Amenia, NY

Back in Connecticut one enters the Town of Sharon (immediately south of Salisbury) where several farms give signs of being active and successful.  However, here is one on Route 41, south of the Village of Sharon, which although appearing to be operating as an active agricultural business, nevertheless from the condition of things one might question whether the owners are continuing to invest in the enterprise.  A farmer can probably live with a barn whose roof leaks a little, but this is getting a bit extreme:

West side of Route 41, south of the village of Sharon, CT

And as a last treat, back over the border in the Town of Amenia, New York State, along South Amenia Road south of Amenia Union, yet another barn in a complete state of collapse -- so complete that you can barely see it in this view:

West side of South Amenia Road, town of Amenia, NY

As a very rough estimate, I think that of the lands in far northwest Connecticut and the immediately adjacent areas of Dutchess County, New York that have recently been in agricultural production, up to one-quarter are in the process of leaving that use for something else.  What else?  A large portion might simply revert to forest.  At least one large property off Route 343 in the Town of Amenia is being sold off in ten to twenty acre parcels for large homes, presumably for people from New York City and suburbs seeking country retreats.

What is going on here?  The fact is that this area is not very good for agriculture.   The land is not flat; almost every piece of land slopes some or maybe a lot.  The soil is not particularly good and is full of rocks.  There can be some great locally grown produce here, particularly corn, apples, tomatoes, and some other vegetables -- but we have long winters, so the locally grown produce begins no earlier than about June and ends by no later than October.  If you want a fresh tomato from October to May, it probably came from California or Florida, or maybe Mexico or even Chile.  And there are many, many things that are not grown here and probably never will be because of the climate, from citrus fruits to avocados to coffee to nuts.  

Even though this land was never very good for agriculture, lots of the land was used for agriculture until recently because of the difficulty of getting food here from far away places before it went bad.  In earlier times, they just did without fresh agricultural produce from October to May, other than maybe a few potatoes and squashes stored in the root cellar.  I guess that was "sustainable."

I would conclude that the trend away from agriculture in this region is an inevitable result of the availability of cheap carbon-based energy for transportation and refrigeration.  That means that farmers can farm where much more food can be produced with less labor; that fresh fruits and vegetables and all other sorts of food are available year-round in New England at affordable prices; and that our land gets re-deployed into forests or maybe country retreats.  Of course, there are some who would like to take all this away in the name of "sustainability."  They never really spell out the consequences of the vision they are pursuing.