Ode to Silos
The truth about these vanishing farming outposts
Photographs by John Stanmeyer
Dreaming a little dream, Bruce Howden leans his head into the rural ruins of his Sheffield barn silo, its top sheared off, its discolored white walls begging for a powerwash. “I’m a crazy nut,” he says, his voice echoing up into 30 feet of cylindrical emptiness, the only thing that’s filled this space in decades. “I’d like to put a hot tub in it and some kind of glass roof. Is that practical? No. Do I have the money to do it? No.”
And with those words, Howden, a pumpkin farmer and president of the Berkshire County Farm Bureau, has summed up the state of affairs for the Berkshire’s barn silos, universally adored—except by actual farmers. While Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield has been famously refurbishing its two silos this past summer, no such luck for the dozens of silos throughout the county, most of which stand in varying stages of disrepair.
A few factors are at play. For one thing, silos are synonymous with dairy farms. While the farming industry remains healthy in Berkshire County, dairy farming does not. Fifty years ago, there were more than 100 dairy farms. Today, about 16. The trend in farming here has turned to vegetables, fruit, and smaller herds of animals that don’t require the massive storage of feed for the winter months required by dairies. But silos’ days were numbered either way as farmers have turned to more convenient and inexpensive methods for feed storage. “One hundred years ago, farmers were probably excited to have them,” says Phil Leahey of Leahey Farm in Lee, “but today—” He holds his tongue, perhaps out of respect for the generations of farmers before him and for the iconic role silos have assumed—standing tall against the backdrop of soft, curving hills, representing all that’s rural, proud and picturesque.
Yes, this is how we like to think of barn silos: “They are beautiful reminders of the past,” says Bob Lafond, a landscape painter from Williamstown and no stranger to the aesthetic virtues of silos. “I lament the disappearance of barn silos and rejoice when I find one I didn’t know about before.”
Still, here’s the reality: For today’s farmers—including Leahey, whose family tore their silo down several years ago—silos are a pain in the butt. Except for a few hold-outs, most notably the Amish, most farmers are abandoning them, opting instead for so-called bunker silos and bag silos, which no landscape artist is in any rush to render. Bunker silos consist merely of two or three sided concrete walls within which silage is mounded up by means of front-end loaders, then covered in plastic and held down with tires—lots and lots of ugly tires. Bag silos are those white plastic wraps covering individual hay bales, like giant marshmallows. They both have the same effect as traditional silos: chopped up corn, grain, or grass can be kept in airtight quarters to ferment.
Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock is one of the few in the county still using a traditional upright silo. Two older silos on Ioka have been decommissioned. When their current silo becomes too much to maintain, Rob and Missy Leab, like most farmers, say they won’t get too sentimental about it. They can’t afford to.
“You need to look at what’s best for the time you’re living in,” says Missy. Nevertheless, traditional silos “were state of the art in their day,” says Robert Laurens, general manager of High Lawn Farm in Lee, which once sported a veritable skyline of silos.
Perfected, as it were, in upstate New York in the late 1800s, the traditional silo provided a reliable, space-saving method to store corn and hay. Farmers would bring cartloads of corn—stalks and all—or hay and run it through a belt-driven machine much like a wood chipper. Once chopped, it would be blown up through a long stack of tin stove pipe that emptied at a gooseneck into the top of the silo. When it came time to use the feed, typically someone would climb up the side ladder, enter the silo through a hatch, and then proceed to shovel the feed from the top, down the silo’s vertical chute, where it was collected and subsequently fed to the animals.
“It was a lot of work and required a lot of upkeep,” says Jay Galusha of Fairfield Dairy in Williamstown, which removed its silos several years ago.
Most of the silos still standing today are made of concrete, steel, or fiberglass, but the earliest versions, such as Hancock’s, were made of wood staves, bound by a series of thin metal hoops. The most popular were from Unadilla Silo Company in Unadilla, New York, which made pre-cut kits. They sold between 30,000 and 50,000 of them beginning in 1906. A few are still standing in the Berkshires.
“You could put them up in a day or two,” recalls Mac Hyney of Fort Plain, New York, who worked for Unadilla until they stopped manufacturing them in the mid 1980s. Hyney, who calls himself “the last of the Mohicans,” was brought in to do the silo renovations at Hancock Shaker Village. “I’ve built hundreds and hundreds of them,” he says. “Nowadays, few people want to put any money into them. They’re a ton of work. People don’t want to monkey with them. It’s a shame.”
Silo owners have three choices: remove them, readapt them, or do nothing and hope they don’t become a hazard. The first two choices cost money. Steve and Meredeth Ford of South Lee opted to fix theirs up, decking it out in perennials and a solar-powered light that clicks on in the evenings, a sort of whimsical shrine to Meredith’s farmer parents.
Across the valley in Tyringham, the owners of the Santarella Estate, Denise Hoefer and Dennis Brandmeyer turned a former silo into a moneymaker—the “Grand Silo Tower Suite,” a featured property on Airbnb. David Lanoue, a Stockbridge builder, renovated a silo in Egremont and turned it into a climbing wall. And across the border, in Mt. Tremper, New York, landowners there converted a silo into what they call the world’s largest kaleidoscope. Even Hancock Shaker Village, which spent $50,000 to renovate its silos, has no intention of actually using them for their original purpose. The working farm and educational center felt obliged to preserve them for the sake of posterity.
Most silo owners are in a similar situation to Howden: in no hurry. In his case, it would take a lot of pumpkins to pamper his weary bones. “Really, there are probably easier ways to have a hot tub,” he says.