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Eulogy for a farmer: David Ainsworth had a way about him

  • David Ainsworth of Royalton, Vt., gives one of his dairy cows a shot while working in the barn on July 3, 2007. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Corey Chapman of Tunbridge speads hay for his cows at Chapman Family Farms in Tunbridge, Vt., on Feb. 20, 2014. Chapman, who rents his farm and owns a house a few miles away in Tunbridge, says the proposed dairy contract would not give him a tax break, since he doesn't own his farm, but it may affect him as a homeowner if the contract raises taxes on non-farm properties. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Corey Chapman, of Tunbridge, spreads hay for his cows at Chapman Family Farms in Tunbridge on Thursday. Chapman, who rents the farm and owns a house a few miles away, says the proposed dairy contract would not give him a tax break, since he doesn’t own his farm, but it may affect him as a homeowner if the contract raises taxes on non-farm properties. Valley News — Sarah Priestap



Special to the Valley News
Friday, June 14, 2019

After Sunday’s service for Royalton farmer and former state Rep. David Ainsworth, Corey Chapman’s moving eulogy for his friend and mentor started to pop up on social media. Ainsworth died May 31 at age 64. Chapman, a military veteran who now farms in Tunbridge, worked alongside Ainsworth for several years, and his eulogy describes what those years and Ainsworth’s friendship meant to him. The Valley News asked Chapman for permission to publish his eulogy. It appears here lightly edited.

I once got drunk on a beach in Hawaii. Now let’s be really honest here, how many of you thought I would open with that?

It was all my wife’s fault, I had just returned from Afghanistan and she wanted me to open up about my friend who had just been killed there a few weeks before and all I wanted to do was drink beers on the beach, so we compromised. It was the first time she had ever seen me truly cry. I told her all about what had happened and she rubbed my back and told me I felt like this because he was a really good friend of mine and I was going to miss him.

The next and last time she saw me cry was last Friday night (May 31) when I learned of the passing of Dave. Our night had quieted down: the cows were milked and the kids were all in bed and I sat on my porch and cried. Again I asked her, “Why do I feel like this?” and again she told me, “Because he was a really good friend of yours and you’re going to miss him.”

David Ainsworth was more than a friend of mine. Guys like Andy Trottier used to call him Uncle Dave. He was a husband, father, grandfather, brother, real uncle and cousin, and to some he was even Santa Claus. Although not the real St. Nick he was truly a saint to some and in my eyes he will go down as a legend.

To truly know the man you needed to spend some time with him in his element and Dave sure did have a lot of them. There was his social side which always made me mad. He would go for parts and come back two hours later after striking up a conversation with someone like Bushrod (Powers) or Charlie (Bascom), probably over politics.

Which brings up Dave’s next fault, politics. Dave was a politician before he was voted a politician. He used to talk about this bill and that bill and this guy was going to vote that way and that guy was going to vote this way and I’d just lay there listening, under a broken tractor waiting for the parts.

I got to experience Dave in his more natural surroundings. His dairy farm, Westlands Farm. I once heard the phrase, stewards of the land. I’ve always liked that saying so I’ve used it more than once. David Ainsworth was a true steward of the land. He loved his farm. Dave kind of liked cows, he kind of liked haying but Dave loved to grow crops. Pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn and cow corn. Every year tweaking what he had done, religiously writing everything down, making everything bigger and better every year. Alan Howe once said you get out of the land what you put into it, and Dave did just that. It wasn’t until Chris Nonemacher started growing field corn up at Luckys that there was even anything close to Dave’s corn in this valley. Most of their corn was fuelled by competition. Now that Dave’s gone I think you’ll see that Chris’ corn won’t be quite as tall this year.

A lot of what Dave did on the farm shouldn’t work. It is against all that they teach you about dairy farming in the textbook. I’m not sure how many of you noticed the picture in the Valley News announcing the passing of this great man or not, but Dave is in one of the pictures and he is running a bottle of calcium into a cow with an IV. If (Plainfield veterinarian) Jadine Patch saw it I’m sure she got sick to her stomach. The bottle is about 4 feet over the cow’s heart. This is how he did it; this is how he taught me to do it. We used to run calcium into a sick cow’s jugular like it was a NASCAR pit stop. Never once did the cow struggle or have any effects afterwards. If you or I were to do it, it would be an instant heart attack. But not for him, it just always worked.

His free stall defies the laws of gravity. How that thing is still standing is beyond me. He used to say, that he was going to get some college architecture students to come down and figure out how it was built. It shouldn’t work but it always did. Jimmy (Kinnarney) and I would spend hours working on some project, thinking that there is no way this is going to work, but it always did. Dave was one of the most intelligent and hard-working men that I know, and I’m grateful to have worked alongside him.

Dave always did the baling. His land is incredibly steep and he was worried about someone losing a bale down off the hill. In 10 years of haying with him I never saw him lose a bale. He knew just how to maneuver in order to have the bale sit perfect every time. On my first trial run I remember losing two. Dave used to wear work boots, jeans, a t-shirt, suspenders, topped off with a straw hat and really cool looking sunglasses. It made him look like a cross between an Amish Terminator and Santa Claus. He would stop and shut everything down. We would sit side by side on our tractors in the field at the height of his land and look up the valley. He would always tell a quick story of times gone by and we would sit there looking out over the town of Royalton. Those were my favorite times with him: side by side. Dave loved his land and the town he had grown up in and I have started to do the same on my farm. Stopping for a minute every once in a while to enjoying a really great view.

Dave loved to tell stories about the farm. Myself and Jimmy have heard every single story at least 10 times. Dave had a knack for over-explaining almost everything. In order to work for him you needed to have a photographic memory, know the history of the farm for the last 200 years and have the sense of direction of a 19th-century explorer. He used phrases like the “sheep hill,” “sugar bush” and “hog yard.” I never saw a single sign of sugaring in the sugar bush field, there hadn’t been hogs in the hog yard in 50 years and as far as sheep on the sheep hill I’m guessing we’re looking at, at least 100 years. But I loved every minute of it. That old VT way of explaining everything. Turn north at the old sugar house and go until you see the birch that’s leaning a little toward Sharon. The sugar house is now a clump of pines and we cut that birch that was leaning 15 years ago year for firewood, but we knew what you meant Dave.

Dave had two laughs. One for truly funny events and one just to make you feel good. His brother Charles has the same laugh. I’m going to miss his laugh and may have to call Charles from time to time to hear it again.

Dave talked a lot about his father George. He really loved and respected him. Every time something would go wrong or we would have hay get wet he would always say, “Boy my dad would sure be impressed. Now what do we do?” Well, Dave always figured out what we were going to do, and I’m sure Dave that even your father, George, had things go to hell and hay get rained on. You did all you could do and I wish you hadn’t been so hard on yourself. Dairy farming is an emotional job. There are a lot of ups and downs. Cows get sick and die, it either rains too much or not enough. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you wake up the next morning, walk to the barn and realize you haven’t seen anything yet. Its physically demanding, long days and short nights. Time off is recorded in hours, not days or weeks. David was a very strong man. He really liked his food, but he was extremely rugged. Back in the day it was nothing to find yourself working until midnight putting dry round bales up on the barn floor. Hundreds at a time. His faithful brother in law Clark hauling two at a time for hours with his pickup. Clark didn’t have a stack in the game but was there every time. Dave would sleep quick and be back out in the barn by 4:30. The next morning everything would be calm, fog in the valley, hum of the vacuum pump, the smell of the fresh hay we had just put in and Bob Sanborn running around in his slippers. The tractors would be cooled off and so would Dave and I and we would be back to being friends again both listening to Roger Hill lying to us on the radio.

This would go on for weeks at a time. I was half his age and I was finding myself trying to keep up. Eventually I did keep up and as time went on I realized just how much this man had taught me. Dave was a wealth of knowledge and I absorbed it all like a sponge. All of what I call my core values of farming I learned from Dave. I’ve tweaked a few things here and there and learned some more from other great farmers, but when I don’t know what to do I always fall back on what Dave taught me.

Dave spoke two languages, English and a cross between old Vermont and maybe Pennsylvania Dutch. Every time someone from out of state would stop to get sweet corn Dave would present himself almost as a tourist attraction. He would use phrases like “T’aint raining” and “T’isn’t going to work,” and I swear to you that the whiter the plate the thicker Dave would lay it on. I loved it and I think he used to get a big kick out of it. “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” was another of his famous lines but he would use that one on even Vermonters.

He always answered the phone when he knew it was me by saying “Hello, sir,” or “Hello, Mr. Chapman.” Lately he had been calling quite a few of us here today on a regular basis. He would call me and ask how the cows were doing and how my family was and then talk for a while about some ideas he had. I wish I had talked to him longer because I’m sure going to miss that “Hello, sir,” that I’ll never hear again.

Dave has a semi-solid manure pit. By semi-solid I mean one side was solid and the other side was pure liquid. He never wanted to use a manure pump and tank spreader like we use today. He has an old single axle New Holland side-slinger. We would haul one load after another a mile up onto his hill every fall to spread his hay land. He would tell me to load it up with some solid manure and then put a little of what he would call “chocolate sauce” on top.

Dave had one story that he used to love to tell to just about anyone who would listen. He would roar with laughter while telling the story of me and the chocolate sauce. One day about 15 years ago while loading manure I got a little careless. Dave had a Case tractor with industrial hydraulics on it so the loader moved really fast. I heard something bang behind me and looked back never letting go of the loader control. Well, when the loader arms maxed out, about 300 gallons of chocolate sauce dumped directly on my head. Peggy hosed me off in the milkhouse like a dog that had been sprayed by a skunk and I dared a cop to pull me over as I sped home to change my clothes. Dave reminded me of that story just months ago as he roared with laughter over the phone. I told him I still can’t put anything on my ice cream as all I can taste is cow manure.

Dave was very fortunate to have shared his life with his amazing wife Peggy. Both of you have been through so much and yet you keep on going, overworked and underpaid, like you always say Peggy. You have always been so nice to me and always welcomed me into your home. Jimmy and I never went hungry. Sometimes I feel we had been maybe a little overfed. Dave and Peggy’s door was always open for a friend or even a passing salesman. Someone was always there.

In keeping with that my wife has tried to do the same. Often feeding our milk truck driver or running a cup of coffee out to the town plow truck. Our employees have always been welcome to sit at my table. She does this because of the stories I tell of how warm and comforting you both have been to me and Jimmy over the years. I believe that that help fuels the loyalty that we both have for you and loyalty is hard to find.

David was also very fortunate to have had Jimmy Kinnarney. You can’t find a worker like him and believe me I’ve tried. Jimmy has milked these cows for the last 18 years. And for the last three years, you can count on one hand how many milkings he has had off. His dedication and knowledge are hard to find in anyone these days. Day after day he has been committed to both of you and kept your farm alive. If it takes a village to raise a child it takes an Irishman to run a farm. Jimmy, thank you for the help you have given my friend.

I know that Dave’s passing was untimely, but it would be selfish of us to have wished he lived a little longer with the pain he was dealing with. My poor friend had been through enough and he chose his favorite time of year to finally let go. He died on a Friday which I think is fitting for any dairy farmer. He fought hard all week and passed on shortly after Jimmy was done milking his cows, completing the week. One of David’s favorite sayings when someone would come in the barn was, we don’t hire on Fridays, but in this case obviously St. Peter does.

This is a poem I found on the internet the other night and I thought it was fitting for Dave here today. (It was written and posted online by Nancy Kraayenhoff, who writes about farming in the Upper Midwest.) It goes like this:

For this one farmer the worries are over, lie down and rest your head,

Your time has been and struggles enough, put the tractor in the shed.

Years were not easy, many downright hard, but your faith in God transcended,

Put away your tools and sleep in peace. The fences have all been mended.

You raised a fine family, worked the land well under the hot summer sun,

Hang up your shovel inside the barn; your work on earth is done.

Your labor is done, your home now is heaven; no more must you wait,

Your legacy lives on, your love of the Land, and yes Dave – we will close the gate

In closing if I would like to remind you all that David Ainsworth was a dying breed of Vermonter. A member of the old guard of our beautiful culture here, he was the type of man that we are losing more and more of every day. The wise old man with the big smile and the kind heart. Back to basics and pure luck and faith. When Merle Howe and George Spaulding and other old farmers pass away, I remember how much dies with them, a whole history of the way things used to be and how they should be now, memories and stories of a way of life that we will never know because they are gone now. So if you know any old timers in your life, these old wise men, do as I did with Dave: Spend as much time as you can talking and working with them and learn all that you possibly can from them before it is too late and they are gone, and that world of knowledge is gone too.

If I could send a message to Dave I would say the farm is in good hands. Jimmy and Peggy have got your chores done. Your neighbors helped get your corn in the ground. After yesterday your first cut is done and between you and I, we both know that it is at least a month earlier than normal. Rest easy old boy and we’ll take it from here. I’m going to miss you, but the memories you have given me will keep me going. Also if you run into Mother Nature can you ask her to give us a little break down here, we sure could use it.

I wish you could see the crowd here today and the one at your farm yesterday. If you wanted to know if you impacted anyone in your life you should just look around. We all loved you and owed you so much for all that you have done for us. You will never be forgotten, as you have instilled in all of us your love of the land and this great state. We love you Dave. Goodbye sir.