What Defines a Farmer?

Bill Clark seeding

Leaning against my old truck, I waited for Bill Clark to make his way down the long winding hill in his mammoth sized, green tractor. As I waited, I knew something didn’t feel quite right. I had felt out of place on the farm from the first step, which was into what appeared to be some sort of animal feces. Although I was slightly discouraged by whatever it was that I stepped in, I did not feel the least bit uncomfortable. The farm was refreshingly peaceful. I heard the tractor roaring down the bottom of the hill and I suddenly looked up. He had finally made it down to where I could recognize him. He climbed down the side of the tractor and sluggishly walked over to me. “How ah ya?” he greeted me with his deep, garbled voice. Clark is a rustic looking guy at age 67 years of age; however he does not have an unpleasant appearance. He always has that smirk on his face that makes you wonder if he is being sarcastic or not. I noticed he was wearing the typical dark blue jeans that just look like they were made for farmers. His shirt had a few holes in it, as if someone had briefly set fire to it. The timeworn, grayish t-shirt read “out of coffee, life is crap”. We sat down on an old bench outside the farm stand on a beautiful sunny day. Clark politely cleared the bench of the dead leaves that had fallen from the colorful maple tree above us. The bench we were sitting on sounded like it was about to collapse any minute, so I wasted no time and got on with the interview. As a very opinionated man, he had a lot to say on technology and big business relative to farming. He recognizes the change that has occurred with farming in the past one hundred years or so, however, unlike most other old school farmers he accepts the new with the old. As he said “It’s all about finding a balance”.

Nobody takes more pride in their home town as much as Bill Clark does. Bill Clark owns and operates Clark Farm in Danvers, MA. Clark Farm has been in the Hobart/Clark family since 1728. Bill’s father, Hobart Clark, was a popular politician in the town. With Bill’s father being the most influential person in his life, he naturally became involved with politics himself. In doing, he has built up quite the resume. Just some of his involvements include 3 terms as a Danvers selectman, he has been a town meeting member for the past 45 years, and he is a retired media specialist and history teacher at Danvers High School. Like his father did, Clark doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. When I asked Clark if farming helped him prepare to take on responsibilities that came with being a selectman, he answered”It does. Because when you are a selectman, just like farming, you are always dealing with something different”.  Teaching was the ideal job for Bill for a few reasons. He had summers off, so he could still manage the farm at its busiest season. Secondly, he is an excellent teacher. He has the ability to make otherwise boring topics sound fascinating, a characteristic that I noticed more than once during the interview.

Clark Family 1898

It was clear that Bill Clark is very work oriented and he loves his job. When asked what the most difficult aspect of his work was, he avoided discussing the hard labor, early mornings, or even the low income associated with farming. Contrary to my expectations, he said the new diseases that are showing up in his crops are the most annoying parts of his work. This goes to show that his focus is not on the money or image, but rather doing his job to the best of his ability. Bill described his philosophy to me in one word, “sustainability”. He went on to say “I leave the environment better than I took it.” According to Clark, farming has changed drastically since he grew up. Not only is there far less hand labor, but it is almost impossible to make a profit on a farm today. This is affecting more than just the small farms. With over 40 different varieties of tomatoes and almost every vegetable you could think of, Clark farm is not a small farm. Still he finds himself struggling. Ultimately, the culture has changed. “Back then, there were five local produce markets just in down town Danvers alone.” Clark noted. “Today those farmers markets are replaced by stores such as Walgreens, CVS, and Fantastic Sam’s.” Bill shared a story to illustrate his point “When I was a kid, my father would take the order from local produce markets and would go out in his truck once a week to supply those stores”. Today farming relies more on what Clark called “direct marketing”, which is where the farmer sells directly to the buyer rather than simply distributing to stores. Although Clark does see the farmers market as one of the more rewarding aspects of his work, it just doesn’t bring the income it used to. Local farmers markets in Salem and Marblehead help to keep it going today.

Bill at Topsfield Farmers’ Market 1975

Let me emphasize that Bill did not seem to be complaining about these circumstances. In fact he appears to have accepted the new culture. Today he depends on farmers markets to make money off of the wide variety of fruits and vegetables he produces. Clack identifies the customers he sees at farmers markets as the most rewarding element in his work, because people of all ages are getting more involved in what they eat.

I would say the most interesting thing about Bill Clark was seen in his opinion on the new movement with young farmers. When asked “what do you think of all the young kids starting farms without the use of technology?” Clark responded, “those kids are usually ignorant and do not know the work that farming entails. Most of them grow up with a warm bed to go home to every night where their parents sheltered them. None of them know what it’s like to have to get up at 4 in the morning to help birth a cow or shovel shit.”

All in all, I think that anyone could learn from the practicality that Bill Clark lives by. A dedicated farmer can still rely on technology as long as he stays focused on the universal goal of all farmers-to provide all natural produce for local public, and to leave the land better than you found it. Bill Clark has shown that it is not the tools that a man uses, or the clothes he wears that defines a farmer as “real” or not, but more so the intentions behind his work.

James Elliott is a biology major at Salem State University. He was a student this fall in Dinah Cardin’s Composition class. This was an assigned profile on someone in the agriculture or culinary world. 

Photos from the Clark Farm located in Danvers, MA.

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