NotSo Green Acres

Every now and then I’ll be talking to my friend Jack, who works in Boston and lives in Newton, and he’ll say: “So, when are you moving back to civilization?” By “civilization,” of course, he means inside the Route 128 ring, where golf courses and cemeteries count as open space. Where buyers actually pay more than the asking price for a home. Where a 10-mile commute can take 45 minutes. In short, he means everything that Franklin County, where I live, is not.

One hundred miles out Route 2 from Boston, Franklin County couldn’t be more different from the territory east of I-495. About 71,500 people live in 26 towns spread over 725 square miles, making Franklin the state’s most rural county. Easterners often call this region the Berkshire Hills, which irks the locals to no end (it’s the Hoosacs, stupid), and its rivers, forests, and farmland make it one of the prettiest parts of the state.

The mindset is different out here, too: a combination of Yankee pragmatism and hippie high-mindedness that is sometimes irritating, but more often refreshing. If the newest status symbol in the Boston suburbs is the Cadillac sports utility vehicle with two television screens in the back seat, out here, a much-requested song on WRSI-FM, the local radio station, is Mem Shannon’s “Those SOBs In Their SUVs.”

No question, Franklin County is an anachronism. It doesn’t have a real mall, and the only major department store, Wilson’s, has anchored downtown Greenfield, the county seat, for decades. Years back, a group of locals fought off a Wal-Mart as though it were a 250,000-head hog farm. You won’t see a single Starbucks or Applebees, but we do have one of the last operating Howard Johnson restaurants. And there are lots of local coffee purveyors and mom-and-pop lunch counters; small businesses are the mainstay of the region’s economy. And, despite a growth spurt in tiny but upscale towns like Leverett and Conway, compared to most places, there’s still plenty of room. Three-quarters of the county is forest land, and most towns have populations of fewer than 3,000 people.

All of which makes for the good life. Unless, of course, you have to make a living. Salaries, too, remain in a time warp. In the 1990s, the county had the lowest per capita income in the state for five consecutive years. Earnings here remain at the bottom of state’s 14 counties, documented at $23,779 in 1997, compared to a statewide average of $31,239.

It wasn’t always this way. The hill towns once had thriving factories, and Greenfield was a world leader in the machine tool industry. Greenfield Tap and Die employed more than 3,500 at its peak during World War II. But while other manufacturing regions have recovered somewhat since the decline of the 1960s and ’70s, Franklin County never really did. The smaller machine and plastics shops that remain are doing well. But most high-paying factory jobs have either disappeared altogether or been replaced by service jobs. The residue of a tough economy shows itself in social indicators: Reported incidents of child abuse are higher than in other parts of the state, as is the poverty rate.

That may not be of much concern to the growing number of newcomers moving here to escape the sprawl and high housing costs to the south in Hampshire County. But a slow economy is a problem for those who have grown up here and would like to stay. So the question going forward for Franklin County is: How much to change, and how much to stay the same?

Return of the tourists

One hundred years ago, on a summer morning in the tiny mountain town of Monroe Bridge, workers would be filing into the James Ramage Paper Mill, a two-story hulking brick building that overlooked the Deerfield River, whose waters powered the mill. Today, only rust and rot are at work here; the action is down below in the river itself, which, on weekends, is filled with kayakers and rafters who have come to ride the waters of the Deerfield.

In the mid-1990s, environmentalist and outdoor recreation enthusiasts negotiated an agreement with federal regulators that mandated summertime water releases from the dams along the Deerfield. In the process, they gave life to a new industry along the river: tourism. Fishermen and hunters had long known the secrets of the Deerfield, but now they share the river with weekend kayakers and tubers, as well as companies like Zoar Outdoors and Crabapple Rafting, which run several hundred visitors down the river each weekend in huge rubber rafts.

In some ways, this is a return to the tourism heydays of the 1940s and ’50s, when tourists clogged the stretch of Route 2 known as the Mohawk Trail. Back then, visitors parked their station wagons at small cabin colonies, dined at the Sweetheart Restaurant, and posed for pictures in front of the Indian souvenir shops. Today’s tourists are more likely to drive Jeep Cherokees bearing kayaks and expensive touring bicycles.

Economic development officials are betting on the future of tourism in the area; after all, thousands of cars pass through Franklin County on their way to Vermont each year. And the flagship store of Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield is one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. But there are scant accommodations beyond the Motel 6 level. And not all efforts to pander to the passers-by pan out: An upscale restaurant-and-shopping complex built by Lunt Silversmiths to lure tourists off I-91 and into Greenfield closed in February.

For now, Franklin County residents depend heavily on the public and nonprofit sector for work. The largest employer of Franklin County residents is actually in Hampshire County: the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Second is Franklin County Medical Center. While there are still lots of small machine shops and plastics operations, the largest private employer is Lightlife Foods, which makes tofu and employs about 160 people.

“There are no 4,000-employee companies, but there are a bunch of companies that employ between one and two hundred, and that’s probably not a bad thing for an area like this,” says John Waite, director of the Franklin County Community Development Corp. Waite and others say the fact that Franklin County never got in on a boom insulates it a little bit from the busts. But he says investment capital is hard to come by, particularly on a region-appropriate scale.

“What we have here is people who need $25,000 to $50,000, up to a half-million dollars. They don’t need millions,” says Waite. “And venture capital people are always looking for million dollar deals because that’s where there’s a payoff.”

There’s a real split between those who would preserve the farmland and those who would build factories.

If a company needs a place to build, that could also be a problem, and not necessarily because of physical limitations, but political ones. There’s a real split in Franklin County between those who want to preserve the remaining farmland–the flat, wide-open space that is perfect for development–and those who want to build facilities that could provide new jobs. After months of controversy, planners in Greenfield recently rejected a move to rezone a parcel of farmland near Greenfield Community College for an office park.

What the county does have is plenty of old mill space, which can be an asset or an albatross. Greenfield is in the process of deciding the fate of the old Greenfield Tap and Die factory, a rundown complex of buildings on the outskirts of the downtown. Brownfields money is available for cleanup of former industrial sites, but not for renovation, and because of the lower rents in this region, it’s tough finding investors willing to take a gamble.

Bothered by bandwidth

Jeff Potter is the kind of small businessman the economic-development suits love and urban boomers envy. Brainy and energetic, Potter is doing work he enjoys in a picturesque setting, overlooking the Deerfield River in the small village of Shelburne Falls. Potter, 34, grew up in Plainfield, and graduated from Middlebury College. He and his wife Susan live in town and are active members of the local business association. Potter likes small town life and the camaraderie of the local business community.

His company, Potter Publishing, employs five people, providing editorial design services for companies like Taunton Press in Connecticut and McGraw-Hill in Boston. From a couple of office suites in an old building not far from the Bridge of Flowers, Potter Publishing works on 30 projects at a time.

“Fifteen years ago, I would have had to be in Boston or New York to do this kind of work,” he says. “The Internet has been a great equalizer.”

But not as much of an equalizer as it could be. As his work has grown more sophisticated in the five years since he moved here, the telecommunications services he relies on have not kept up. Potter’s been struggling for months to get high-speed Internet access for his offices. At home, he has AT&T Broadband, but he can’t get it at work. So when he has large files to send clients, he loads them onto his laptop and runs home to send them from there.

It’s a familiar complaint. As professionals and small business owners in the county have become more ‘Net-savvy, they’ve run into a bandwidth bottleneck. The joke in my house is that you can clean the kitchen while waiting for a Web page to download. But for entrepreneurs like Potter, it’s no joke. He compares the urban-rural inequities in telecommunications to those that existed before rural electrification in the 1930s. For customers, it’s nearly impossible to get high-speed access at a reasonable price. For providers, it’s a problem of critical mass: not enough subscribers to make the investment worthwhile.

The problem is endemic to the Massachusetts hinterlands. Businesses in neighboring Berkshire County struggled for years to get high speed Internet. Then they took matters into their own hands, forming a public-private partnership called Berkshire Connects, which grouped customers together to negotiate a contract with a provider. Teaming up with its neighbor to the south, Franklin County is following suit: Franklin-Hampshire Connect is looking at proposals from several companies to bring the region into the high-speed Internet age.

“Location is becoming less important for some businesses, but then you’d better be wired,” says Waite. “If you’re not centrally located, you’d better be at least connected, and today we’re neither.”

Milk goes boutique

Farmer, sawmill operator, and state agriculture
chief Jay Healy: adding value to farm products.

Poet Archibald MacLeish, who made his home in Conway, once described the hills of Franklin County as being “of human scale,” and he got that just right. While the rich soils of the Connecticut River Valley are perfect for crops like asparagus and tobacco, the rocky hills of Franklin County are good for nothing but dairy and haying, with the odd lumber mill here and there.

Farmers make money two ways. They can produce a huge amount of a particular crop, or they can diversify into such businesses as haying, maple syrup, and “value added” products. Since taking over as state agriculture commissioner in 1993, Jonathan “Jay” Healy has been emphasizing the latter method, particularly in Franklin County.

“In the global economy, you’re competing with people who pay a buck a day to apple pickers in Chile.”

“Profit margins are 15 times as much for an ice cream cone as they are for a truckload of milk,” Healy says. “In the global economy, you’re competing with people who pay a buck a day to apple pickers in Chile.”

Healy, who grew up on a 100-year-old family farm on a truly sublime stretch along the Deerfield River in Charlemont, practices what he preaches. He runs his own sawmill on the weekends, milling timber from the forest on his own land into custom-ordered beams for far-off trophy homes in Nantucket or Burlington, Vt. When we built an addition on our house this year, my husband chain-sawed down a 25-foot oak tree from our own land, then had Healy mill it into flooring. (Try that in Newton.)

A cooperative of eight small farms, mostly in Franklin County, has capitalized on concerns about the bovine growth hormone, or BGH, by turning a commodity–milk –into a value-added product. In doing so, they have given the local dairy industry a new lease on life.

Debbie Barton-Duprey, 46, and her husband David Duprey, 47, took over Sunbrite Farms in Bernardston, David’s family’s farm, in 1980 and soon found themselves on a downward cycle: The costs of producing milk kept going up, while the prices they were getting for their milk kept dropping. And the Dupreys were not alone. “A lot of us were at the point of giving up,” says Duprey.

But a group of dairy farmers came upon the idea of marketing milk they produce without using BGH. The synthetic hormone, which boosts milk production in cows, has been widely used in the dairy industry since its approval by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993. But the drug has been controversial, and these farmers saw an opportunity to peddle hormone-free milk directly to consumers.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture provided a $12,500 grant to write a business plan and pay for the design of the carton, which features profiles of the farm families who participate. A gallon of Family Farms milk can cost up to 50 cents more than whatever’s on sale at the local Kwik-Mart. But the milk tastes good, and four years after they first began selling the brand, “we’re all still farming,” says Barton-Duprey, the co-op’s secretary. That’s more than many Massachusetts farmers can say.

The co-op sells 1 percent, 2 percent, skim, and whole milk to about 80 retail outlets, mostly in the Pioneer Valley, and sales have increased steadily in each of the first four years of operation, to gross sales of $1 million last year. Annual income of the member farms has increased 10 percent since they began selling the milk. Despite their success, Duprey says that the group has no plans to expand beyond western Massachusetts, preferring to keep their product local.

The farms have also been helped by the Northeast Dairy Compact, which sets a minimum price processors must pay farmers, though whether the dairy price support program would continue past its expiration on September 30 is unclear (see “Uncertain Future,” sidebar).

“Before the compact, we were literally on a rollercoaster,” says Barton-Duprey. “We never knew how much we’d be paid. We always knew the insurance, grain bill, and utilities were going up, but we never knew how much we’d get paid for milk. Now we’re guaranteed a certain price, and I never hear any of the gloom and doom that I used to hear. It’s helped stabilize the farm.”

Suburban hopes, rural realities

Local officials hope a few more success stories will come out of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, a food production incubator scheduled to open in the Greenfield Industrial Park in September. The $800,000 facility, which was built with state and federal funds, is outfitted with a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and all sorts of packaging equipment. In this incubator space, small businesses can get started producing and marketing food products. About 40 producers have expressed interest in the center, says community-development corporation director Waite, and they’re hoping Franklin County can match the success Vermont has had with its niche food businesses.

Barton-Duprey also credits other programs, like the “Local Heroes” campaign by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a nonprofit group supported by a Kellogg Foundation grant that promotes buying local produce, for keeping farmers on the land. “People appreciate agriculture,” she says.”Everyone out here knows how hard a farmer works. I don’t think you’re taken for granted.”

But there can be tensions between those who work the land and those who view it as a backdrop. In one town, eco-conscious residents have tried to stop a farmer from haying to protect the nesting bobolinks, birds that migrate to New England each spring from South America. The dilemmas are real: Should we shoot the coyotes and bears or let them kill the chickens and raid the cow corn?

“People move to the country because they want to live in the country, but then they complain when the farmer’s spreading manure,” says Jane Davis, town administrator in Leverett, one of Franklin County’s wealthiest and fastest-growing towns. “The view comes with the smells, guys. What do you think makes the fields green?”

Indeed, the intrusion of suburban values–and expectations–may be as big a threat to the rural way of life as any. Davis, who lives in the farm town of Northfield, says small towns are under increasing pressure from newcomers to offer the services they got used to in suburbia: top-notch schools with varied course offerings, state-of-the-art libraries. “They want the country experience, but when it comes to inconveniences there’s a problem,” she says.

Most towns have little industrial or commercial development to tap as a revenue base, so homeowners–and land-rich, cash-poor farmers–foot the bill. Leverett’s tax rate this year is likely to hit $21 per $1,000 of valuation, almost up to the state limit, says Davis. Mounting property taxes, in turn, put more pressure on farmers to sell to developers–which means more homes, more kids to educate, and more suburban expectations.

Some farmers have been hard pressed to resist the rising real estate values that come with proximity to UMass or I-91. Between 1987 and 1997, the county lost 7,730 acres, or 9 percent of its farmland. Travel down Route 47 in Sunderland and you can see cul-de-sacs of new houses sprouting where corn used to grow.

The intrusion of suburban values and expectations may be the biggest threat to the rural way of life.

Others have put their land in the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which gives them tax breaks in exchange for keeping the land in farming. Or they have worked with the Ashfield-based Franklin Land Trust, a nonprofit group that has protected hundreds of acres of land from development. But even this seeming good news has a consequence: Such protection takes land off the tax rolls and ultimately drives up the cost of housing.

A failure to communicate

It’s a familiar refrain in Franklin County–heck, it is a strand in the DNA of our regional identity–that Beacon Hill just doesn’t understand us. It’s partly a problem of geography: How many legislators have even been to, say, Charlemont or Sunderland? It’s the same kind of gap you see in states like New York, where the rural and the urban co-exist. But usually one or the other has the upper hand, and no one in Franklin County has any illusions about where the Massachusetts power lies.

“There are more people who represent Boston than there are [those] who represent the four counties of western Massachusetts,” says state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst).

One of the biggest sticking points for local governments is the formula for state aid for schools. Billions of dollars have flowed since the 1993 Education Reform Act, but in a way that former Shelburne selectman Stan Gawle says favors densely populated urban and suburban districts at the expense of scattered regional ones. “Ed deform,” he calls it.

“When they did the formula, they didn’t recognize the distance we had to travel or economy of scale,” he says. “For every full-time principal, they say you have to have 300 kids, and that doesn’t work in rural areas. You just can’t bus kids from Ashfield to Heath.”

Some towns end up spending as much as 70 percent of their municipal budgets on schools. The problem has so exasperated Rosenberg that he sponsored a regional school funding study in the fiscal 2002 Senate budget. But it will take more than a study to cover the cost of education in isolated rural districts.

Roads and highways are another perennial issue. Gawle was reprimanded by then-Gov. Paul Cellucci’s office for referring to a certain highway project as “The Big Pig,” but he was speaking for most of his neighbors, who suspect that all our road money has stayed in Boston. When The Boston Globe reported last summer that US Rep. John Olver, who represents Franklin County and much of the surrounding rural territory, was doing his best to hog new federal transportation dollars for his own district, that struck folks out here as nothing more than simple justice.

After all, Route 2, Franklin County’s direct route to Boston, is, in parts, a dangerously poor excuse for a highway. In some two-lane stretches in Erving, the road veers perilously close to the Millers River. Several improvement plans have been proposed over the years, but only recently have state officials shown much interest in fixing it. State Highway Commissioner Matthew Amorello wryly observed, to the Greenfield Recorder, that Route 2 is the road the governor takes to work. Maybe that explains it.

There are other, smaller issues on which the folks in power back east just don’t seem to be that helpful. For instance, Debbie Barton-Duprey would like to be able to sell Family Farms milk to the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, but state law requires that the contract go to the lowest bidder. State Rep. Steven Kulik (D-Worthington) is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow public institutions some leeway in buying locally grown foodstuffs, even if they’re not at the lowest price.

Then there’s the need for the far-flung, sparsely settled towns of the Massachusetts hinterlands to work together on a regional basis. Once upon a time, there were county governments that provided common services. But the pols in Boston, led by then-Gov. Bill Weld, decided that counties were outmoded patronage havens–unlike, say, the MDC or MBTA–and dismantled them. So now we have the Franklin Regional Council of Governments–of which Stan Gawle is a member–formed by the towns, to do pretty much the same thing, at least in terms of regional planning and economic development.

One obstacle to progress is home grown.

But John Waite says one of the biggest obstacles to regional progress is home grown: the Yankee tradition of home rule. The best-laid plans for regional progress can always be trumped by spats between towns. “Right now there’s an issue because three different towns want to start an industrial park,” says Waite. “There are a lot of things that it’s better to work as a group, and because of home rule, it’s not so easy. People who’ve lived here their whole lives tend to get stubborn.”

Meet the Author
Stubborn or not, those who love the place for its quality of life often want to keep it just as it is now, and that, for better or worse, makes it unlikely that any large-scale industry or commercial development will take hold in the region. If Franklin County’s past was built on manufacturing and farming, its future is more likely to be as a bedroom community for Amherst-Northampton and Springfield. For locals, this will mean more Scandinavian vehicles on our roads, rising property values, higher taxes, and difficult choices at town meeting. It’s a pattern that has happened all over Massachusetts. Like everything else, it just took longer to get to Franklin County.

Last week a friend told me a story about a house in Ashfield that sold for several thousand dollars more than the asking price. The buyer, from Northampton, offered more because he wanted to be sure he got the house. Maybe things aren’t so different out here after all.