New England's small farms: their numbers and importance are growing

John Hoy raises sheep on his 21 acres in Pepperell, Mass., a small town about 50 miles northwest of Boston. He also has a full-time job as president of the New England Board of Higher Education.

Jim and Nancy Doughtery raise hogs, chickens, cattle, and vegetables in New Milford, Conn. They moved up from New York City three years ago. He is a steamfitter. She is a bank vice-president.

Thousands of people exactly like the Doughterys and Mr. Hoy are the driving force behind the current resurgence of small farms in New England. According to the Crop Reporting Board, New England farms, most of them small, have increased nearly 17 percent since 1975.

And experts say the comeback has only begun. Small farms in the Northeast will increase 18 percent more by 1990, projects Howard Kerr, coordinator of small farm research for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The number of small farms is increasing in other parts of the country, too, agricultural experts point out. But the spurt of growth in small farms is especially vital in New England, where more than three-quarters of the food is imported.

Susan Rochford of the New England Congressional Caucus repeats a warning in a recent report that the fragile New England food system has only a two-week supply if a truckers' strike, energy crisis, or some other calamity should interrupt the flow of food.

The main reasons for the resurgence: life style and money. These aren't ''gentleman farmers'' or ''hobby farmers,'' says George McLeary of the University of Connecticut cooperative extension service in Litchfield County, in the northwestern corner of Connecticut.

''These guys are out to make money on (farming),'' he says. ''They want to become self-sufficient and gain control over the cost of living in the face of rising prices.''

''Some of the people simply want more control of their own destinies, their own environment. They're producing most of their own food and selling some of it to supplement their income,'' says Maine Agricultural Commissioner Stewart Smith. The number of part-time farmers in Maine doubled between 1974 and '78.

The part-timers are seeking markets for their crops just as Americans are changing their diets to include more fresh fruits and vegetables. The result: more direct marketing outlets, such as farmer's markets, roadside stands, and pick-your-own fruit and vegetable places.

But don't expect food prices to be cheaper at these outlets, despite the cutting out of the middleman. The direct markets expect to charge just as much as chain stores. ''They don't have to sell the produce more cheaply, but they can charge as much as the chain stores, because the vegetables are fresher and the flavor is better,'' says Mr. Kerr.

State agriculture officials agree that connecting the new small farmers with potential markets is a crucial step. They see state agriculture offices as evolving from regulatory agencies into marketing and promotion. Almost all New England states have promotion programs to keep food dollars at home. Logos, bumper stickers, and buttons trumpet the virtues of locally grown produce.

The region has several advantages that aid small farm growth. Most important, experts say, the market is here - with New England's compact size, the city is almost on the doorstep of the farm. And water is plentiful in most of New England, making it possible to farm near major metropolitan centers, where water supplies usually tend to be tight.

Another phenomenon bolstering the move toward small farms is the pattern of splitting big farms into smaller parcels which the young professionals-cum-farmers are able and increasingly willing to buy. Howard Kerr calls it a return to old-fashioned virtues and values represented by the quiet, rural life.

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