23 January

“Last Days Of A Dairy Barn.” When heroes fall.

by Jon Katz
Last day of a dairy farm, Belcher, N.Y.
Last day of a dairy farm, Belcher, N.Y.

This photo was taken after the last cow left John Clark’s barn, and the door was closed.

January 23, 2009 – Tonight I am thinking of a struggling New York dairy farmer who killed 51 of his milking cows Friday before shooting himself in his dairy barn. He was found by a neighboring farmer after he left a note on his barn door warning anyone who came by not to come in and to call the police.

His family believes he wanted to spare them the expensive of caring for the cows. This is a sad story in any context, but it had a particular meaning for me. As some of you might remember, I spent several weeks photographing the last days of John Clark’s award winning dairy barn in Belcher, N.Y.

John was stricken at having to sell his cows, but fortunately, he made a different choice for himself and his family, who are all still on his farm. I do remember the grief and sadness in John’s face as his farm, like so many others, succumbed to the economic realities of a country that values banks and insurance companies so much more than family farms, teachers or libraries. I felt as if I was witnessing the loss of something much larger than one farm, and struggled to take photos that reflected that.

The Copake, N.Y. dairy farmer who killed his cows and himself was one of a number of struggling dairy farmers, overwhelmed by the rising cost of grain and feed, impossible corporate competition and low milk prices.

It is easy to make too much of individual tragedy, or too little. I don’t know this farmer, and have no idea what he was like or what the circumstances of his life were. It is easy to romanticize people, and farmers, like everyone else, face great change and challenge, and always have. Few make this man’s choice.

My phot0s from the “Last Days Of A Dairy Barn” were a powerful and wrenching experience for me, and for many of you who saw them. They will be part of a show this August at the Lower Regional Adirondack Arts Center (LARAC) in Glens Falls, N.Y. The show was already important to me, but is even more so now. I stood out back and had a few minutes of silence on behalf of Dean Pierson, 59, who was found dead on the floor of his barn along with his milking cows. He had shot each one.

I don’t know what to make of this story, and want to think about it. I am hopeful, every day of my life, that change and challenge will improve us, make us grow, challenge our creativity, notion of friendship and community, and search for peace, a meaningful life,  love and connection. Pain and loss can make us better, as well as sad. I dedicate myself to that.

I saw and felt so much loss in the dairy barn I was in that this awful story is not as shocking as it might have been. It reminds me to remember individuality, fight for it in a corporate world, and cherish the people who are brave enough to go their own way, in the face of increasingly difficult odds. They are heroes in their own right, even when they fall.

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