Notes from the Hinterlands

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

Despite many promises, often repeated, and most frequently by the more liberal politicians, that all Americans deserve and will have high-speed Internet connectivity, we are not there yet. Many Americans, especially in rural areas, do not. Like so much else that gets promised and then forgotten, until the heat of the next campaign demands new or renewed pledges, if it bothers anyone making the promises, there is no sign of it.

I write from a booth in a “family style” diner and restaurant in a town called both poetically and ironically somehow, “Woodsville” (remembering that the town in David Lynch’s perverse and perverted masterpiece Blue Velvet was Lumberton… which Woodsville decidedly is not, nor could it have served as a model, but the ethos Lynch sought to satirize, if not demonize, with some ham-handedness, is in the air, as it has been since long before any of us were born). I am able to connect from my seat in this two-person booth because they are kind enough along with the generously sized pancakes and the vaguely decadent apple-bacon omelets, to offer a Wi-Fi hotspot of middling capacity in terms of throughput and bandwidth. Wisely they put more emphasis on the quality of the food than on the strength of what I admit are geekish parameters of performance few patrons expect, never mind demand.

Most of the patrons of Shiloh’s in Woodsville, from outward appearances, are either “Middle Americans,” in the sometimes seemingly indelicate, surely insensitive taxonomy of sociologists and economists, or they are working farmers (and I operate under the romantic sentiment that all lifelong farmers are workers, even if officially retired—not in the middle, by any means, but at the foundation of our existence; surely the intensity of their exertions add up in some account to a lifetime of what anyone would consider real work). They are drawn, or so I infer from a periodic survey of the license tags of the vehicles in the parking lot, and this largely in the summer, from the surrounding towns in the county and neighboring Vermont. Otherwise they are drawn from kindred origins elsewhere in the country, farming communities as far afield as Texas (surprising the number of Texans, and distinguishable if I may say so, mainly because of those license tags, that is, everyone has a country drawl of one kind or another, and I don’t listen too closely). and as relatively nearby as New York State—these seem to have more of a recognizable linguistic marker than others, but I was born in New York City and have a particular sensitivity to the accent.

I am guessing that the home towns and villages of the patrons are also farming communities, in fact, if not in spirit. From their dress, mainly peaked caps with embroidered logos of companies serving that profession, t-shirts emblazoned similarly and almost without exception marked in some way with printed matter, text or images or both. Nondescript trousers, dark, of gabardine or denim. The women are in equally casual garb, sometimes in a dress, sometimes in shorts and a t-shirt, usually the difference being a function of age. Further, Woodsville and the other hamlets and villages of Haverhill, the county seat, are decidedly not tourist destinations. Not so much that you’ve seen one dairy farm, you’ve seen them all. Rather there is not much to see in a community that is dedicated, essentially, to hard work when the earth is clear, and then to hunker down, except for feeding the animals from a store of food laid down in part as a result of that hard work, when the fields and roads and hills are covered in snow.

Around here, the farms that make up the larger part of the area of any of the surrounding towns and villages are, indeed, dairy farms, producing milk for local consumption, as well as its by-products, cheese and yogurt and ice cream. Or they are contributors to much larger cooperatives. Cabot, by far the largest of these that produces branded products, based in Vermont, has its trucks ply the roads hereabouts as well as much farther afield. Other mass aggregators, unencumbered by the demands of keeping a brand top of mind among the public, gather milk in anonymous tankers. Then they no doubt dispose of it in markets to major conglomerates. Hood, and all the major supermarket chains come to mind.

The farms, being largely populated by a variety of breeds of bovine creatures also offer up their fair share of grass-fed beef. However, and again I’m guessing, I suspect most of the product of this lesser cottage industry, except for the consumption by the sparse number of nearby restaurants, whose patrons would arrive driven in part by a discriminatory desire for locally raised grass-fed meat (for in addition to beef, there is lamb, and from some farms, pork and veal) is not aged, or even freshly slaughtered. These restaurants would prefer a steady if narrow stream of fresh product, it’s true, and they get it (proudly publishing on the menu the provenance of that choice cut of sirloin or filet—none of your fancy hipster cuts, like tri-tip or hanger steak, and only one place, nearly an hour away in cosmopolitan White River Junction, VT offered flat iron). However, for the most part you can still fill your trunk with as much meat as it will hold, but frozen, hard as the rocks so strenuously dug out of the resistant soil in the surrounding hills. And that’s year round, when the grills are cold and the restaurants, the less stalwart ones in any event, not fully committed to the needs of patrons in these austere climes, are closed for the winter. It seems there is no dearth of local beef (and veal, and lamb and goat). In 2013 local slaughterhouses, of which there were three at the time—these are slaughterhouses meeting USDA approval, meaning spending millions of dollars and creating accommodations (an office and a separate restroom) for a full-time “resident” Inspector—were turning away customers. Apparently there were, and remain, inefficiencies in the logistics of coordinating the needs of a surfeit of small time operators. The slaughterhouse in North Haverhill, brand new, and state of the art, whose owner, a fellow named Pete Roy, said, “it was necessary to go big [as in 10,000 square feet big, as opposed to two thousand in the previous plant] or go home.” They can process 40 or 50 beef a day in that space, but still do not possess the equipment and manpower to handle that capacity. Demand is too sporadic and unpredictable to make the investment.

All of this industrial grade capability, incidentally, is well-hidden. I haven’t asked, but I also continue to have no idea where this sizable operation might be located, and I have been in North Haverhill, where it is based, for over three years now. I can, on the other hand, point out many of the farms easily enough. They are quite visible, as are the crops that grow alongside the cows.

Aside from the pasture and meadow land accessible in the line of small towns on either side of the Connecticut River, which straddles the state line, most of the farmland, some of it rolling seemingly without end to the edge of the distant woods that girdle the rich earth, is visible from any negotiable country road, and often grows right to the shoulder of that byway. For the most part it is given over to corn. Of what type I cannot, with my city-boy ignorance, say by a glance or even a studied look. However, I can’t help but notice it grows wondrously high. Given the sparsity of the market for fresh produce however (for example, in the 2012 count of souls dwelling in Woodsville, a scant thousand residents, almost exectly divided by gender, were counted out of upwards of 440 households), the relatively short growing season, and an abundance of eating corn at a handful of farmer markets and farm stands, plus an even larger inventory in the chain supermarkets that service the local populace, also featuring “fresh” produce, but, not surprisingly, from wholly other venues far afield, I am guessing until I can suss out the data from a reliable source that the corn I see is of another variety. Likely that which was made infamous by food writer and social critic Michal Pollan. At least, I surmise, it some grade of feed corn, not fit for direct human consumption.

The Feds are of service here, with their relentless data collection, which we ordinary citizens never see. No NSA required. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Farm Service Agency, openly solicits and collects surveys on a monthly basis from farmers who wish to certify their yield (no doubt in service to Byzantine tax-related subsidies and credits, based on even more arcane laws buried deep in the code). A moment’s Google search, with the right terms, through the good offices of the ‘good enough’ wi-fi accessible to me in my booth at Shiloh’s, iPad propped up next to my plate of an egg-white omelet chock full of onions, peppers, spinach and good cheddar cheese, local whole wheat bread and home fries crisped on the grill, and I’m home… with a spreadsheet to download that covers every county in every state of this great nation. It takes a couple of minutes to download.

Sure enough, all of Grafton County is planted over to three kinds of corn. There’s sweet corn, the kind we like to eat right off the cob, buttered or not, and in other forms no doubt. Sweet corn, irrespective of Mr. Pollan’s opinions of the uses of #2 Feed Corn (about which more in a few moments), is a favorite of a great many Americans. We consume, according to recent figures (2012), just shy of 34 pounds of corn products (which includes not only the kernels, but cornmeal, flour, etc.). But let us suppose, because it’s easier, we are talking about corn on the cob, the edible portions. The yield of a bushel of corn, at a little over 15% moisture, is about 56 pounds. This means a bushel of sweet corn will satisfy the average annual needs of almost two Americans.

I’ve saved all of you readers the math and the research time. Here’s a further breakdown of what all of Grafton County, in which Woodsville is situated, and of which Haverhill, the township into which Woodsville is incorporated and is county seat, has dedicated to corn farming. Sweet corn (what we put directly into our mouths) is just short of 1% of all those rolling hills and fields of the tall crop, or about 4400 bushels, or enough to feed 7-1/4 thousand people their corn for a year. That many people, assuming they consumed all of Grafton County’s corn, constitute a tad over eight percent of the county’s total population of 89 thousand souls. Doesn’t leave much for tourists, unless they’re the ones scarfing up all that delicious corn.

But as Mr. Pollan will tell you, that’s nothing. Not compared to the 453 thousand bushels of yellow corn, on 90% of the farmed acreage in Grafton County, corn that is dedicated to silage production. Silage, which this now informed city boy has learned, is for forage, that is, it’s stored for the winter, mainly to feed milk cows (which makes eminent sense, given the cow population), and consists of most of the plant that’s growing above the ground. That’s stalks, leaves, green corn (it’s generally not allowed to mature into grain) and all, cut up and chopped into a form that’s easily stored. Pollan talks a lot about Corn #2, which is largely used by way of harvesting the grain, some fed directly to live stock, and preponderantly processed into high fructose corn syrup, the great contaminant of our food chain, and responsible, ostensibly for everything wrong in our diets and metabolisms, from diabetes to obesity.

Feed corn is grown in Grafton County. It accounts for the other ten percent (if you’ve been silently doing the math) of the crop in 2013, and it mainly is devoted to providing seed for next year’s (that would be this year’s) silage planting, and for the usual uses of feed corn, that is corn byproducts, like corn meal, and alcohol.

So the farmers of Woodsville, I’d say, can rest easy as they’re not contributing much to the degradation and debauchery (as one anthropologist I read calls it) of the American standards of nutrition. They’re barely serving the needs, if the numbers here are anywhere near accurate, of the average demand for good fresh sweet corn, one of the pleasures and treasures of summer dining, especially here in the hinterlands so close to the source. It’s a wonder then that Woodsville, population of barely upwards of a thousand people (evenly divided almost exactly between men and women) make such a poor living. The average household makes slightly over $31 thousand, which is almost exactly half the average household income for Grafton County. Moreover, as a kind of reality check on the actuality of these figures, the average valuation of residential real estate in Woodsville is, again, almost exactly half of what it is in the rest of the country, that is, just barely north of $100,000. Hardly a castle.

Woodsville, and much of surrounding Haverhill, is far and away predominantly white. It is poorer (even than the rest of Grafton County). Generally, the county is older, better educated, and less employed. All of these demographic data seem to point to some internal contradictions, but nothing discernible, not to me. And least of all, in terms of the potential demand for a convenience (I’d call it a utility, like water or electricity, but that’s me) and that’s access to the Internet, which is the subject that inducted me into this meditation.

Being poorer than the rest of New Hampshire, which, according to coverage maps, especially in the southern part of the state, is pretty well served by service providers, I’d expect less demand. There’s also much less call, as I infer from the kinds of stores supplying staple items and other groceries, for natural products. Consumer package goods are generally the same to be found all over the country: over-processed, loaded with high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, salt, and preservatives with long convoluted chemical names. Only one market chain has a store nearby (in Vermont) that has an organic produce section. The same store offers bulk bagels, wholly local oddly enough. This is the kind of anomalous product discovery, like the home-made breads in the local general stores, made from whole grain ingredients and fewer additives of no nutritional value whatsoever, right next to the candy bars and the chips and the Tasty-Kakes, I stumble on from time to time. It’s as if the region, for so long mainly populated by people who worked hard, kept their heads down, fought for lower taxes (or none at all) and willing to live in the kind of community that is perpetually sleepy and a little behind (that’s poetic and romantic euphemism) the zeitgeist that drives the 24/7 news cycles those of us who are denizens (or addicts) of the Internet culture that fills our days, has no need, in fact, for high-speed Internet.

It’s not clear what they’d do with it, even if it’s offered, which it is from time to time, though I guess with no takers, by the local phone company, who bought all the lines and the equipment from Verizon, happy to let them go as this was one of the few money-losing regions of the country of their far-flung profit machine. Life here is idyllic in many dimensions and likely for the locals in this dimension as well. There simply is no call to check into Facebook, Buzzfeed, or send hundreds of images a day via snapchat and Instagram.

Teenagers and even younger folks I see in restaurants are well enough outfitted with smart phones. In fact they are the only people I see in public exercising the right of the plugged-in generation to dispense with etiquette, never mind the basic social graces. Their elders do not sit hunched over tablets and smartphones. They sit looking each other in the eye, and having real honest-to-god conversations. They chat with neighbors at other tables, including “new” neighbors, which is to say, the strangers in the next booth, who may as easily be from Berryville, Texas (population 999) as Wells River, Vermont, the town just across the bridge from Woodsville.

Just across the road from Shiloh’s is a relatively new Walmart, whose parking lot fills fairly early in the morning and stays full until closing. Residents of more than a few years attest that even before the Walmart arrived, the small stores on the classic main streets of the area, and Woodsville’s is as classic as it gets, with banks, merchandise specialists, a railroad stop, beauty parlor, even a bookstore at one time now represented by the empty store fronts they once inhabited, had emptied out or were emptying. The virtue of Walmart, if nothing else (and someone else’s critical apparatus may be tuned to a different set of parameters), is that it is open early and stays open late, so if you need the odd ingredient, or have the odd fixation, you can satisfy it even at ten o’clock at night, when most good farmers have probably already been asleep for a bit.

There’s no shortage of personal computer and mobile electronics, including the latest Kindles and iPads and phones, with many accessories and even the equipment required to pull bits out of the ether, including wi-fi routers. Though who buys and uses this merchandise is unclear, and how they “jack in” (to use William Gibson vaguely distasteful coinage) is even less clear. It’s true the major carriers of cellular voice and data signals have finally (as of a year and a half ago) managed to bring their fastest technologies, 4G and even LTE in spots, to the area. This means that in a region where there is still not critical mass to entice a cable company to pull coax or fiber, and most television is transmitted digitally solely by satellite dishes, which festoon every house, trailer and double-wide, not matter how posh or dilapidated (and there is a broad range of wealth and lifestyle even here in the boondocks), most other digital communication is by phone. I guess the locals surf the Web on those tiny screens.

We live in what is a secondary house for us (we also have another, as I have documented and told of in story and fable, in a medieval village in rural France, about 45 minutes from the foothills of the Alps; there we have DSL service and connect to France Telecom and the world) in North Haverhill. I have spoken repeatedly to the local phone company, a struggling enterprise called Fairpoint, which continues to buy up old Verizon assets here in northern New England and New York. They have DSL service as close as Pike, another unincorporated part of Haverhill, and which consists of mainly a sign on a utility pole that informs you that you are in Pike. We pass the sign on the last leg of the trip here from our urban cocoon, seven hours to the south, and then, two or three minutes later pull into our driveway. But we are still too far from the switch in Pike for them to offer even the barest of essential high speed service.

They are always apologetic, are Fairpoint, but simply cannot say even with cloudy uncertainty when they might muster the justification for installing another piece of equipment another critical mile closer to our house. It’s easy to surmise, there is not much call from our neighbors.

All of this kind of inconvenience, one of the deprivations of the truly spoiled, but still speaking to the more fundamental issue addressed only briefly and by allusion alone in my opening sentences, points to yet another inequality in the United States. The disparity between the access to those aspects of modern life that serve more than a basic set of needs. In an age long since established as a digital age, the digits, it would appear, stop somewhere just beyond the city line. And our rural brethren, both the dying breed of farming stalwarts, who provide so reliably the most fundamental of needs, and the merchants who sell them seed and feed and tractors and wheelbarrows, not to mention the restaurateurs who make them breakfast, are clearly, by default, de facto, and by some not very deep cost benefit analysis not in any way equal to the lowliest urban dweller. The government has long since acknowledged this disparity, but like all other disparities, use it as lyrics to the mouth music politicians like to play.

What I can’t figure out, though I do not by any means question it, is why Shiloh’s, an oasis of family cooking, is also a lone outpost for Internet warriors like myself, so seldom do I show up at their door, and so few in number, clearly, in these parts are my brethren. They don’t even require a password.

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2 thoughts on “Notes from the Hinterlands

  1. What a corny story…… Tell me, when you figure it out: why those in N.H. are so conservative, politically, and across the Connecticut Rilver, they are left wing Pinkos, favoring socialists who advocate tuition free college for all?

    • I don’t know enough of the closed-mouth folks around here. In cow country, which this is, there’s not much talk of politics. The towns along each bank of the Connecticut River (the natural divide, forming the track of most of the border, are largely indistinguishable, except I know there is a great deal more readily accessible Internet connectivity on the Vermont side. As for electioneering, thus far there are no campaign signs anywhere, except one lone “Bernie” lawn sign here in North Haverhill. Nary a one in Vermont.

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