Last month, on July 9th, the City of Little Falls hosted a wonderful, charming cheese festival. Our farm had a booth and my whole family (husband Peter, daughters Harper and Margaret), my niece Lexi, and our neighbor’s daughter Kayla, all pitched in for the day. It was exhausting and exciting to talk to so many people about one of my favorite subjects—cheese—and to have them sample virtually every type we make. Clearly, the crowds were drawn for the day because they love cheese, too!
Long known for their Garlic and Herb Festival (15th year), where festival-goers are encouraged to “eat, stink and be merry” and their almost-week-long Canal Days celebration (now in its 29th year), Little Falls is accustomed to hosting this type of event. The brain child of two non-native Little Falls residents, Alice and Tom Laurenson, the cheese festival required a whole community of volunteers, city officials (including the Mayor and Chief of Police), small business owners, and other non-profit organizations to work together with imagination, passion and a deep well of energy. Congratulations, Little Falls, you have an amazing new event to boast about and should be extremely proud of your citizens and your city!
Besides talking about and eating cheese all day, I also loved seeing so many people that I know, but simply don’t get to see very often. It reminded me of other long-standing events like the Remsen Barn Fest, where the community is drawn together to socialize, see old friends and reconnect. While the original intent of the Little Falls Cheese Festival was to highlight our area’s unique and important place in dairy history and its many talented local cheesemakers, the organizers accomplished so much more than that: they gave the city, its residents and festival attendees a sense of community…a sense of cohesion and belonging that is all-too-rare these days. It may sound silly, but we all experienced a collective “kumbaya” moment over a shared obsession (cheese) and I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t a healthier, stronger community as a result.
Perhaps I felt these warm, community feelings because I don’t get out very much. It is certainly true that farmers have always been occupationally and geographically isolated but have long known the importance of reconnecting…despite how challenging it can be. Barn dances, ice cream socials and community picnics were a quaint concept, but they also helped hold the fabric of the community together. I’ve been told on many occasions that our own farm was once the site of a wild leek festival, held every spring when the wooded hillsides filled with the little onion-y bulbs. At first I thought people were sharing these memories to entice us to bring back the tradition, but now I realize the memories are so precious, they simply had to share them.
Today, farmers still find opportunities to socialize and reconnect. If the local equipment dealer is holding an open house complete with chicken barbeque or hot dogs, you can bet they’ll get a good crowd. I love going to county fair tractor pulls when I have the chance…not because I grew up doing it, but because I can sit next to my neighbor and cheer on her husband, son and daughter who are all competing. Farmers love going to regional farm shows to see the latest technology and the opportunity to catch up on gossip is an added bonus. Auctions, too, aren’t necessarily only for those looking to bid on used equipment; it’s a time to see what the neighbors have been up to and hear about their kids and grandkids.
Being able to reconnect with fellow farmers at events like these mean we all get the chance to seek a sympathetic ear when we need it and to provide empathy when we’re all navigating similar challenges. It could be advice from a seasoned farmer that helps the younger generation manage tough times or simply the knowledge that “you’re not alone” that can make all the difference.
Of course, the flavor and identity of communities change over time, too, making the act of reconnecting even more important. Rural farming communities are certainly not immune: Farms change hands and new owners take over, or city folk move into the country. When we moved to this area, our small neighborhood farming community held a “hill party” so everyone could meet, chat and socialize. I can’t think of a better way to welcome a new family! It was a recognition that the neighborhood was changing, but that we, as a community, still have much in common. Plus, it’s a lot harder to get angry at your neighbor for spreading manure on a Sunday when you just spent an afternoon playing horseshoes together!
With recent events and a presidential election seemingly always forefront in our minds, it is often easier to identify our differences rather than all the things we have in common. But honestly, the opposite is true. We have far more in common –and I don’t care where you’re from—than what separates us. That is why I suggest that this month we all go to a community festival, a county fair, fundraiser barbeque, or ice cream social. Reconnect with your neighbors, whether it’s for the first time or perhaps you’ve known them your whole life. Talk with them; ask them about their kids and their grandkids. What are their hopes and fears? I’ll bet it’s the same sorts of things that have been weighing on your own mind. And as long as we all don’t go overboard with our passion for fair food, we’ll all feel much better the next day!