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Walter Clickman standing on what is left of his family’s farm.

Left Behind
By David King
Photos By John Whipple

Old-time farmers like Walter Clickman look on helplessly as their way of life disappears

Walter Clickman lives in a shack. The one-room building on a concrete foundation has two rusted fuel tanks hammered onto it. A gravel driveway leads almost directly to the door of the shack. Anything that resembles a household amenity inside was installed by Walter himself, including plumbing and a bed. No one was supposed to live in the shack where he used to process maple sap to make syrup with his father. It sits on a 30-acre plot in Westerlo that once was a small corner of his father’s 300-acre dairy farm.

Clickman is tall as a pole, and skinny as one, too. His hands are cracked and rough. His body is made up of jagged edges and bony knots. Shaking hands with him is like shaking hands with a cubist painting. He looks like the ghost of Tom Joad.

Walter Clickman wasn’t supposed to end up in a shack. He wasn’t supposed to have to buy the shack and the plot it is on twice, once from his parents and once from his sister, who claims he never paid for it originally. He wasn’t supposed to get chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from the chemicals he used to clean floors at the job he worked to support the farm, or from the hay he was allergic to. But he did.

Clickman thought he would end up farming his father’s 300 acres until he could pass it down to his own son. His story is not necessarily the typical story of how a man loses his farm. In fact, his is an extreme situation. And yet, much of what led up to Clickman’s being stripped of the land he took care of for nearly all of his 57 years on Earth would be familiar to small farmers across the region. It has to do with why farming is what Tom Della Rocco, the executive director of the Albany County Farm Service Agency, calls “risky business.” And as the farms go under, they often leave behind people like Clickman—a generation of the rural poor whose needs and situations are very different from their urban counterparts.

Looking out the open door of Clickman’s shack, you can see the rough wooden skeleton of a half-completed house. This is the first, rather large seedling in what is likely a forest of development scheduled to take place where the Clickman family farm once stood. The hay fields that Clickman’s father plowed with a horse until Clickman bought a tractor in frustration have now been torn asunder by backhoes.

Clickman moved into his shack in April 2001, and spent the first few months in his shack spending what money and strength he had left installing heating and plumbing. Most workdays would end early for Clickman in spasms and fits of coughing. He would then retire to his makeshift bed in the corner: blankets on the wooden floor. While Clickman struggled to bring his shack up to a livable condition, machines across the street laid a brand new foundation for a two-story, two-family house with ease.

Recently, Clickman, who had been operating under the assumption that he was 58 years old, realized he is actually 57 ( “I ain’t too good with that sort of stuff,” he jokes), making him about one year older than the 56.3-year average age of farmers in the United States. These farmers have seen the life they were born into change in drastic ways.

Peter Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms.

Clickman spent his whole life working his father’s farm. Walter knows how to bale hay, he knows how to make maple syrup, he knows how to repair his truck and his tractors, and he has had a hand in building and repairing almost everything on his farm and in his home. Clickman is a skilled carpenter.

One of the things Clickman didn’t learn growing up on the farm was how to read. “My father didn’t think it was no use,” he explains. Clickman’s father was a farmer who did not keep up with the changes. “He didn’t care what was coming in the future,” says Clickman. “He was gonna work it till he was done working it and that was it. He didn’t care ‘bout what was left for me.”

Nonetheless, Clickman struggled with his father to make changes that would ensure he would have at least a piece left of the farm he had invested his life in. Clickman tried to convince his father to buy tractors, upgrade their milking technology, to try raising different kinds of cattle or use different types of feed, but his father wouldn’t listen. “I would suggest something and he would give me hell and tell me why I was wrong. Then a month later someone else would say we should do it and he would.”

Clickman and his father were facing a daunting task. “Farmers have had to become experts in everything in the last 40 years,” says Tom Gallagher of the Albany County Cooperative Extension. “They have to get licensed in pesticide application, register fuel tanks, be up to date on the latest technology and crops, and be expert bookkeepers. The ones who don’t keep up get left behind.”

Others have taken the plunge. Carl Kohrs sits with one arm leaning on the cab door of his enormous feed truck. His hand rests on the steering wheel as his foot intermittently pumps the clutch. Kohrs, a bright-faced 40-something with broad shoulders, runs a small dairy farm in Durham that he started with his father in the fall of 1981.” How much leeway you got on the clutch?” “OK, pump it again!” shouts his friend and fellow farmer Carl Anderson from under the cab every now and again, as Kohrs recalls what it was like convincing his father to update their farm. “I would be chomping at the bit to put something new in like new milking machines and he would question it, but he would let me do what I thought was necessary. I was proud of him for that.”

Eventually, Kohrs’ father told his son he wasn’t comfortable getting more invested in updates to the farm, so Carl bought his father out. “Some don’t adopt new technology. They are stuck in their time period. You can dead-end your farm that way,” he says.

Even for those who do adapt enough to keep their farms alive, the image of a family farm as a place that can sustain grandpa, grandma, ma, pa and their children has been wiped away. “In a lot of cases there wasn’t enough income anymore for three generations,” says Gallagher.

“It was $12 for a hundredweight of milk in the 1970s,” says Kohrs. “Today, it is $13. It has basically stayed the same while everything else has gone up.” If you think driving to work is getting expensive, imagine having to ship a product that is barely worth the gas and man-hours it takes to ship it any substantial distance. The costs of labor, feed, cattle, medicine, upkeep and shipping more often than not outweigh the money earned from milking.

“To be a farmer today, you should be on a county committee,” says Anderson. “You need to be involved. It’s also better if your wife is a schoolteacher so you can get medical benefits.”

One of the reasons Anderson’s farm has been successful is that he also trucks cattle for other farmers, works as a mechanic and welder, and does custom niche jobs like building fences for other farmers. “If you’re a farmer, you gotta sell something,” says Anderson. Anderson, like most small dairy farmers, has come to realize that the thin profit line from milk sales is not enough to sustain the farm.

“It’s getting harder and harder for small farmers to simply pay their taxes,” says Gallagher. “As they get older, a great many find themselves selling off 10 or 11 acres just to pay the taxes.”

Anderson and Kohrs both openly wonder how long they will be able to keep their farms afloat, and see more and more farms disappearing each year. “I use equipment that was new 20 or 30 years ago,” says Kohrs. “I don’t replace something ’cause I want to, or for the good of the farm. I do it ’cause something breaks and I have to. We’re losing a lot of farmers, and financial frustration is what’s doing them in.”

An abandoned barn on the Bender farm in New Scotland.

Clickman, too, found he needed nonfarm income, especially since his father would not invest in keeping up the farm. He eventually started working a side job to bring cash home.

In his father’s day, if a second job was needed, having grown up on a farm was enough qualification to be hired for some of the most lucrative jobs. “It used to be that if you said you were off a farm, employers would scap [sic] you up ’cause of your good work ethic,” says Gallagher. “But the skills don’t translate over to the Tech Valley kind of jobs.”

Clickman started cleaning floors on the night shift at a local supermarket. He quickly found that he was terribly allergic to the chemicals he used to clean the floors, but nevertheless spent 15 years working with them every night, all night, his skinny frame pulling and pushing the floor cleaner that likely weighed more than he did, while struggling to keep his lungs inside his angular frame.

At the same time, Clickman worked to keep the farm going despite his father’s decreasing capability and interest. He purchased new machinery and made improvements around the farm, though his father seemed resigned to let the farm die. Clickman and the Andersons say the senior Clickmans wrote up a very specific will, leaving the land co-owned between Clickman and one of his sisters, with a provision allowing him to work the whole farm indefinitely and giving certain possessions to his sister. Their other daughter had run away as a teenager and was left out of the will. When his father died in early 2001, the sister who had run away returned to take his mother to live with her in Tennessee. “I didn’t think a thing of it, but I shoulda,” Clickman laments.

Only a month or two later, when his mother passed away, his sister in Tennessee produced a will that simply split the estate equally between all three siblings. Because that sister wasn’t interested in land, all the family’s belongings were put up for auction so the proceeds could be divided three ways. Clickman desperately tried to produce receipts for things he had purchased to improve the farm, items that included such major investments as tractors and haying equipment as well as things he had purchased to furnish his house. Clickman felt helpless. “If I had fought it and got a lawyer then where would I have been? With less money,” he says.

Eventually, his sisters got together and went through their parents belongings and took what they wanted. Then, not being interested in farming but being very interested in cash, the sisters sold the farm to developers. As families leave farming and sprawl moves into agricultural areas, driving up the price of land, many rural families and farms find themselves in a situation where not selling to a developer would be fiscally imprudent. In the case of the Clickmans, the sale was less about a lucrative price for land and more about a quick way to divvy up their inheritance. The result for the farm was much the same, though it didn’t leave Clickman with the comfortable retirement many farmers trade their farms for.

Clickman was informed that he would have to buy the 30-acre lot with the sap house away from his sisters, even though he had bought it from his father many years ago. Clickman claims that his father had documents of the sale on record, but it had not been registered with the county.

It was also around this time that Clickman realized he couldn’t walk from one place to another without being taken over by fits of coughing, let alone toss bales of hay in the summer sun. Clickman was forced to quit his job, and found he was unable to function at any normal capacity. Unable to afford food, let alone transportation, Clickman began relying on his friends the Andersons. He also started applying for Social Security, Worker’s Compensation and other programs that might help him back on his feet. But being out in the middle of the country, and illiterate, did not make things easy.

According to Mark Dunlea, associate director of the Hunger Action Network, Clickman’s struggle at the time was similar to that of a lot of poor rural folk, often former farm families. “Rural families are generally land-rich but cash-poor,” Dunlea says. “Even Meals on Wheels doesn’t operate in places like that because people are so far apart.” Dunlea gives the example of a Saratoga County man who lives on land he inherited from his family. The man was once a concert violinist, but because of health problems he can no longer hold a bow. He is currently on welfare but is not sure how long it will last because of the 10 job searches per month that Saratoga County requires. “He’s 59. He won’t have to do it anymore when he’s 60, but the closest house is a mile away. He has no car. If he can’t hold a bow, how is he expected to walk to the nearest bus stop?” Dunlea wonders.

Dunlea adds that the social-service infrastructure doesn’t take into account that there simply may not be any jobs in rural areas, or that the cost of transportation to the job usually outweighs the paycheck. And often, the rural poor simply are not comfortable in urban situations.

In Clickman’s case, the problem was getting to medical appointments so he could prove he was ailing. After getting a ride from his friend’s daughter to Albany Medical Center for an evaluation, he walked out of the hospital and didn’t see his ride. He might have walked out any of the huge hospital’s many exits, as he couldn’t read the signs. So, rather than waiting around or checking other entrances, Clickman decided he better get home and he started walking, as he had done when he went to Albany as a kid. Much later, after searching various routes, friends found him more than 10 miles away at the Clarksville Stewart’s.

Eventually, Clickman was told he was ineligible for Worker’s Compensation because his obstructive pulmonary disease might have come from working with hay and silage all his life, rather than from the chemicals he worked with cleaning floors. He now gets by on a Social Security check.

Although Clickman’s father operated under the assumption that the farm would end with him, there are other farmers who are desperately trying to ensure that theirs won’t. At 57, Carl Anderson, the friend of Clickman and Kohrs who farms 800 acres in Greenville and Westerlo, is also close to the age of the average farmer. His daughter Jackie and son Moe (Carl Jr.), who both currently live on land around his farm and work on the farm along with their day jobs, plan to take over the farm some day, but that doesn’t mean things will remain the same. “When I stop, we will have to have a concentrated, smaller operation,” says Anderson.

“I’m gonna have to work an outside job and we’re gonna be cutting back on hay,” adds Jackie. According to Anderson, most farmers around his age aren’t thinking about passing their farms on. “Guys my age are thinking about selling off the farm to get the most money to retire on. This isn’t some eight-hour-a-day job. We work 10-hour days on rainy days when there’s nothing to do.”

Kohrs, who is almost 20 years under the average age of a farmer and has two sons aged 6 and 11, sees it this way: “It’s up to them if they want to get involved. I would do what I can to make it work for them. I would also make it mandatory that they knew another occupation. I’m in it until I get the right price to get out.”

In some twisted way, losing his farm may actually have saved Clickman’s life. If the land were still his today, he likely would be doing everything he could to keep it running despite his medical condition. He would be out on his tractor fighting back coughing fits. He would be picking up rocks, laying fence and carrying pails of water, scraping manure out of barns and tossing bales of hay. He would be doing the only thing he ever learned to do properly.

Ask Clickman what-ifs about his farm and you will get an answer. First his calm, passive demeanor will break. He will sit back in his chair and brace his bony hands against the table and then the answer will come, spat out in volleys between violent, body-shaking coughs. “If you’re not making money, then you can’t farm. Haying doesn’t even pay the taxes. If I had my health today I wouldn’t even be able to pay the taxes. I would have to be selling it anyway. Or the government would take it from me!” he says in disgust.

Meanwhile, the 2002 USDA Census of Agriculture reports the number of farms in Albany County has actually grown, from 458 in 1997 to 484 in 2002, an increase of 6 percent. The land in farms has increased 14 percent, the average size has increased 8 percent, and the market value of production has increased 14 percent between 1997 and 2002. But these moderate increases pale in comparison to the 339-percent increase in government payments being made to county farms, from $148,000 in 1997 to $650,000 in 2002.

More and more, being a successful farmer means becoming an expert in dealing with farming-assistance agencies such as the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The Farm Service Agency provides loans for farmers to help replace equipment or build new barns or for beginning farmers who have to start from scratch. The FSA also offers payments for taking different conservation measures, makes up for “abnormally” low prices, and compensates for crops damaged by natural disasters.

Getting involved in such programs can bring up issues of pride and independence for some. Clickman’s father wouldn’t touch them. But Anderson and many others make good use of them.

“Sometimes those assistance places do their job,” says Anderson. “Sometimes people who should apply for it don’t ’cause they want to be self-reliant. Other times, people who don’t need it take advantage of it.”

For Clickman, however, the forms are an impossible barrier. Applying for loans for operating assistance or land, or learning different crop-rotation programs or conservation initiatives through various government agencies, would be almost impossible because of his illiteracy.

Despite the numbers, both Anderson and Kohrs doubt that many small dairy farms in Albany and Greene counties will survive the next five to 10 years. With the Albany sprawl getting closer and more developers offering farmers an easy retirement at a time when making money on milking gets harder, Kohrs and Anderson see the smaller farms having to adapt or being forced out of existence.

“There is a lot of interest in co-ops, producer plants where five or 10 small farms come together to market their product,” says Kohrs. “But that still ends up as a million-dollar operation. You’re no longer a small farm.” Kohrs also points to the fact that trying to market a small, independent product can be quite a challenge in the face of industry giants. “People like the natural stuff,” he says. “They are willing to pay more for that sort of thing, but still chain stores and things like Price Chopper and Dean’s Foods, they nickel and dime you. They are dicking with quarters. There just isn’t enough competition.”

Peter Ten Eyck, who runs Indian Ladder farms in Voorheesville, the first farm in Albany county to receive a state agricultural protection grant, has been gradually dragging his farm out of wholesale and into more consumer-oriented retail sales. As a college grad, Ten Eyck has been able to do the things Clickman would have never known to do or been capable of doing to keep his farm running, and has done things other farmers such as Anderson wouldn’t be willing to do because of their sense of pride.

The Ten Eyck property has been in the family since 1915. The farm, which started off with a dairy and an apple orchard, switched exclusively to fruit in 1948 after a fire took their barn. Peter found himself keeping his farm afloat with help from the government when apple prices were driven down by globalization. “It’s up to the consumer now to decide whether they want farms, whether they want to buy American products and support American jobs and farms. They have to decide if they are willing to pay a few extra cents to keep farming in this country alive,” Ten Eyck says.

Today, he and his daughter Laurie have recast the farm as a retail center, with an extensive shop and pick-your-own fruit setup. Part of their effort to keep consumers informed involves bringing them to the farm for education and tours. “The profit margins are so thin through wholesale that I have been doing my best to cut it back, says Ten Eyck. “I’m not out of wholesale yet. . . . If people care and come to the farm then we are sustainable for a long time.”

While Ten Eyck faces the same pressures as a lot of other farmers in the area, he no longer has to worry about whether his farm will continue to be a farm or will be sold to a developer during some future financial crisis. He and his daughter sold the development rights for the land to the Albany County Land Conservancy, thereby ensuring that suburban sprawl will never devour it. Nonetheless, the farm is not yet turning an unsubsidized profit. Right now, it is unclear whether Ten Eyck’s changes will keep his farm alive indefinitely as a business.

Others are willing to try. Echoing the census numbers, Gallagher and Della Rocco say they are actually seeing a return of the small farm in the area. “We are seeing people moving up from the city and buying farms and putting them back in working order,” says Gallagher.

Della Rocco insists that small farming in Albany County and the upstate area is growing, but just not in directions people may think of as traditional farming: “From beekeeping to organic farms to horses, we are seeing a resurgence in small agriculture.” Such resurgence may be good for the land, but it does little for existing farm families.

In fact, Clickman and Anderson label these new boutique farms “play farming.” Seeing that kind of farming pop up on land that they have worked all their lives, land that has sustained them, would probably be more disheartening than seeing it developed, they say.

Clickman says farming land like it’s a tourist attraction just makes farming some cute throwback, a freak show for people to gawk and point at. It would turn the land that was once the backbone of his family into a playground for the rich to dance all over. “All there is gonna be up here in a few years is horse people,” he says, with his bony chin cupped in the web of his spidery fingers. “And those people ain’t country people. It all went down the tubes. I worked that land all my life and now it’s all breaked up.”

Lately, Clickman has set up some prefabricated sheds around his shack, something that he might once have looked down on. One of the sheds contains tools to take care of his tractor, which he uses to mow his 30 acres. He even mows the lawn around the new development across the street free of charge. The other shed houses an old wooden bandwagon. The wagon was the only thing Clickman saved from the auction of all his parents’ belongings. Before the auction, Walter pulled the wagon onto the back of his truck and drove it to a friend’s house. Without help, wheezing and gasping for breath, he pulled the wagon from the bed of his truck and into the friend’s garage. “Me and my daddy put that together for the town parade,” he says. “Ain’t no way they was selling that. We built that thing together.”

dking@metroland.net

 


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