Clickman standing on what is left of his family’s farm.
By John Whipple
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
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.
Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
abandoned barn on the Bender farm in New Scotland.
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,”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”