August 2, 2010

After 378 years, N.H. family farm goes on market


DOVER, N.H. -- In 1632, John Tuttle arrived from England to a settlement near the Maine-New Hampshire border, using a small land grant from King Charles I to start a farm.

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In this photo last week, Lucy, left, and Will Tuttle pose in a corn field at the family farm in Dover, N.H. Long regarded as the country's oldest family-run farm, the Tuttle farm is up for sale.


Eleven generations and 378 years later, his field-weary descendants -- arthritic from picking fruits and vegetables and battered by competition from supermarkets and pick-it-yourself farms -- are selling their spread, which is among the oldest continuously operated family farms in America.

"We've been here for 40 years, doing what we love to do," said Lucy Tuttle, 65, who runs the 134-acre farm with brother Will. "But we're not able to work to our full capacity any longer, unfortunately."

Tuttle added that she and her brother and their sister have done their best "to lovingly discourage" their children from becoming generation No. 12. "We would be saddling them with a considerable amount of debt," she said.

According to eyewitness accounts, John Tuttle was shipwrecked off the Maine coast before arriving at his land grant, which boasted a mature stand of white pine trees. He cut them down and farmed around the stumps, starting what would become 250 years' worth of subsistence farming by Tuttles.

Throughout, change has been a constant on the farm, which grows sweet corn, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

Lucy Tuttle's grandfather, William Penn Tuttle, built the original 20-acre parcel to about 200 acres, growing more produce than the family needed and selling it in nearby towns -- first on a horse and buggy.

Her father, Hugh Tuttle, who was profiled in 1971 by Life magazine as the last of a dying breed, developed irrigation ponds on the farm and was well-known in New Hampshire for his interest in soil and water conservation work before his death in 2002.

Lucy and Will Tuttle, who grew up in a 1780 farmhouse built by family members, didn't spend their whole lives on the farm.

She lived in Paris for seven years, teaching English. He went to work for an auto dealer in Boston, then worked at Campbell Soup Co. as a sales representative.

She remembers her father contemplating selling the farm.

"I think he felt discouraged," Lucy Tuttle said. "All of a sudden, the three of us came flocking back with our energy."

When they took over, Tuttle and her brother made changes, turning the farm into a year-round business instead of a seasonal one. They built a a new farm stand to replace the family's old red barn -- now used for storage -- and diversified the product offerings to include gourmet cheeses, baked goods, plants and other products.

"They changed their business model with the times in order to stay profitable and stay in business," said Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner. "It's much more than a farm stand."

But the growth of supermarket chains, the emergence of the local food movement -- New Hampshire has more than 80 farmers markets -- and the grueling routine took a toll.

"Eleven generations is unique," said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., a nonprofit policy analysis and advocacy group. "What's not so unique is that farms being operated as family farms for generations are being sold, or at least the family no longer is operating the farm."

Competition from large farms has become much more intense, whether in the Midwest -- where it tends to be for land -- or in New England, where it's likely to be for markets.

"That's put a lot of pressure on family-size operations," he said.

The local food movement has had an impact, too, with consumers growing their own vegetables.

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