Staying down on the farm. New Hampshire family adapts to keep their `island of farmland' thriving amid urbanization

Steve Taylor, New Hampshire commissioner of agriculture, describes Hugh Tuttle's farm, the oldest continuously held family farm in the United States, as ``an island of beautiful farmland'' surrounded by urbanization on all sides. Preserving that ``island'' - 240 acres located near scenic Great Bay, a large inland saltwater bay connected to the Atlantic by the Piscataqua River - takes ingenuity on the part of Mr. Tuttle and his family. And in a region marked by rapid residential and commercial development, it also takes cooperation on the part of the surrounding community.

Acknowledging the high market value of his family's farmland, Tuttle says, ``We don't want to be millionaires. We want to be able to make a decent living - enjoy a little free time, educate the next generation, and so on.''

To attain those unpretentious goals, the Tuttles have long kept an eye on ways to adapt their farm to the changing social environment around them.

Tuttle and his wife, Joan, representing the 10th generation of Tuttles on this land, began retailing vegetables grown on the farm in 1956. They expanded that part of their business significantly in the mid-1970s. ``Tuttle's Red Barn,'' became a landmark along the New Hampshire seacoast.

``We can't afford to wholesale anymore,'' says Tuttle, a lean man with a kindly face and ready smile.

Agriculture commissioner Taylor confirms this.

``Retail operations are crucial,'' says Mr. Taylor, ``farmers will have to be able to sell retail, not wholesale, in order to survive in these areas.''

Much of the credit for the success of their growing retail operation, Tuttle emphasizes, goes to his children.

``My whole background is agriculture, and my love of agriculture - I didn't learn all the fine points of marketing,'' the family patriarch explains as he waters potted chrysanthemums in the greenhouse attached to the converted red dairy barn turned store.

As the three Tuttle children finished college they all went into other things, but have since surprised their parents by returning to the family farm.

``The kids picked up some interesting skills along the way,'' says Tuttle.

Son Bill, whom Tuttle describes as ``the brains of the farm in terms of buying, et cetera,'' was a sales representative for Campbell's Soup in the Boston area, a job that provided a lot of experience in professional retailing. Bill and his two children now live on the farm.

``Bill's really running the place at this point,'' says the elder Tuttle.

Daughter Lucy excelled in languages in school, and the Tuttles rewarded her on her graduation from college with a trip to Europe so she could put her fluent German and French to use. Lucy liked France so much that she took a job with Berlitz teaching English to French businessmen and stayed in Paris for seven years.

Eventually, her father says, she missed her home and returned to New Hampshire. Lucy is now responsible for the wide selection of imported gourmet foods and cheese offered at Tuttles' Red Barn.

Younger daughter Becky Schultz loves the outdoors and growing vegetables, according to her father. She is currently busy operating a clam hut in nearby Kittery, Maine, with her husband, but Tuttle is hoping she will be able to be involved with the farming operation again.

Although happy to have his children interested in the farm business, Tuttle admits to some strain on the farm's income-producing capacity.

``We had to go from a one-family farm to a four-family farm - really a seven-family farm including our key employees'' - for instance, Rick and Janet Cerilli, close family friends who manage the greenhouse operation.

With land selling at $25,000 to $40,000 an acre, and no open land left close by, Tuttle says the option of buying additional acreage for farming is out. He is not interested in acquiring distant parcels, having to travel with farm equipment up and down the highways.

The only alternative is to make more intensive use of the land they own and expand their retailing business.

``We see all these houses and businesses being built, and we see that they need a lot of landscaping,'' says Tuttle, explaining plans to expand their farm store and greenhouse considerably.

``We're getting into nursery stock in a big way,'' he says.

And this is where cooperation from the community comes in.

Tuttle, a former member of the Dover Planning Board and long a supervisor of the Strafford County Conservation District, knew just how to go about getting the needed approvals for his expansion.

Before beginning the approvals process, he contacted each neighbor personally and showed them his plans.

``We had a pretty darn good relationship with the city,'' the farmer affirms.

The Tuttle farm is located in a single-family residential zone, Tuttle says, so ``even though our farm was here before the City of Dover was even thought of, we are an existing non-conforming use and must have a variance to expand.''

Dover Planning director Bill Collins notes the farm had no little problem getting the three required approvals.

Dover is experiencing ``extremely fast, unprecedented growth, and any remaining farms, particularly the Tuttle farm, are a breath of fresh air as you drive past,'' he says.

Over the years, the Tuttles have had to change the crops that they grow and offer to meet the changing tastes of their customers and to maintain the profitability of their operation.

``Some crops are not profitable, but we must offer them - and we cannot get the quality that we insist on any other way than growing them ourselves,'' says Tuttle.

Examples of such unprofitable but necessary crops are fresh bunched beets and carrots and leaf lettuce.

They purchase fresh vegetables and fruits for resale to supplement what they grow themselves, and to fill out the winter season when native New England produce is not available.

``Thank God for California,'' says Tuttle, where the growing season is almost year-round.

Commissioner Taylor worries about restrictions communities are putting on farm retail markets, such as requiring that 50 percent of merchandise sold must be produced on the premises.

If farmers cannot make a living, they cannot continue to farm.

Hugh Tuttle notes that ``The home-grown produce is what the customers come for, but it's the purchased for resale merchandise which makes money.''

By being considerate and cooperative with his neighbors, most of whom have lived near the farm for years, Tuttle has largely avoided many of the problems farmers encounter when farming in densely settled areas. The Tuttles encourage their neighbors to walk on their land and enjoy it.

A thoughtful conservationist, Tuttle tries to limit his use of pesticides, and does most spraying on Mondays, when the store is closed.

``We intend to survive because we're doing what we want to do,'' says Tuttle, ``and we will survive, providing the ever-stiffening regulation of our home community doesn't become so restrictive as to make it impossible.''

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