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Going to bat for Vermont

Updated: November 2, 2011, 11:30 AM ET
By Buster Olney

The severity of any problem on my family's Vermont dairy farm could be measured by the length of my stepfather's curse words. If a cow stepped on his foot, this usually merited four or five letters. If something broke on the hay baler, well, that might get nine letters, repeated.

But I never heard anything like the river of 12-letter words that occurred when our John Deere tractor -- a machine that our farm could not function without -- got stuck in the swamp behind our barn. I was 13 or 14 years old at the time, and it was the blue language that fascinated me most. I stood on the side and watched as my stepfather tried extricating the tractor with a small shovel and then broad planks, and I had never seen him that angry, that frustrated and desperate.

Now that I'm older and understand the concept of money and debt and poverty, I understand better where that came from. For a dairy farmer, a tractor sunk deep into the mud was a financial crisis, nothing less. There were tow companies in the state, folks you could pay a couple of hundred bucks to make the journey. But my folks, who essentially lived hand-to-mouth for a period of about 10 years, couldn't afford that.

I can't remember how my stepfather, Ed Lincoln, got the tractor stuck. To get from the barn to the 10-acre field behind our house, you had to pass over a narrow gap in the swamp, where rainwater gathered. Maybe the right wheel had slipped off the edge, or maybe he backed up too far. No matter, though. The tractor was deep in the mud, and Ed was almost out of breath and ideas.

"Go tell Mom to call Hank," he said to me, referring to the old farmer who lived a mile down the road.

In 1973, my parents bought a dairy farm -- a 120-acre valley plot wedged between two hills that ran parallel to each other -- in Randolph Center, Vt., a town that, to this day, has about 400 people, no stoplights and just a handful of stop signs. Both had been raised in upper-middle-class families -- outside of New York, in my mother's case, and outside of Providence, R.I., in my stepfather's case. But their dream was to raise their children -- those they already had from first marriages and those they intended to have together -- on a place where we could grow, work and live outside.

Their timing could not have been worse, because small family farms in Vermont were dying. Quite simply, the cost of milk was stagnant and the cost of farming was rising, and any debt -- a mortgage, or loans to purchase equipment, or any unexpected expenses -- was crushing. In those first years, my parents' income scraped $5,000 annually. Ed has an extraordinary aptitude for machinery and anything mechanical, which was fortunate, because he had to do everything to keep the place running, whether it was welding teeth back onto the hay mower or fixing the milk pump or repairing a blown tractor tire. He had no training as a veterinarian, but within a couple of years, he learned to treat the cows himself, all but eliminating the calls to Dr. Arms.

Our lives were at the mercy of the seasons. On those mornings when the temperature fell well below zero, Ed would take an ax and cut a hole in the water tank to allow the heifers to drink, and if the pipes in the barn began freezing, he would run a blowtorch inch by inch along the main water line. I was 9 when we moved to the farm and had daily chores, feeding cows and shoveling manure and stacking hay and wood, but I don't think I realized until I was an adult, with a mortgage and college loans to be paid off, how much pressure Ed was under.

There were no days off -- none -- because the cows had to be milked twice a day every day. We never took a family vacation, which didn't seem unusual until I went away to school and met kids who had spent time outside of Orange County, Vt.

Although my parents had no money, I never felt like I wanted for anything. I spent the money I earned on baseball cards at Floyd's General Store, listened to the radio, happily threw Wiffle balls against the side of the house, hit rocks into the pasture with a bat and played baseball in the spring. I was too naive to expect anything more, although my mother -- who died in 2006 -- made it clear that I would leave the farm for school someday.

But I can remember how the weather created crises. A July windstorm once flattened a field of corn behind our house when I was 12 or 13, and my stepfather was silent as he stared out at the back field; he was trying to figure out, I know now, how in the world he could generate the cash needed to pay for the winter feed that had been lost the night before. In the midst of a thunderstorm, some of our cows broke through a fence, and with lightning splattering our hillside to the west, we had to pull the spooked creatures back through the swamp; the water from the flooding went up to my knees, as Ed and I coaxed them toward the barn.

He had always fixed the problems, because that's what he had to do. But as he spun the tractor tires in an effort to get out of the swamp, the situation had only worsened; the tires sank until they were half buried in mud. The frame of the tractor, normally three feet off the ground, was now resting on the mud.

There was no other vehicle on the farm that Ed could use to haul the John Deere tractor out. We had a small, gray Massey Ferguson tractor, manufactured right after World War II, that we used to rake hay and run a wood splitter, but not for any heavy jobs. Our pickup truck didn't have the horsepower to extricate the John Deere. Any attempt to dig the tractor out would have taken a day or two, and there was a very real chance that if we got it to move forward, it would sink back down into the mud.

So my mom called Hank Hewitt, and it wasn't long after that we heard the sound of his tractor coming through the maple trees to the south. Hank was probably 60 years old at the time, the owner of a herd of jersey cows about a mile south of our farm. He was funny and crude and hardworking, and I remember him having most of his teeth, unlike a lot of other farmers in the area, and he wore suspenders and the same barn overcoat most months of the year.

He rolled up on his tractor and surveyed the situation and immediately started teasing my stepfather. "Well, how the hell did you do that, Eddy?" he said, and Ed smiled slightly.

Ed had been a photographer at the Boston Globe and ran a studio in Vermont when he met my mother, and he learned everything he knew about farming by living it; older farmers in the area, like Hank, found him to be different -- he wore earplugs to protect his hearing from the roar of tractors, for example, and I remember one of them shouting at him to ask why he did that. But he was accepted because he asked questions.

Hank backed up his tractor, hooked up a thick chain to the front of our John Deere and gunned his engine, and at the same time, Ed hit the gas on our tractor. The back left wheel on our tractor turned, with mud shooting straight up, but the tractor didn't move much. They tried to rock it back and forth, to get any kind of movement, but there was barely any. Ed swore, and so did Hank, and I sat there fascinated. My little brother, Sam, was 3 or 4 or 5 at the time, and he stood to the side with me; he can remember it all clearly, too.

"Jesus, Eddy," Hank said, grinning. "You really did it this time."

They adjusted the placement of the chain, and nothing worked. But now Hank was invested. Ed apologized for the time Hank was away from his farm, but Hank dismissed that talk with a wave of his hand. "I'm going to go get the bulldozer," he said.

As Hank headed back to his farm, Ed chopped at the mud with his spade shovel, trying to create some space to wedge some planks under the wheels. The John Deere was everything. Ed used it to haul and spread manure, to cut and bale hay, to dump loads of wood in front of the house.

Within a half hour, we could hear the bulldozer coming up the road, its sound distinct, twice as loud as any tractor. To this day, I have no idea why Hank had a bulldozer.

He slowly guided it down the path from the barn, stopping about 20 feet short of the swamp. They set a chain in place, and Hank revved the engine of the bulldozer, and when it started moving, the wheels of the tractor turned; the mud couldn't hold the tractor against that kind of effort.

The John Deere rolled back on solid ground, and Hank and Ed idled the engines and climbed down to remove the chain. "Well, thanks," Ed said to Hank.

"Twern't nothing," Hank said. He had helped because he could.

He changed the subject, and soon the sound of his engine disappeared down the road south, back to his home.

On Aug. 28, the remnants from Hurricane Irene dumped inches of rain on the Green Mountains of Vermont in a matter of a few hours, and the water overwhelmed quiet brooks and streams. State roads were wrecked in the floodwater, and towns were cut off.

Many farmers in the state were devastated: Barns and livestock and fields of crops were lost, by a lot of the people who have the least. In South Royalton, which is about 10 miles south of our farm, 81-year-old Duke Perley watched as his cows were swept away. Reading the stories, I kept thinking of Hank Hewitt, who had helped because he could.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, we're holding an event to benefit Vermont farmers hurt by the flooding from Hurricane Irene -- a baseball roundtable in the biggest building in Randolph Center, Vt., at Vermont Technical College. It's about 35 minutes north of the Hanover area, about 2½ to 3 hours from Boston and an hour south of Burlington off I-89. New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman will be there, and so will Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington -- who grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire. Theo Epstein agreed to come before he left the Boston Red Sox to go to the Chicago Cubs, and he's expected to be on hand.

There are three tiers of tickets to the event being sold, an online charity auction, and donations, all through this website: BattingForVermont. The support we've gotten -- dozens and dozens of memorabilia and experience donations from players, teams, agents, Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association, different corners of ESPN and many others -- has been overwhelming. All the proceeds will go to the Vermont Community Foundation, which distributes grants to farmers in need.

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