An 'Eerie' Few Months Farming Along Vermont's Border With Canada
The U.S. Canada border has been closed to all nonessential traffic since March, and Reuters reports the two federal governments will likely extend the closure till the end of July. So what does a closed border actually look like?
Along one rural stretch of the international line in Alburgh, Vermont, not much.
I'm staring north right now at empty cornfields, which is Canada. The border is, of course, closed right now to all nonessential travel. But the U.S.-Canada border is very open. And so there would be nothing really stopping me right now from walking across the road and being inside Canada other than the threat of, you know, Border Patrol from either country coming in, telling me to stop. But it's just a reminder of how open this border really is, even in a time when it's technically closed to all travel.
I'm in Alburgh to talk to Roger Rainville, whose farm is aptly named Borderview Farm and sits right across the road from Canada. I'm here to talk about his life on the border and his farm. He's been here for over three decades. These days, his farm is home to a University of Vermont Extension program that tries out different kinds of crops. Right now, they've got canola, winter greens …
“I mean, there's corn, there’s sweet corn,” Rainville says. “There's cow corn. There's hops. Those are coming heavy. We've got onions, potatoes.”
Rainville used to be a dairy farmer. I ask him if he's glad he got out of that business, given the dairy industry's recent struggles.
“I'm not glad,” he says. “There's a farmer friend of mine that's older than I am, that just sold his cows. And everybody said, ‘Oh, it's so sad that he sold his cows.’ And I says, ‘No, it isn't sad.’ I said, ‘What's sad is that, farmers feel they need to continue to carry on that tradition of farming. And even though they're hurting, and they're in pain, and every day they get up, they feel they have to continue doing it.’ And that's not the farmers fault. That's just in our blood. So it's sad.”
Rainville continues: “I'm so happy that the farmers decided, OK, that's it. We're going to just hang it up. Well, you know, if it was because of the price of milk, we’d have got out of farming 100 years ago. I read an article in an old newspaper, 19 …whatever. Anyways. And this article I read was, farmers are going to have to cut back production, because they're going to lose 50 cents a hundred[weight]. I mean that’s a lot – 50 cents a hundred. That was in 1929. So this is nothing new.
“I mean, unfortunately, this is what dairy farmers have dealt with for a long, long time. This is worse because, it's lasting such a long period of time. And the sad part is that farmers are being told to dump milk. I mean, you've heard that. Everybody's heard it. It's just sickens me to death. I'm a dairy farmer. I'll die a dairy farmer. And it just really, it just bothers me so much when I see what's going on.
“I’ve had no cows for 16 years. I'm a dairy farmer. I'm a semi-retired dairy farmer. I do research, for a hobby. Well, it helps keep the farm alive, too.”
We head into Rainville’s barn to talk about the border, and how this area feels different since it closed. The main difference, Rainville says: Far less traffic on the dirt road outside his house and around the customs station just down the road.
“All we see is Border Patrol. That's it,” he says. “I mean, it's kind of odd, when we pull out of here, you stop, make sure there's nobody coming from Canada. And on weekends, you wonder if you should come up there or come in that way, because the line is half a mile long. We don't even have to look at the stop sign anymore, we just go. Because there's nobody coming through.
“It's kind of an eerie feeling, that all of a sudden there's a dead zone. It's not just a border. It's a dead zone. It's like there's nothing going on. I was joking with one of the border gals there, we were splitting wood. I said, ‘Well, you look kind of bored. You ought to come help split wood.’ She said, ‘I'd love to, but I guess I'll just sit here and count squirrels.’ So, they have to watch the border because it's closed.
“So that's the biggest difference. If I don't look out there, I don't really notice it.”
In his day-to-day life, Rainville says his wife used to cross into Quebec all the time to get groceries. Now she doesn’t.
“We did a lot of commerce across the border,” he says. “One thing I miss, is that the neighbors, the farmers over there, they’d come off the road because they’d crop down here, and they’d stop and we shoot the breeze and stuff. Well, they don't do that anymore, because they're not allowed to cross the border. It's not something we dwell on. It's not a big deal, but, yeah. It's, you know, going across the border, we never looked at it as a border. It was just another place to go.”
I'd heard that the feeling around the border changed after 9/11. I ask Rainville if that was the case for him.
“This is worse mentally than 9/11, because at 9/11, there were military at the borders with AK-47s. And that was scary when you drove out,” he says. “So it was more of a physical awareness. And now it's a mental awareness. It's probably worse than – mentally – I think worse than 9/11, because 9/11 was here and it was done. And this just keeps going on. Is it gonna be done tomorrow? Is it gonna be done next week?”
I also ask: Does Rainville consider himself American or Canadian?
“It all depends on whose politics you’re talking to,” he says. “I'm a on board of directors of a co-op in Canada. Yes. And it has to do with our milkweed production. So I've spent a lot of time over there. And then unfortunately, when politics change and all the people get a little … and the first thing I'd say, ‘Oh, I live in Canada, I don't live in the United States.’
“But I don't look at either one. You know, I got friends over there as much as I do over here. And I don't look at it from a political point of view or a country. It's not a barrier. It's so I don't look at it as one or the other. I mean, I'm an American citizen. That's it. I'm not a Canadian citizen.
“But when I go over there, I’m just as comfortable as I am going over here. You know, I speak French, fairly fluent. I got a lot of relatives that live in Canada.”
And when – if – the border reopens?
“I think there's concern about what kind of rush is going to come across,” Rainville says. “I mean, we're not in a hurry to go over there. And a lot of people aren’t in a hurry for us to go, and then vice versa. When the borders open, we get a lot more traffic that stop to ask directions because people come in from Canada, not just by the customs, but by other entrances. But then they get up here and they go, ‘Oh jeezum, we’re lost.’
“So we get a lot of people, stop in. That's the part – I'm thinking about putting a bigger sign that say, ‘Stop.’ And hopefully they understand that, it's nothing personal. It's just that I’ve got a lot of people to be worried about too, here. It’s not just me.”