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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Best-Known Farmer in New York

From the Vault Dept.: In 1987, a chunk of NYS Thruway dropped into the Schoharie Creek. In order to re-route traffic, the state seized land from farmer Walt Dufel. I interviewed Dufel two years later, and found a very unhappy man. Born in 1926, he was part of a long-settled Montgomery County family of farmers who got embroiled in a lawsuit that never resolved satisfactorily. Walt’s health started to go bad during the years-long process, and he died in 2000.


Photo by Martin Benjamin,
scanned from the magazine's pages.
WANT TO SEE WHAT WALT DUFEL IS ALL ABOUT? Poke around his Antique Barn for an afternoon. Give yourself plenty of time, too, because the place is piled high with stuff.

Wandering through it is good preparation for a conversation with Walt. He’s a collector: of junk and antiques, of homilies, facts and figures. The labyrinth of the barn, through which small aisles wend crazily, is a floor model of the intricate pathways of his mind.

Walt’s a farmer. You know him from his “Scho-Mo Farms” stand on Route 5, out past Amsterdam. But he’s also, lately, a fighter. You know him from his fight with the state that’s been going on since the Thruway Bridge collapsed over the Schoharie Creek in 1987. Or you know him from his fight alongside a Montgomery County group that protested the threat of a radioactive waste site in their midst.

He won that last fight, at least temporarily, but the battle with the state continues. He settles into an overstuffed chair in a back room of the barn and talks about it.

“They took my property by eminent domain, but eminent domain means they seize your property and it’s seized forever. It’s like death. I’ve never heard of temporary death. And I’ve never heard of temporary eminent domain.”

Needing a detour for the traffic unable to cross the river, the state yanked a few of Dufel’s arable acres for a spur to carry traffic from an old railroad bridge. The battle is in the courts right now, and Dufel complains that he hasn’t heard “in months and months and months and months” about any progress.

“They promised us they would leave our land just as good as it was when they took it. Well, where the spur was there are stones that were pushed down into the soil, and that soil was practically stone-free. Beyond the treeline, on property we own quite a ways over to Schoharie Creek--all that debris is left there yet.” And his sons, who run Scho-Mo Farms and the farm stand, lost $150,000 worth of business that year.

The Dufels have been on the property since 1920. “My father also owned a farm across the river. Dad was born in 1890. In 1920 he saw this property over here and bought it--with a lot of help from his father--but this land was all worn out when he got it. The former owner just grew hay and cut it off and shipped it to New York for the horses. The land was worn out. You couldn’t grow nothin’ on it. Took years to build it up, hauling in manure piles, getting the soil in shape to produce.”

It only seems natural that valley land should be good for farming, but high-pressure demands will deplete the soil quickly. “There’s a lot of black slate land up on the hills that produces even better than these river flats,” says Walt, “because the black slate has a lot of lime in the soil. It’s wonderful for corn and alfalfa. There are several farms around here that produce per acre better than this land, but this land has the advantage of being level and well drained. As long as they don’t keep raising the river.”

Even his detractors have noted Walt’s love of his land, but gets modest as he tells you that. “I’m probably no more in love with this valley than my sons are or the other farmers in the Mohawk Valley. You know, everythig is inherent to the soil. You start with the nucleus of a piece of dust, and that’s what we all go back into.”

As his sons have taken over the farming business, Walt is spending more and more time in his Antique Barn. How long has he been operating it? “Off and on, quite a few years. It’s just open part time. My wife says I’ll never make a success out of doing this because I’m too honest. I like to make people happy. I’ll buy something for $200 and sell it for a hundred just to keep the money flowing.”

On one side or another, Walt’s family has been a presence in the Mohawk Valley for centuries. He traces his ancestry to Native Americans on his mother’s side and prizes a photo he had taken with Iron Eyes Cody. And he credits the spiritual presence of those ancestors with some of his motivation to fight as he does.

Just last week he was interviewed over WFLY on National Farmers Day, being, as they told him, the best-known farmer in the state. “You get shoved into prominence. Over the years I’ve been getting more articulate on the subject. If you act like a turtle and keep your head in a shell, you don’t get anywhere. We were told years ago by the Farm Bureau, "Don’t badmouth.’ Quite a few years ago I was telling Larry King about the plight of the farmers and he couldn’t believe it. Now it’s come out in the last several years and people are made believers how the government wants to give the farmer so little for his goods that he goes bankrupt or commits suicide. To me it’s like a conspiracy to get the land away from the people, away from the farmers.”

He walks to the front door of the barn and looks across the fields at the highway complex. This view is the best testimony to Walt’s struggle. All around are acres and acres of freshly-picked land, some late-season crops of pumpkins and squash the last stragglers. Beyond it, the grey of the Thruway. It’s not a happy juxtaposition. Because it isn’t a logical one. Walt Dufel is bearing the brunt of that right now. Unlike so many farmers, however, he’s letting us know about it.

Metroland Magazine, 19 October 1989

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