Warner farm is protected from development but financial success is far from assured
|Published: 01-02-2023 8:08 PM
A years-in-the-making conservation easement has settled the immediate future of a family vegetable farm in Warner, but that doesn’t mean it won’t face further problems. Consider porcupines.
“They were all over the place this year. We didn’t do a good job protecting our gourds and squash from them,” Jenn Pletcher, owner of Pletcher’s Farm, said, gesturing at an 8-foot fence that kept deer out of one of her fields. “The porcupines went right under it.”
And then there are turkeys. Don’t get her started on turkeys. “They are the biggest pest. They really like young lettuce,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re going to have to go with electric fences.”
As dismaying as this may be, however, it is finance and field work rather than fencing that really worries operators of small farms like Pletcher’s.
Asked how financially viable the farm is, Pletcher laughed ruefully. “It’s not,” she said. Markets are shifting, many costs are rising and the whole ecosystem of New England small farms is in flux.
“I’m not sure about how to be fair to your labor, how to pay them fairly, and still have lettuce that people can afford,” she said. “If we couldn’t offer housing, I’m not sure we could have staff.”
Pletcher’s Farm, often known as the Vegetable Ranch, is not one of those New England farms with agricultural roots going back centuries. Its story is more common: It was started by a non-farmer making a midlife change.
Larry Pletcher, a lawyer from New Jersey, got interested in organic gardening after he and his wife Carol moved to Warner. By 1988 the garden had grown into the Vegetable Ranch — “Dad was always excited about lettuce” — and had become one of the first certified-organic farms in the state. Over the years it grew, although not too much, and went through a series of agricultural experiments including a flirtation with raising pigs even as organic vegetables and greens remained its core.
As he entered his 70s, Larry Pletcher became concerned about preserving the property from development and entered into discussions with Concord’s Five Rivers Conservation Trust to do just that. But he succumbed to a surprise heart attack at age 74 before the work was done, leaving it to Carol and daughter Jenn to carry on.
On Nov. 30 the job was finished when Jenn Pletcher signed an agricultural conservation easement on 121 acres of land stretching on either side of Kearsarge Mountain Road, a few miles outside Warner town center. The payment totaled $261,000, much of it from a state LCHIP grant but also some $40,000 collected from more than 150 donors, many in the immediate area.
“There is flexibility within the framework of the easement,” said Sarah Thorne, a board member for Five Rivers who was the project manager for the easement. Most of the farm is wooded and can stay that way, or it can be turned into farmland with new agricultural buildings as necessary, or the current farmland can be turned into woodlots if that is what works, she said.
“It’s flexible as long as the fertility of the land is conserved. That’s the important thing,” Thorne said.
Jenn Pletcher was born and raised on this property, graduating from the Derryfield School before going off to Cornell for college. She is now an emergency room nurse in Lowell, Mass., but never lost contact with the farm.
“I’m surprised how much I gleaned from my father when he was around,” Pletcher said during a recent tour of the greenhouses and fields. She admits she’ll need all the knowledge she can get and then some, now that it’s up to her to keep the farm going.
Consider, for example, Swiss chard and kale. These two leafy greens are popular but, for whatever reason, not in the same places. “They’re great for stores but not farmers markets,” Pletcher said. She’s trying to get approved to sell them in grocery stores but that’s up in the air; so how much of each should she grow? Good question.
Pletcher is experimenting with some egg-laying and meat chickens, but not too many. She has a small herd of goats, whose appetites help turn recently forested areas into fields. Direct sales, including a winter CSA, remain the bulk of the farm’s income but what’s really needed is a steady income stream. Ideas range from perennial crops like peaches to becoming a “retirement home” for old horses.
As part of the easement, Five Rivers Conservation Trust will help Pletcher plan and react to changes, including paying the NH Farm Futures fund to provide technical assistance in future years, “to help enable the farm to be financially successful,” said Thorne.
Hanging over everything, however, is the problem of labor, a problem shared by everybody in agriculture.
The Vegetable Ranch has 10 or so workers in mid-season and only one full-time staff member and two part-timers in winter, but finding even those small numbers can be tricky.
Pletcher credits Farm Manager Molly Alfonso, a graduate of Kearsarge High School, with recruiting and training workers but said it’s a constant struggle made much worse by the housing shortage. There’s a small house on the property, separate from the home where Pletcher lives, that has been invaluable as housing for workers, but it might make more financial sense to rent it out and use the money to lure staff with higher pay. There are no easy answers.
All this explains a painful fact: Local food is usually more expensive, sometimes a lot more expensive, than food trucked in from a factory farm out west that takes advantage of automation, very strict labor practices, large-scale pesticide and herbicide use and economies of scale.
This cost can produce customer pushback at farmers markets, Pletcher said. “People say: You’re charging this much for lettuce?!?”
And she’s sympathetic. “I understand why they’re buying the cheapest lettuce they can possibly buy. I see both sides.”
But in the long run, she said, local farms have benefits that are hard to measure in money. “From a public health perspective, we are healthier if we have access to green space, if we have access to healthier food. That’s what we’re trying to do.”