April 12, 2006
THE LAST OF THE GENTLEMAN FARMERS
An era comes to an end when one of the last gentleman farmers passes on, the great figurehead of the Topping Horse Farm, Bud Topping. An image is etched in my mind, unchanged from when I was a child until recently, of him patiently driving his tractor down the lanes of Sagaponack. Reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, Bud's subtle smile hinted at an inner peace elusive to those racing by on horseback, bike or car. For those of us who remember when Bridgehampton Commons was a drive-in movie theater and Bobby Van still owned Bobby Vans, Bud's sun drenched face was a comforting figure of continuity. He embodied the word gentleman, being through and through a gentle man.
Despite efforts by preservationists and even the hefty coffers of the Community Preservation Fund (the 2% sales tax on all properties over $250,000), our farmland is disappearing. Like a fallen crime victim, it is outlined in white in satellite photos for real estate ads. At rates of up to $5 million an acre, it seems impossible for a bunch of potatoes to compete against private home development, and if they haven't sold out long ago, farm families find that the fruits of their labor are going to a very unpopular relative, Uncle Sam. Some neighbors have banded together such as in Wainscott to buy up the farm field themselves to prevent development of their beloved vistas. Each year I stand in expectation with baited breath until the Pikes reopen their farmstand on Sagg Road, then let out a sigh of relief that this tradition continues.
Where is nobility when the men and women who grow food to feed the country have fallen into such economic hardship while those men and women who trade stocks of companies whose profits rise when they cut employees and benefits are the masters of the universe? Where are our values? I remember the ire I felt when I watched someone in a $100,000 car stop to take corn from a field so they wouldn't have to pay the few dollars at the farm stand.
The potato fields have been a visceral part of my being since I first arrived in Sagaponack at three weeks old. One couldn't escape that living on Potato Road where we knew the names of all the farmers. Nowadays you may not even know your neighbor's name. As I travel down so many of those roads, I note the huge empty houses and start to wonder if their alarm systems are activated because it seems a shame that no one enjoys them except for a few months each year. My family home of half a century has sat empty since we sold it a few years back, silence echoing in the halls which were filled with life and joy for so long. With such steep price tags, those who seem able to afford to live in the former farm fields don't have the time to do so.
I hope that the Topping Horse Farm will live on, reminding me each time I pass it of happy memories of childhood summers when the wet muzzle of a pony and a grape soda put the world in proper Shakespearean order. Unfortunately that equation is vastly more complicated now, and when my head is swimming with interest rate hikes on adjustable arm mortgages and outstanding balances of clients who haven't paid and this stupid dye from my new shoes that has turned my feet black, I wish I could see just one more time Bud Topping riding by on his tractor with a knowing smile on his face and realize we are all just lucky to be here.
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