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Three Generations Strong: Sharing Farming Stories with the Van De Weert Family
Tuesday March 6, 2012
By Cookie Steponaitis
Living with the land for some is a business but for others it is a way of life. Addison County is blessed with families that are not only invested in the future of agriculture in the region, but are the backbone of the past. Visiting with three generations of the Van De Weert family is not only a lesson in farming and farm living, but a testimony to the changes in agriculture in Addison County in the past sixty years.
Al and Tim Van De Weert both started their sharing with the same sentence, “Farming has been my whole life.” The journey began for Al when he was six years old and his father purchased a farm in Sugarloaf, New York, in Orange County. “We started with a team of horses. They lasted about four years but then they ran away, so we bought a Famall F12,” recollected Al Van De Weert. “Eight boys and two girls grew up on our farm. It was a 112 acre farm called Four Roads Farm that my dad bought for $5,600. I got to see the transition from horses to the age of doing things with tractors. We raised chickens, turkeys, and pigs. We had dogs, cats and guinea hens too. Farming the old way is in my blood in that I enjoy visiting the Amish in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio and seeing the old methods of farming with horses and steel-wheeled wagons. I lay awake at night and dream of the old farming days.”
Son Tim and second generation on the farm echoed his father’s sentiments and shared, “I was born in Goshon, New York where my parents rented a farm until they purchased the farm in Ferrisburgh in 1965. So I’ve been around cows since I was a little tyke. I enjoy working with cows, being out in the fields, being my own boss for the most part and most of the everyday challenges that go along with being a dairy farmer.” With Tim’s son Bill, the third generation involved with agriculture and business, the Van De Weerts offer a unique perspective to the challenges, realities and benefits of making farming a lifestyle and making Addison County a home.
Mixed in with the many benefits of farming are also many misconceptions. While people outside of Vermont often romanticize the life of the Vermont farm family, they fail to see that the lifestyle linked to nature also comes with a commitment that does not take a day off and requires being available seven days a week regardless of weather. “It’s an excellent life for a family and the kids growing up,” shared Al about the farming life in Addison County. “It’s a close-knit life for parents and children and a way to keep the family together. There are many ups and downs and many blessings too. Everyone works together even at an early age from early in the morning until late at night.” Tim was quick to point out that one of the misconceptions surrounding farming seems to relate to the farmers not being concerned about the environment. In addition to crop rotation, managing the land and being stewards for the next generation, Tim shared that the farmer of 2012 is exceedingly versatile. “You need to be a jack of all trades, from mechanic to carpenter, agronomist to veterinarian,” remarked Tim. “You need a really wide variety of skills, along with being a good businessman.”
The Van De Weerts started out with a small rented farm in 1957. Al purchased 34 cows, a bull and equipment for around $11,500.00. He started raising his own calves and building the dairy up. When the family made the move to Vermont in 1965, they had about 50 cows and young stock. As the size of the family grew so did the farm. “Every one of my brothers and sisters farmed on their own and all of my children were given opportunities to farm. My four sons and one of my daughters were engaged in farming too,” shared Al Van De Weert. Tim picked up the story to share the view of the second generation on the land by remarking, “I started milking cows for my dad at the farm where I now live in 1978 and purchased it from my parents in 1986. I started renting my parent’s farm in 2000. I milked in both barns for four years. Back injuries forces me to sell in 2005, but missing being in the dairy business, I started milking again in 2008.”
A centerpiece to the very active lifestyle of the farm family has been the Addison County Farm and Field Days which involve not only the Van De Weerts, but generations of farmers and families from around the state and region. “Field Days is one of the nicest agricultural fairs around where you can see many different aspects of agriculture from the old to the new,” Tim Van De Weert shared. “I showed cows for a year in 4-H, but that was not my thing. My interest turned to tractor pulling. My dad started in the late 60s. All of us kids took an interest at one time or another. It turned into a huge family competition between my brothers and me. It’s now evolved into two of my nephews and myself having pulling tractors with nearly 1000 horsepower and the start of the benefit pull, which helps families in need being done in the memory of my brothers Ken and Don.” In addition to the family strength and fun, Field Days grew to include Al’s growing passion for and collecting of vintage tractors. “In 1957 when I started, I started with a 51 case SC tractor a mower, cultivator and snow plow,” explained Al. “I wanted to refurbish the two old tractors that my dad started farming with and that I started with. I did that, and took a liking to finding the old stuff and purchasing it that some day it could be used on the farm or as a lawn ornament. It seems that from far and wide many folks my age like to enjoy visiting and reminiscing with me about the old collection.”
While the traditions, equipment and passion for the land never changes, each generation has had to face increasingly diverse and large problems as agriculture in the Green Mountain State has experienced remarkable challenges. Even with all of that, the Van De Weerts are optimistic and passionate about seeing generation number four have the chance to be yet another that is in partnership with the land. “With the situation in the world, more food is always needed,” remarked Al Van De Weert. “Farming is certainly a needed industry. There have always been ups and downs in the markets. With technology and the computer age, farming is completely different from when I grew up, but with the amount and diversity of food products that can be produced now; we are blessed as a nation with such abundance. I thank the good Lord for our prosperity as a nation.” Son Tim also reflected on the future. “Dairying in Vermont is always a challenge with the weather and dependency on Midwest grains and because of the short growing season here and the volatility of the milk market. Agriculture has been the foundation of Vermont both in economy and the overall landscape and hopefully will continue be in the future. As dairy farms consolidate and get larger, diversification is going to have to play a major role. It is nearly impossible for young people to start farming on their own without the help of the older generations because of the huge debt load and the volatility of the market.”
Rooted in the land, the traditions and the delicate balance that has made life in Addison County such a vibrant and strong community, the Van De Weerts, like the other farm families now entering the phase of the arrival of the fourth generation are putting their faith in the principles, activities and heritage that has given them the chance to grow food, have strong families and be together as a farming community. Now not only a son, father, but new grandfather Tim Van De Weert looks at granddaughter Danielle and remarks, “I hope Daniella grows up to love and respect the land and the hard work that her ancestors did before her. No matter what she chooses in life, I hope that she will always be proud of her agricultural heritage.” The Valley Voice salutes all those who not only work the land, but share the determination, passion and belief in the farming lifestyle that has become an accepted part of life in the Champlain Valley. One that hopefully in years to come this reporter can visit generation four or even maybe five to see how things are on the farm.
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