Plainfield — Fresh out of the University of New Hampshire in 1973, Pooh Sprague wasn’t sure what he would do for a living.
Sprague, now 65, thought about making a career in the music industry — he is a longtime member of the blues-rock band Sensible Shoes — and also considered journalism and forestry.
Eventually, he realized, “I really wanted to work in the outdoors,” Sprague said in a recent phone interview.
Together, he and his wife, Anne — also a UNH graduate, who worked for a time as an elementary school teacher — briefly considered returning to their roots and becoming dairy farmers. Pooh grew up on a dairy farm in Hillsborough, N.H., and Anne is a member of the McNamara clan, which still operates McNamara Dairy in Plainfield.
Deterred by the capital investment needed to get going in dairy — cows, equipment, etc. — and armed with knowledge from some introductory greenhouse classes at UNH, the Spragues eventually decided to grow fruits and vegetables.
Edgewater Farm on River Road in Plainfield was born.
It was one of several fruit and vegetable farms that took root in the Upper Valley in the 1970s, largely run by people like Pooh and Anne Sprague — young people who wanted to work the land and offer an alternative to the mass-produced food that had come to dominate American kitchens in the post-war era.
“We all landed at the right time,” said Pooh Sprague, noting that Upper Valley residents “had enough iceberg lettuce.”
Four decades later, it’s clear that this group of agricultural pioneers changed the relationship between many Upper Valley residents and the food they eat.
Purchasing food directly from the people who grow it — at farmers markets, at farmstands or by buying seasonal shares in a farm’s harvest — has become a practice that is well established, if not widespread.
But as the recent sale of the Killdeer Farm Stand in Norwich has highlighted, those farmers now face their own change — the approach of retirement age and the difficult decision about what to do with the farm operations they have labored so hard to make viable.
The farms and the people who own them are all quite different, so it should come as no surprise that they are pursuing an array of options. Some, like the Spragues, are fortunate enough to have children interested and committed to taking over.
Others find themselves in a more precarious situation.
“We are all in transition,” said Jinny Hardy Cleland, 71, who started Tanyard Farm in West Hartford in the early ’80s and now runs Four Springs Farm in Royalton. Those who have children who are young adults and interested in taking over are fortunate, but “the rest of us are in fragile places.”
A Savvy Group of Operators
With the variety of locally grown food now widely available, it’s easy to forget how much the local agricultural landscape has changed in the last four decades.
Vegetable and berry growers who got started in the ’70s sought to diversify local agriculture and eliminate the middleman, said Bill Lord, a longtime University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension fruit specialist who retired in 2015.
In trying out enterprises such as pick-your-own strawberries, growers brought customers to the farm where they were able to see where the food was produced and meet the people who grew it.
“Bringing people to the farm really helped with confidence building,” Lord said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Strafford, N.H. “It’s more than just getting the product, it’s also buying some peace of mind. That’s an important part.”
Marketing has been key to these growers’ success, said Steve Taylor, a farmer and former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner who lives in Meriden.
“Those who were back-to-the-landers in the late ’60s/early ’70s that have stuck with it tended to be pretty good operators,” Taylor said. “The ones who stayed with it and survived were exemplars of new agriculture ... which is what’s accounting for increases in the number of farms in agriculture in Vermont and New Hampshire.”
In 1973, there were 6,700 farms in Vermont and 3,100 farms in New Hampshire. By 2015, those numbers had increased to 7,300 in Vermont and 4,400 in New Hampshire, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The overall growth in the number of farms in the Twin States came despite a sharp decline in dairy farms.
In 2012, when the last agricultural census was conducted, Vermont had 1,075 dairy farms, down from 4,600 in 1973, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. And New Hampshire had 251 dairy farms in 2012, down from 900 in 1973.
Besides expanding the availability of locally grown products, the fruit and vegetable growers helped diversify the ranks of the region’s farmers, including increasing the number of female farmers, Taylor said.
They have shown themselves to be savvy businessmen and -women. Compared with the dairy farmers of the previous generation, “these people who came in were more marketing people,” Taylor said. They “had more of a focus on selling (and knew) how to motivate people to come and buy.”
A Sense of Community
The Norwich Farmers Market, founded in 1977, is one example of the way back-to-the-landers have made locally grown fruits and vegetables available over the past 40 years. Though the market is still going strong, it has evolved as local produce has become readily available elsewhere — in retail stores, farm stands and through community supported agriculture shares.
A child of the 1960s and ’70s, Wendy Cole baked her own bread, her children wore cloth diapers and she grew more vegetables than her family could eat. She found not just an outlet for some of her extra produce but also a sense of community when she became the Norwich Farmers Market’s first manager after she and her family moved to East Thetford in 1977.
“The whole idea was to create a local outlet for some of our early farms,” Cole said.
Cleland, the current owner of Four Springs Farm, was an early vendor at the Norwich Farmers’ Market. She and her late ex-husband, William Cleland IV, operated Tanyard Farm in West Hartford for 20 years, starting in the early ’80s.
As first-generation farmers, Cleland said, they started growing vegetables and milking a cow to feed their family.
In the early days, customers came to the farmers market to purchase a week’s supply of vegetables. Though they didn’t want to or didn’t have time to raise their own vegetables, they wanted the fresh produce.
“That’s how people lived,” Cleland said. “They were really appreciative of the product. They didn’t want to garden.”
While consumers’ interest in their food and commitment to purchasing local products have continued to grow, where they look for it and in what form has changed.
About five years after the farmers’ market started, Jake and Liz Guest opened Killdeer’s farmstand down the road. Because people could access fresh produce throughout the week, they no longer needed to stock up at the weekly farmers’ market, Cleland said. Community supported agriculture, or CSA, shares, where customers make an upfront financial commitment to a farm in exchange for a weekly supply of vegetables, also affected the way customers get local produce, she said.
“We’re still selling food,” Cleland said. But, we’re “not marketing the same way.”
Making Way for the Next Generation
Cleland no longer grows vegetables. Instead, she hosts farm visitors in cabins she has built on her Royalton farm, she raises chickens and turkeys, she has greenhouses where she grows plants such as pansies, vegetable and herb starts and other flowers, and she operates a bakery and catering business, Buttermilk Bakery, out of a state-licensed kitchen in her home. Her products include granola, balsamic onions, jams and jellies.
“Now that I’m older,” she said, “I’m doing no veggies.”
But now that she’s older, she has to deal with the question of what happens to her farm. Because Cleland’s grown children are not involved with her business, she has been seeking young farm partners to live and work on the farm since she moved to Royalton in 2001, “so I can be here the rest of my life,” she said.
Cleland is not alone in her search for a successor. Several Upper Valley growers are trying to plan for the day when they’ll be farming less, or not at all.
Jake and Liz Guest, who came to agriculture by way of communal living in the 1970s, now wish to work less than the 10 hours a day, seven days a week that has been typical for them during the growing season, Jake Guest said in a December interview.
“I don’t want to keep doing that, but I’m not going to stop altogether,” he said.
As part of their effort to scale back, the Guests, now in their 70s, sold their Route 5 farm stand in Norwich to Tim and Janet Taylor and the Taylors’ colleague Phil Mason, 30, of Crossroad Farm in Post Mills in December.
The Guests will continue to sell some produce through what is now Crossroad Farm Stand and to the Co-op Food Stores. And, this spring, they will sell flowering bedding plants, hanging baskets, perennials, and vegetable and herb starts from their Butternut Road farm and greenhouses.
While making way for the Guests to scale back, the Taylors’ December purchase of the Route 5 farm stand also is intended to advance the Taylors’ retirement plans. They bought their Post Mills farm and started selling vegetables to restaurants on a small scale in the late 1970s.
“If we have a reputation for something, it’s for planning,” said Taylor, who sits on Thetford’s Development Review Board and the state’s District 3 Environmental Commission.
The Route 5 shop will allow the Taylors, now in their 60s, to expand the retail portion of their business. The farm stand — where they will sell their own crops, as well as those of other area growers, cheesemakers and meat producers — will allow Crossroad to take on one to two additional full-time employees, Taylor said.
The plan is for longtime employee Mason, perhaps with another partner, to buy the business from the Taylors. Mason has been working with the Taylors since he was 14.
A Thetford native who now lives in Norwich, Mason started at Crossroad Farm the summer before he began his freshman year at Thetford Academy. Throughout college — he graduated from Colby College in 2008 — Mason returned to the Upper Valley to work on the farm each summer.
Over time, he’s gradually taken over management of the farm’s 30 or so wholesale accounts and the farm’s employees, Taylor said.
“I very quickly realized that I really loved the diversity of the work that farming is,” Mason said in a December interview.
Finding the Next Generation
There are challenges to smoothly transferring a farm to the next generation. In some cases, like that of Edgewater, the farmers’ children — Ray and Sarah — are involved, but in others, like that of Cleland, Killdeer and Crossroad, the farmers’ children have taken different paths.
While young farmers starting out now have the benefit of a variety of diversified farming models to follow or build from, they also have to compete with existing farms, Cleland said.
“The good farmland is already in use,” she said. “Young people coming up have to buy in with us. ... It’s harder than it was when we did it. We’ve got the better land. We’ve got the better place at the farmers market.”
It’s been a challenge for Cleland to find young farmers with the right skill set.
“You have to be young enough, but you have to have built up your skills a little bit,” she said. “It’s important for me that there is a viable farm happening here. I’m still working all the time. It’s not sustainable.”
Mike Ghia, a farm transfer consultant who works in both Vermont and New Hampshire through the nonprofit Land For Good, as well as the University of Vermont Extension Service and the Vermont Farm Viability Program, helps farmers navigate these often tricky steps.
“I work with people over multiple years,” Ghia said. “If they were all cookie-cutter, there wouldn’t be the work for me.”
He advises farmers to begin thinking about a transfer about five years beforehand. He encourages parents to sit down with their children to gauge their interest in continuing the business. Similarly, he tells farmers to consider passing the business on to particularly committed employees.
Once the next owner is identified, Ghia said, it’s important to make sure that person has all the necessary skills to take over. Vegetable businesses can be complex, including retail sales, wholesale, community supported agriculture shares and dozens of (mostly seasonal) employees.
“Somebody doesn’t just walk into that without experience,” Ghia said.
The last thing to change hands often is the real estate, he said. The process there depends on the value of the assets and what the current owners need for their retirement.
“It’s like eating an elephant,” Ghia said. “One bite at a time.”
As Tim Sanford, 64, and his wife, Suzanne Long, 55, of South Royalton’s Luna Bleu Farm age and begin to look to the future, Sanford said they have tried to extend their growing season, reducing the workload in the summer.
The couple has been growing organic vegetables in South Royalton since 1993. They previously farmed in Strafford and Lebanon.
Adding livestock and greenhouses in recent years has helped by “spreading out the cash flow year-round,” Sanford said.
One of the couple’s children, Shona Sanford-Long, is in her 20s and since college has spent time working on farms and learning butchering skills.
There’s no clear plan for her to take over, but it is a possibility, Sanford said.
“Do I retire? ... The last thing you want to do is have it not be a farm anymore,” Sanford said. The “hope is that somebody will come along in one way or another (and) at least take on some aspects of it.”
Peggy Willey, 66, of Wild Hill Organics in West Fairlee, isn’t ready to retire.
Remembering the desire to connect with the land that first drew her to farming decades ago, Willey said, “people just wanted to farm because it was real; there was sheer joy in it.”
Willey, who grew up in Thetford and studied forestry at UVM before moving to her farm in West Fairlee, supplements income from blueberries and cider apples with work as a massage therapist. The massage work is compatible with farming because she can set her own hours, giving her the time she wants to spend on the farm.
“Farming is a devotion,” she said.
Willey is among those who plan to continue farming until they can’t.
“At our age, where you’re still functioning and you don’t want to run off with your grandchildren, it’s hard to keep your thumbs out of it,” she said.
She has no clear succession plan in mind, but maybe the kids will come around to farming as she continues to work, she said.
“It took me 12 years of being on this land before I thought, ‘I’ll never leave it,’ ” she said. That “might happen to your kids too.”
Abby Metcalf, 70, runs the Piermont Plant Pantry. Though Metcalf grew up on a dairy farm in southern New Hampshire, she didn’t initially consider farming as a career because it wasn’t one women were encouraged to pursue at the time.
Instead, she became a teacher and after college, she taught in Merrimack, N.H., for a time. She and her husband, John, returned to his family’s farm in 1973.
It’s work she’s enjoyed, she said. She likes being her own boss and making people happy with the plants, vegetables and pumpkins she grows. She also finds pleasure in laboring with nature’s daily rhythms.
“I wonder sometimes how many people actually see the sunrise and the sunset,” she said.
Though she has no plans to retire — “unless my health goes bad” — she does have a 20-year-old granddaughter, Kathleen Metcalf, helping her out now.
“She’ll work into it, I guess,” Metcalf said.
At Edgewater, the Spragues still have pick-your-own strawberries. Now they also have a busy seasonal farmstand with an on-site kitchen and greenhouses. They sell CSA shares and wholesale to the Hanover Consumer Co-op. The Spragues’ adult children, Sarah and Ray; Ray’s wife, Jenny; and longtime employee Mike Harrington now manage parts of the enterprise.
Passing the farm on to their kids wasn’t always the plan.
“I really kind of didn’t try to put that burden on them,” Sprague said. He told them, “you guys are going to do your thing.”
Even with the “good family core” in leadership roles, retirement planning isn’t simple.
The question remains: “How long the elders can keep up the pace. We’re trying to figure that out.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.