(Editor’s Note: OMP resident and farmer Louis Santucci channels the Ghosts of OMP Farmers Past, who have a message for the current generational farmers. Read all news and opinions about the winery lawsuit here. -jb)
Every year around Halloween, I walk the graveyards of the Old Mission Peninsula, such as the Bohemian Cemetery, Ogdensburg Cemetery and others. A few nights ago, I fell asleep in one. I woke up about midnight and heard a conversation among some of the ghosts who had decided to pay me a visit.
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The conversation revolved around the current controversy over the wineries. In summary, the ghosts spoke of their past experiences living out here and offered some advice that I agreed to pass on. Here is a synopsis of what they said…
As you reflect on the state of things on the Old Mission Peninsula where we began our farming life, consider the following. Life was not easy for us over the generations. We had little in the way of conveniences and certainly had no fancy expensive machinery in those early years to assist in the many tasks on the farm. Changes in those years came fast and furious. We embraced change. We did not shirk from it or see it as a threat. We actually often needed it.
For example, a few of the folks out here objected to the arrival of the gas-powered automobile, saying they would make a lot of noise and cause needless traffic here on the Peninsula. And worse, they would scare the horses. Let me just say, sons and daughters, our first gas-powered tractors were certainly a boon to our life, giving us extra time to spend with our family. The automobiles gave us the ability to run into town once a week for necessities that the Mom and Pop stores out here could not provide.
You know, kids, when the first gas station was proposed, there were a few who objected. They said it would destroy the bucolic nature of the Peninsula. They even started a group called “Keep Ye Olde Mission Peninsula Olde.” They insisted it would open the door to more things like auto repair shops and maybe even another tavern or restaurant. Maybe hotels and inns would pop up. They pointed out, for example, that we already had a blacksmith shop, apple evaporator, cider mill, and others, and didn’t need more commercial activities. Certainly that new-fangled machine would never replace our horse and carriages.
But the town leaders had the nerve and foresight to make the difficult decisions they were elected to make. They did not stop the construction of that first gas station on the Peninsula. Folks were not unanimous on the idea, but as it turned out, none of the scary predictions they made came true.
In this case, the gas station was allowed, and we were thankful for that. Yes, more shops, concession stands, hotels and inns were built out here, and that was a blessing. Imagine if in those days folks said no to the stores, hotels and inns. Well, many folks would not have had the extra income provided to them when they took part-time jobs there.
Furthermore, we would have been forced to run into town whenever we needed supplies or food. In those days it was no quick run into town. It could take hours by carriage, and not everyone out here had cars or money for gas. But as time went on, everyone had at least one automobile at their access, and it made it possible to go into town and purchase our goods at a less expensive price, or buy goods that were not available to us here on the peninsula.
We were sad when local stores like Pearl Hill’s Grocery, the Bowers Harbor Store, and some of the Lardies’ stores closed. And who can forget the Old Mission Steakhouse in the village of Old Mission? But some of the folks who started moving out here saw it as a blessing in disguise, as the existence of the commercial — or as some called it, the “greedy” — businesses were no longer an irritant to their sensibilities.
Over the years, we faced many unforeseen hardships, not the least of which was the Depression. Many of our families saw their children not wanting to farm, and some did not have children to take over the farm. So, faced with this reality, they sold parts of their farms or all of it to people who discovered they could escape from the city to the countryside. Again, some of their neighbors called those who sold “greedy.” They said they would bring more traffic and would destroy the viewshed.
Over the years as more and more farms were sold off, the Peninsula became a place with homes that dotted the landscape from end to end. We now had new neighbors who knew nothing of our earlier hardships. Whenever we tried to sell our farms, we faced criticism and derision from our new neighbors. Often they tried to block our sales, causing us needless legal costs as they sued to stop us from selling our property. They said, “We want it just like it is now.” They did not realize the duplicity in their cries, as they themselves were living on land that previously was farmland.
After potato crops no longer provided enough income to support our families, we turned to cherries and apples. These were the good years, and we were able to make a good living. But one day, we realized that not everyone could survive on these crops to make a living. We now had competition from foreign markets. For along with cheaper goods we eagerly bought at the new shopping mall, our fruit buyers, using the same approach, started buying their goods from our less expensive competitors.
So one day a local long-time generational farmer and an outsider discovered that our area was conducive to wine growing. They made the brave decision to invest in a whole new crop which required learning new farming techniques and expensive infrastructure to support it. In addition, they came up with the idea of directly using those grapes to make wine and sell it at their own farm wineries. They learned a lesson that just selling their crops and letting someone else process it into a more profitable end product was not the best way to maximize their investments.
Over the years, others followed. Along the way, the township grew into a large bedroom/retirement community, dwarfing the few of us still in farming. Their numbers became larger and larger, and we went from a mostly farm-centric community to one composed of mostly non-farmers.
Of course, being a democracy, numbers prevail. So we saw things we never thought we would see here, like zoning, which brought ideas like restrictions on how many acres were needed to build a house, and what and how we could sell things on our farms. The Township imposed fees and approval requirements for the construction of farm barns and even small farm stands. We were told this is progress.
The interesting thing was that many of these people did not want the winery farmers to have the same opportunity for progress. They were told, “You knew the rules when we let you open a winery. You agreed to these rules.” Never did the objectors consider that as we have pointed out to you over the generations, things change and nothing remains static.
When the owner of the cider mill wanted to expand by building an apple evaporator, we all said, “Go for it.” At that time, we had only farmers out here, and they supported new ideas and the expansion of our farm operations. But years later as city slickers moved here, we had a different experience. One of us tried to expand his apple operation to include a cidery with a farm-to-table dinner road stop. Well, you would have thought WWI was going to start all over again. He went from being a beloved farmer to a pariah in the eyes of the newcomers, who now held sway over the Township. That farmer sadly died without achieving his dream, but in his last days, he told us that maybe sometime in the future one of our descendents would realize his dream and do just that. He even had a name for it — The W Farm Cidery Stop.
Children, if we learned anything over the years, it was that circumstances change and allowances need to be made for those circumstances. If that were not true, we would never have had new opportunities to grow our farm operations. More importantly, the newcomers would not be here because your forefathers would have been stymied from selling their land by rules insisted upon by those who had managed to come here and then insisted on closing the door on others.
My sons and daughters, keep in mind that you would not be where you are today if some of us were not able to make changes to our operations or sell some of our land so the next generation could pick up where we left off. You are the lucky ones. You inherited what we made, and you will build on it just like we did from one generation to the next. Not everyone is so lucky.
And remember this — we are all neighbors. We all want the same things, a good life free from strife. How we get there is messy and difficult, because we all have different versions of how to achieve that. Compromise is the key to any problem. We did it over the years, and you can, too.
Finally, a point to remember as you reflect on your future. Belittling people who do not see things your way is taking the low road. A few years back, one of our farmer friends who was part of a very old farm family out here sold part of his remaining farm to a retired fellow who came here because he, too, loved all that the Peninsula had to offer. In his former life, he had worked on tobacco farms in his home town from the age of 13 to 18, at which time he went away to college. He also worked a farm that his then father-in-law owned in West Virginia. He dug in limestone rocks every weekend in the summer and fall for 20 years, and he ran miles of fence on that 200-acre farm. Every summer, he helped cut, bale, load and unload thousands of bales of hay.
Now he works hand in hand with his wife, and they have built a successful small farm operation here. He planted apple trees, raspberries and a grape vineyard. We tip our derbies to him as we see him working on this micro farm, and I would say that he is every bit a farmer as any other farmer here, whether six generations or not. He has devoted his time and energy at 75 to a farm livelihood. He lives and breathes farm, and he is more than a farmer just “when it’s convenient.” He is a farmer 24 hours a day. Sons and daughters of the Old Mission Peninsula, we wish you luck as you face the challenges of the 21st century.
As a beautiful sunrise rose over the hill, the ghosts retired to their resting place, perhaps to come out again next year to check on progress here.