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Profile: Harvey Baskin, the Last Farmer
By Charles Wohlforth
All Rights Reserved
First published 10/13/91 in the Anchorage Daily News We Alaskans section
For the second week without a break it is raining, cold and gray but for the changing leaves, and around the farmhouse the ground is mud, the roads pitted, and the hay, already cut while the sun shone, soggy and rotting in the fields. Inside, Harvey Baskin sits at his kitchen table making another list, like the thousands of others he has made in nine years of trying to build a dairy farm in the wilderness of Point MacKenzie.
In those nine years he has made a list every day of the countless steps to his task -- steps forward to try to match all the steps back. He doesn't put down the routine work, like hauling grain and feeding cattle, milking 80 cows at 5 a.m., feeding ducks, geese, chickens, dogs. The lists are about fixing fences, bulldozers, trucks and plows; insulating buildings, digging pits; putting back up all the things that nature and defeatist gravity pull down. Making a list is like a prayer. If Baskin can cross off these jobs, he'll still be here. He won't have given up, like all the others.
But the list Baskin is making today isn't about the jobs he, his grandson and hired hands have to do. He has been asked how he did it. How it is that, out of a dozen farmers who in 1982 won the chance to build a dairy farm on Point MacKenzie, he is the only one left who still owns his farm and produces milk; the only one who gives a last gasp of life to the state government's dead and forgotten dream that it could create out of nothing a thriving agricultural economy of happy family farmers. Instead, the project produced bankruptcies, scores of lawsuits, and bitter, ruined people whose years of work have been wiped out, their fields returning to forest. And it produced Baskin, who isn't so easy to define. He isn't a quitter or a loser, he still owns his farm; but he isn't a winner, either.
So he is asked how he did it. How did he survive? Why is he still here? And he sits down alone to make a list of advice for future Point MacKenzie farmers:
1. Live on farm 24 hours a day.
2. Personally do all of your own work.
3. Don't plan on making money.
4. Be out for hard work and disappointments.
5. Use your best, conservative decisions.
6. Don't go "first class.'
7. Don't trust or depend on government "experts."
8. Sacrifice money, time, comfort, health, friends, family and leisure time.
He writes nothing under No. 9. Instead, he throws down the list, and later explains, "My only piece of advice would be, "Don't get into it in the first place.' "
Life's problems channel strange paths. Harvey Baskin traces one from Vietnam's 1968 Tet Offensive to these damp fields. He left behind his home in Louisiana to join the Marines for the close of World War II, when he was 17, then joined the Air Force for the Korean War when the Marines wanted him back. He stayed in, brought the family to Alaska in 1963, left again in '67 for California, and the next year went to Vietnam for nine months, while the family lived in Arizona. Then back to California, back to Vietnam, back to Louisiana, and so on.
Harvey retired the last day of 1976, in Anchorage, a Chief Master Sergeant, and his life came to a stop.
"It was what the old timers used to call a nervous breakdown, as a result of what had happened," he said. "The first time it happened to me was in Vietnam. . . . I'd forget where I was, who I was, all kind of crazy things."
Part of it was that Baskin just didn't know how not to work, said his wife, Merlene Baskin. Because Harvey Baskin is all about work.
"Harvey was retired and really didn't know what to do with himself except sit here losing it," she said. "He sat here about four years, just pretty much doing nothing. . . . He became almost like a vegetable. He sat here in the living room, and he wasn't interested in TV, or fishing or hunting or anything."
It was Harvey's idea to try to get one of the farms. In 1982 the state was raffling off agriculture rights on big parcels of prime land at Point MacKenzie just a few miles across Knik Arm, but about 65 road miles from Anchorage. The 14,000 acres of land was divided into 32 parcels, roughly split between proposed dairy farms and hay farms.
Baskin read about the project in the newspaper. He could see himself with his horses and his dogs on one of the non-dairy tracts, just a big piece of land he could clear, build a cabin on, and watch the hay grow in the field. He and Merlene both thought that was the kind of active retirement that would make him snap out of his lethargy. Although he had lived on a farm as a child, he never had been a farmer -- but that didn't matter to the state, which legally was not allowed to consider the qualifications of the people to whom it gave the parcels.
The Alaska dairy industry was already dying, and Gov. Jay Hammond thought he could save it. Dairy farming had been developed by Depression era homesteaders in the Matanuska Valley. As the Valley grew closer to Anchorage, the value of their land rose; as Anchorage grew closer to Seattle, the value of Matanuska milk fell. It was never an easy life, and most chose to sell out to developers, who during the 1970s were turning the Valley into a bedroom for Anchorage commuters. The state's interlocking dairy plan was supposed to create brand new farms that would quickly take over the milk market, providing cows to eat the grain produced on the state's barley project at Delta, and helping Alaska toward food self-sufficiency that would carry on past the oil years.
The name of Baskin's youngest daughter, Abby Baskin, was the first to be called at the drawing at Palmer High School. And with it, Baskin had his hay farm. Then, a little later, Merlene's name came up for a dairy parcel. No matter -- they would just return hers and let the state draw it again. "I laughed at the time, because I knew better than to get into dairy," Harvey said.
At the drawing, Merlene got up from her chair and walked to the front of the room to turn in her unwanted cow farm.
"There was some man standing there, to this day I don't know who it was," Merlene said. "He said, "What did you get?' I said, "A dairy parcel.' He said, "Take it. That's where the money is.' To this day, I still don't know what that means."
But the couple was persuaded. They accepted the state's 865 acres of land on the two farms; raw, wild land, habitat for moose, bears and wolves, where tall spruce and birch trees spread around ponds and over gentle hills and across broad, flat stretches of quiet forest. There was no human mark other than holes and blasting caps left by early seismic explorers for oil. And, thanks to the state's unrestrained affluence, wide, well-maintained gravel roads that would be the envy of any rural Alaska town had just been built right up to the prospective front door, and electrical lines now crisscrossed the area to bring power to any spot where a farmer might imagine he would need it.
Baskin could drive right up and look at his land.
"Back in that home state of mine, anything you'd tried to do, there had been 50 people who had tried the exact same thing on the same piece of ground. And when I got up here, here was this place where no one had ever cut a tree. And I wondered if I should be the one to do it. I even pushed up bears out of their dens when I was clearing this land.
"We didn't want to destroy this land."
Harvey and Merlene had met when she was 13 and he was three years older, on the bayou in Louisiana. Their families had long known each other, but they met waiting for the school bus as teen-agers. The war was on and Harvey was just short of the age to go. Each morning he paddled across from home in a rowboat to where he would wait for the bus with Merlene. They married when she turned 17, in 1948.
It has been an unusual marriage. Merlene took care of the family alone for long stretches during Harvey's military career. In Anchorage, she owned a successful Elmendorf Air Force Base gift shop for 13 years. The couple often lives apart for a week or more at a time, but also works long hours together. It seems to have worked: They are still together, and are no longer poor. They alone have survived Point MacKenzie.
"Starting out ourselves like we did, very poor people, and then being able to make it on our own, I think that helped us to deal with it better than other people," Merlene said, from her home in Anchorage. "Because us, we don't do anything but work. We either work together or separately. I'm sitting here working right now. It's all we know."
That may be why the family decided to go ahead and start bulldozing the trees on Point MacKenzie. It was work, seemingly the only thing that could keep them happy. Merlene said she always knew it would be difficult. She didn't have romantic illusions about farming. She knew it wouldn't be fun.
"I wasn't into farming," she said. "I grew up with farming, and I knew it all my life. I knew what it was all about. But I wanted to have some roots to leave to our family. Something we could leave to them. Because we don't really have any roots. And this is something they could keep and live on to take care of them even if the world situation got real bad."
They are closer to that goal than anyone else, but still perilously far. Their son, Lance Baskin, helped Harvey clear and work the land and built a cabin there where he is raising his two children. One was born on the farm. But Lance still refuses to build a permanent house there. He cut and peeled huge spruce logs for it years ago, but while he waited to see what would happen, waited to see how the state would set about saving the project, the logs rotted. His cabin is built on skids, ready to move. After nine years on the state's project, even the survivors don't know if it will work.
"The reason I'm still out here today is that no one else would do it," Harvey said. "That is, get out here and do this hard work, grubbing work, knowing deep down that you never would make any money at it. . . . When we say succeed, we only mean that I'm here today. Next week it may be a different story."
Step one in building a farm: Buy a bulldozer. Baskin found one, a 1960s- vintage Allis Chalmers for sale in Anchorage for $24,000. But the state, which was willing to lend each farmer $1 million to build a farm, wouldn't lend Baskin the money for the bulldozer; agriculture officials said he couldn't survey and clear hundreds of acres by himself, not knowing what he was doing. They would only lend him money to hire a contractor to do it. But a surveyor would charge $13,000 to stake the perimeter, and a contractor would charge $96,000 to clear the land.
Harvey bought the bulldozer.
"All this was trees back then," he said, leaning against a fence in the rain, "and the guy pulled up with it on a trailer and said, "Mr. Baskin, why don't you drive it off?' And I said, "What?' He said, "You don't know how to drive it?' And I said, "I've never even been this close to one before.' So he drove it off, and I waited until he was out of sight. And then I started it up. And I didn't know where the thing shut off, running around there knocking down trees before I figured it out."
He bought a transit a surveyor's telescope-like instrument to do the surveying himself, and a book to tell him how. To blaze the farm's perimeter he put his son, Lance, at one corner of the land with the transit and a CB radio. Lance aimed the transit at a red spot painted on the dozer blade, which was along an imaginary line leading to the next corner. Harvey began driving. If the dozer began to stray from the line, the red spot would wander in the transit sight. Then Lance would tell Harvey over the CB, "A little to the left," or "A little to the right." It worked, and the perimeter was soon marked by wide, straight dozer lines through the forest.
Most of the time Baskin worked by himself, and the past still trapped him. The land was not a miracle cure.
"When I first got out here, I could hardly work on something. I'd just lay down and cry," Baskin said. He couldn't make decisions, couldn't attack the work he had to do. He was alone. One day he lay down on the ground as afternoon turned to evening and then night, paralyzed by the fear of a broken machine.
But slowly, the work was working on him; and the more work he did, the stronger he got. And then work became its own compulsion.
"There was no hours, no months, no weather," he said. "It was just the same all the time. I'd work 26 hours straight and then zonk out."
Harvey lived in an old travel trailer parked on the land and called Merlene in Anchorage every day by CB radio. When the dozer broke down, he tried to repair it himself out in the open air. His first structure was a makeshift shelter so he could work on the vehicles and machinery out of the rain and snow. Baskin didn't call mechanics to work on the machines after the first couple of times.
"The first thing they would do was ask, "Where's your service manual?' Well I figured I could read the manual as well as they could, and a lot cheaper," Baskin said. "It's senseless to pay a note to hire somebody to work for you when you can do the work yourself."
That was his credo. But other farmers were spending their borrowed money to hire people. Some hired Baskin to clear their land with his dozer. He never got off it, winter or summer. He worked as if the years of lethargy were an open mouth following behind him.
He drove the dozer all day, in cold winter weather, clearing acre after acre of trees without taking a break. At the end of one day, he got off and fell flat on the ground. After sitting still so long, his legs had stopped working. When he could stand, he dragged himself inside to build a fire in the pot-bellied stove, his hands blundering with the numbing cold.
He figures he did work worth $180,000 with his $24,000 dozer. Other farmers paid him $22,000 for clearing their land.
Most of the farmers pushed the trees up in huge berm piles, then lit fires that darkened the sky over Anchorage, causing outrage over the waste and pollution. Baskin made a deal with a Valley woodcutter to set up a small sawmill on his growing spread. In exchange for the timber, the woodcutter gave Baskin a share of the finished lumber. Baskin then turned the lumber into the buildings he needed, and hauled round logs to Anchorage in his truck to sell by the cord as firewood.
He knew nothing about how to build the sheds, barns and living quarters he needed, but he figured it out. The shop is a tall building held up by vertical logs that are crossed at the top by huge beams. Up a flight of stairs, beside the storage loft, are the modest living quarters he built for himself. The barn was his bathroom.
Some built their farmhouses first -- structures like suburban tract houses in Anchorage, although Harvey calls them "Those nice mansion houses down the road." Baskin built his cow barn first. He hired an expert to design it, then had a contractor build it out of steel and concrete. "That's your revenue. You take care of that first, then you take care of yourself," he said. The milking machinery is simple, though. Baskin didn't want to buy anything that he couldn't fix at 11 o'clock on a Friday night, without a specialist.
There was a proud, optimistic community on the Point then. It was 1985. Some farmers hadn't been able to meet the state's three-year development deadline and were already in court, their half-finished barns left to decay, rusty hammers left beside half-driven nails. Others had ignored the rules and consolidated their farms to create a larger, more economic unit. They tried to fool the state's inspectors into thinking they had small, individual farms by building little matchbox barns where they would unload cows, swapping them from farm to farm, just in time for regular inspections. But, altogether, the farmers had accomplished a seemingly impossible task. They had built seven dairy farms, and soon they were breaking production records with the top- quality cows they had brought home from all over North America. They built a school for their children.
But it was all an illusion built on an error, and it didn't last long. When the farmers started, their market for milk was the Matanuska Maid creamery, a farmer-owned co-op that had always paid top dollar for milk -- as much as twice the price set by federal price supports in Washington state. Consequently Mat Maid had to charge its customers more in the store, and even then it didn't make enough to put money back into its plant. In 1984 Mat Maid went bankrupt, leaving the state holding more than $3 million in debt. The state took over the dilapidated plant, then in need of about $3 million in improvements.
But the state wasn't in as expansive a mood as it had been three years earlier, when it poured so much money into the dairy project. Bill Sheffield was governor, not Jay Hammond, and the oil money that had paid for it all was slipping away. Soon after the first Point MacKenzie farmers started producing, the state slashed the price Mat Maid paid for milk.
Even at the lower price, the creamery still couldn't make money or put milk in the stores at a competitive price. It was quickly overwhelmed by the huge production boom from the Point, and had to pour much of the new milk down the sewer. That brought a fresh public outcry about the waste, and Mat Maid began selling the milk in Seattle, even though that cost more than buying the milk and just throwing it away.
The drastically reduced milk price paid to Alaska farmers -- still far above the Seattle price -- was a heavy blow for the Point MacKenzie farmers. The brief period of optimism was soon gone, never to return. Economic plans that had justified the farms were now worthless. They were all based on the higher milk price. And they had been speculative at that.
The project's blueprint came from a 1980 report authored by University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Carol Lewis. It was as optimistic as all the plans the university's agriculture experts had pushed over the years in their campaign for a massive state investment in agriculture. In 1976 UAF Professor James Drew had predicted that Alaska could become the nation's northern breadbasket, with agriculture rivaling oil and gas in economic importance -- a notion embraced by the Hammond administration.
But, like the study that justified the Delta barley debacle, Lewis' Point MacKenzie plan was based on unrealistically high prices and large markets. It anticipated that the farms could be developed in only three years. And it called for uneconomically small family farms. The timetable was a mistake, Lewis would say later; the farm size a political necessity.
The project was dying as soon as it was born. Farmers had spent too much of the borrowed state money trying to build their farms in three years. The haste meant more work had to be hired out and couldn't be done as carefully. Baskin ended up burning much of his wood because there wasn't time to harvest it, and he spent more on his barn than he planned. His $550,000 development plan ended up costing $700,000. Other farms had worse problems and spent much more. Their loan payments were too large, their income too small. The larger farms -- some of them owned by doctors or lawyers -- also had hired managers and big staffs; the owners rarely set foot on the grounds. Without supervision, money went out too fast.
Soon everyone was in debt to the state for the $1 million maximum. With more state loans difficult to obtain, some could not afford to operate. Baskin's loan payments were $4,500 a month. Some farmers never made a payment; Baskin says he paid his own bill month in and month out, except when the state declared a moratorium.
Other farmers realized early on that the numbers didn't add up, and waited for the state to come up with a debt restructuring plan that would make more sense. But even without making payments some were in trouble. There were rumors of cows going hungry. One farmer went bankrupt. Another couldn't afford to keep up his insurance, then lost everything when his barn burned down.
In 1987, Baskin was in trouble, too. People thought he would be the next to go under. In the cold of winter, he ran out of money and had to turn to his family and friends. Like all the others, he was bitter about the state.
"Be very watchful about expert advice," he says now, as if giving advice for some future Point MacKenzie fiasco. "These people are agriculture scientists. If they run short of money all they have to do is tell the secretary, "Increase the budget in that area right there.' How am I supposed to increase my budget? I'm out here with my butt on the line. I've been out here in a crisis in mid-winter, flat out of money. And in the dairy business, you're dealing with animals you can't just go a day without feeding them or miss milking a day. You go three days and you're out of business."
In 1989, when Tom Rogers quit farming, a lot of people who knew Point MacKenzie gave up hope for it. Rogers was a lifelong dairy farmer from Michigan who built the model Point MacKenzie farm. People said that if anyone could make it, he could. But even after the state offered to stretch his debt to 30 years at 1 percent interest, Rogers found the figures still didn't add up right. He'd be working for nothing. So he got the best deal he could from the state he walked away free and clear, and could sell his cattle and equipment to extract enough money for a decent retirement.
Dr. J. Michael James was going out of the dairy business at the same time, but state officials decided his farm was too large to let go. They gave him a deal under which he gave up the deed but was allowed to remain on the property paying a nominal rent. His $1.4 million debt was erased and he got to borrow another $700,000. When Rogers went out of business, James got to rent his farm, too. But he paid $500 a month for it, instead of the $4,400 a month Rogers had paid in monthly debt service. Then, this summer, James gave up, too, walking away from his second debt. The state rented the farms out to another family, starting fresh.
Seven farmers once produced on Point MacKenzie. After James gave up, Baskin was the only one left who still milked cows on his own farm. Tucker Dairy, the big farm made up of the cow-swapping farmers, quit because it couldn't make money. Another dairy ran short of money, then had its barn collapse under snow. A third gave its deed back to the state, although it continues to produce a little milk.
That leaves Baskin.
His cows now produce 90,000 pounds of milk a month, about 9 percent of the state's total milk production. (The rest comes from two longtime dairymen in Palmer; the University of Alaska's experimental farm; a group of small operators near Delta, and two Point MacKenzie farmers who rent their land from the state.)
Like Rogers, Baskin doesn't think he can ever make any money at it. But he won't give up. He has a swagger when he talks about it. There's that Southern accent, billowing with self-praise. Then he seems to catch himself in mid- swagger. Yes, he made it when no one else did. But he got nothing for it. The same forces in his personality that brought him this far will keep him going, even though he knows he still will get nothing out of it in the end. At that thought he seems halfway between pride, shame and despair. The farm is a victory and a loss; it's his family's roots and its shackles.
"You've got to be cut out for this, and that's something you don't know until you try, like an old bird dog the first time you take him hunting," Baskin says. "Think about your home and your family, if you knew you could never pay for that home the way the bank had fixed it up. Think about the damn fool like me, actually out here suffering and doing this stuff, and wondering, "What am I ever going to get out of it.' The one thing I ever got out of it was that it made me twice as strong physically, mentally, emotionally everything but financially."
Now another administration is taking its turn. Gov. Wally Hickel appointed a task force in July to offer delinquent farmers a deal: Give up the farm and they don't have to pay the debt. Assistant Attorney General Kevin Saxby said the task force's work is done, but no settlements have come out of it yet. Baskin is still in negotiations.
Baskin is hesitant to say anything that might anger state officials. But most of the former farmers on Point MacKenzie seem to feel bitter, betrayed and bewildered about how they were treated by their state government.
"The state wasn't farsighted enough to get the project on solid ground when it started," Tom Rogers said. "What they told us when we got into it, and what they did once it got started were two completely different things. I don't think the state wants it to work.
"There was a lot of esprit de corps when we started that project. There were a lot of high hopes. But then it went down in the second and third year. I began to get discouraged because of what the state was doing. What they were offering us 15 years down the road just wasn't workable. We'd end up with nothing."
Rogers was uncomfortable answering the question of why Baskin made it and he didn't. How did a man who knew almost nothing about dairy farming end up with a farm, while Rogers, with it in his blood, ended up living in a suburb of Wasilla?
"It isn't how good an operator you are," he said. "The scenario the state set up is what started all the problems. Harvey had a capability of learning, and he did a good job with what he had. He worked his butt off."
The road to Baskin's has changed in the six years since he built his farm. It is used now only by Baskin and the two other farmers who rent their land, plus hunters and fishermen who park along the network in the summer and fall. Matanuska Maid doesn't have to carry as much milk out of here anymore, and now about 60 percent of its product comes from Washington.
The view along the road has changed, too. Some of the wrecked farms have been there for five years, but now there are new forests starting. They are well into the first stage of growth, willows standing up like switches, offering food for moose.
Today, in the rain, there are signs of movement only at the Baskin spread, behind the freshly whitewashed rail fence, where young men unload grain for a herd of cows, sheep look up from their meal of grass, geese wander questioningly in the mud, and scruffy dogs keep track of all.
Harvey Baskin is obviously proud to show off what he has built. He says he makes money on the side selling organically raised sheep to Anchorage Muslims. He built the barn with the floor sloping inward to prevent glaciation. The worst thing that can happen, he explains, is for anything to freeze solid. The cows produce 3,500 BTUs of heat apiece, he says, enough to keep the barn warm with all the insulation he socked in the walls. He gives them 60-degree water to drink to help them stay warm, heating it up as it comes from the well with warmth captured from the cooling milk. A chain of mechanical shovels pulls the cows' manure away, a slight electric shock on their backs reminding them where to stand when they defecate.
"As far as producing milk up here in Alaska and making it a business, hell yes," he says. "In the first years here we broke all kinds of records for production." But when he is pressed about the advantages Washington farmers have -- the lower price of Washington grain, a transportation and distribution system, a network of other farmers to shoulder the costs -- Baskin finally says, "What's so damn new about a subsidy?"
It seems to be easier for Merlene to accept the way the farm has worked out.
"Sometimes we make a little money, sometimes we break even, and sometimes we go behind," she says. "It wasn't something to get in to make money off of. All we wanted was . . . to develop the land and the home for our kids and grandkids. It was the last opportunity in the world to do it. If they had given us long enough we wouldn't have needed any money from the state."
It is a Sunday afternoon.
Merlene is working in Anchorage. Harvey is working out on the farm.
"Harvey called me a while ago, and two grandkids was picking his peas," Merlene says by telephone. "One was working in the barn, and one was riding my four-wheeler, even though he's not supposed to, rounding up the cows. It's a family thing."
Out on Point MacKenzie, Harvey is walking down the front stairs of the farm house when he stops, suddenly, to look out a little window and list the things about his life that make him happy. The grandchildren running around on the farm -- that's high on the list.
He doesn't hunt anymore, and that used to be one of his joys. At least he doesn't hunt the way he thinks of hunting. Now, when he is working in the fields, if he sees a moose, he remembers where he saw it, then comes back at the end of the day, shoots it and loads it on the tractor to haul back to the house.
Good times? He recalls seeing a dairy cow come out of the woods once, pushing along a newly born calf. He recalls riding horseback rounding up the cows between the trees, and hearing wolves circling and trying to track them down. He also remembers freezing on the back of his bulldozer.
"I've walked out of every corner of these woods, bogged down, broken down or froze up," he says. "I try to soothe my feelings by saying, if you lose everything tomorrow, you've made it farther than anyone else. But that's not very soothing when you think that you would lose everything you ever had."
Standing on the stairs, he looks out a little window at the gray sky and ground, and the strip of yellow trees beyond.
"The unpleasant times out here outweigh the pleasant ones by about 1,000- to-1," he says. "The only time I'm really at ease is when I'm out in one of the backfields working, and I can clean my mind of all the thoughts of the debt, the weather, the hired hands. . . ."
Another list, this time of his worries, seems to take over Baskin's concentration, and his voice trails off. Then, a moment later, he is ready to get back to work, moving in his quick, slightly hyperactive way. He needs to talk to some men about slaughtering some unproductive cows. His mind is occupied again.