HOPKINTON, N.H. — Perched on a verdant hilltop in New Hampshire's midlands, Beech Hill Farm is one of America's oldest dairy farms - complete with a cluster of 19th-century red-roofed barns and a towering gray silo. Yet it's also one of the most modern farms around - so modern, in fact, that it doesn't have any cows.
Several years ago, seventh-generation owners Bob and Donna Kimball were faced with falling milk prices, rising debt, and a dim future. So they decided to do something drastic: They sold all 150 dairy cows and set up a mega farm-stand, which includes an ice cream shop, petting zoo, corn maze, and concert venue in the old "Cow Palace" barn. Forget milk and cows; it's herds of tourists they're after now.
The transformation makes Beech Hill a kind of prototype for the new American family farm. And it represents one of the increasingly radical steps New Englanders are taking to save their iconic farms. Farmers are learning Madison Avenue-style marketing techniques and setting up Disney-like attractions.
Everyone from nonprofits to state and local governments are increasingly pushing to save farms for two basic reasons: They are key to reeling in tourists and their cash. And they're crucial to preventing suburban sprawl from consuming the countryside. It all adds up to a fundamental shift in the value and values of New England farming.
"We've gone from cows to computers," says Holly Kimball Rhines, summing up the changes at Beech Hill. She and her father, Bob, created the farm's new website last winter from scratch. As with many elements of the transformation, it was a big challenge. "It would have been a lot less painful if we had hired someone," she says with a laugh.
But recreating the family farm - and doing it on the cheap - is part of surviving in an increasingly tough market. The number of farms in New England's six states has dropped from 190,900 in 1910, to 63,100 in 1960, to just 27,000 last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Just as at the Kimball farm, the number of cows region wide also fell by 13 percent in the past decade, to 540,000.
The downsizing is driven by everything from competition from Midwestern mega farms to the 2001-end of the New England Dairy Compact, which set milk prices at above-market rates. These days, for all their mythic charm, farms are no longer a significant part of the economy. "I don't think anyone's pretending there's a direct economic benefit" from farms, says Andre Mayer, president of the New England Economic Project.
Instead, farms have become means to other ends - including luring tourists, who are seeking the region's quaint villages and barns and who love to shop at farm stands, including at Beech Hill.
Inside its low-slung former dairy barn, the Kimballs and their teenage employees dole out premium ice cream flavors like Jazzberry Java and Moose Tracks. Then patrons stop by the sundae bar to add hot fudge, whipped cream, cherries, pineapples, and chocolate sprinkles.
Over in the soaring former "Cow Palace" barn, there's now an informal theater, which the Kimballs created with some pews they snagged from a Salvation Army sale. They now invite local bands to play. It's all about boosting traffic to sell ice cream, explains Donna Kimball, the white-haired family matriarch. As part of the farm's marketing campaign, she has voiced local radio ads. She also developed the farm's motto: "A tasteful destination."
Here the animals even get into the act. Cosmo the dog wags his tail at approaching visitors. Almost on cue, Porky and Petunia - the petting zoo's pigs - waddle over to guests and wiggle their noses obligingly.
When the Kimballs began this adventure, they didn't know if they could pull it off, says Donna. "But it's taken off like gangbusters." They even had to add a new parking lot recently to accommodate all the visitors. And after years of being in debt, they have paid off the mortgage. Bob also got to buy a new tractor - the first one in his lifetime.
There are growing pushes to preserve open space. Beech Hill's hometown, Hopkinton, was one of about 25 New Hampshire towns that voted to spend money on it this year. The town of 5,200 is now creating an open-space committee that's responsible for spending up to $5 million to add to the 15,000 acres in town already protected from development.
This prevents sprawl from spreading and saves the town money, explains Hopkinton town administrator Ed Wojnowski. If developers build subdivisions, the town must pave new roads and expand schools. By contrast, open space is cheap, he says.
And there's some evidence that New England's farm-saving efforts are working: The number of farms in New England remained steady in 2000 and 2001.
Meanwhile, the Kimballs and other families soldier on, putting their Yankee ingenuity to work. "You do the best with what you've got," says Donna Kimball. "And so far that's working pretty well."