Century Farms. A nation's agricultural legacy

''It constantly strikes me that I'm walking on the same soil my ancesters walked on. I wonder if they'd approve of some of the changes,'' muses Hugh Tuttle.

Mr. Tuttle, a vegetable farmer in Dover, N.H., has tilled, planted, harvested , and cared for the same plot of generous New England soil for over 30 years. His ancestors did the same - for over 300 years. Today, his farm is one of the oldest family farms in America.

The Tuttle farm is one of many family farms throughout the United States that , over the years, have been honored by state Granges, extension services, and agricultural departments for their contribution to American agriculture and to the country's heritage. ''Century farms,'' as they are called, are farms that have been owned and worked by one family for 100 years or more. They hold a special place in American history, Mr. Tuttle says, ''just like the Liberty Bell , and Salem, and Philadelphia.''

A countrywide listing of the century farms that dot the rural landscape from Maine to California is hard to come by. But John Schlebecker, an agricultural historian and curator of agriculture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, estimates there may be over 100 in West Virginia alone.

Century farms are not generally known for their historical buildings. Old barns were frequently torn down and reconstructed to accommodate tractors, and original wooden structures often gave way before decades of wind, snow, and rain. The true heritage of the farms lies in its rich legacy of family roots secured by the land.

Present owners can give eighth-, ninth-, and sometimes tenth-hand accounts of their ancestors, who were often among a region's earliest settlers. They'll recall how these old farms served as the immigrant's passport to the New World, how they fed soldiers in Revolutionary War times, and how they nurtured an expanding population in the 1800s.

Over the years, a number of states have undertaken programs to preserve farmland by purchasing development rights from farmers. The states then allow the land to remain agricultural in character. Century farms, along with other farms, have benefited from these efforts. But given continuing pressure on owners to sell their swiftly appreciating land, more needs to be done to protect historic farmlands, says Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture Fredric Winthrop, himself the owner of a century farm.

''Any civilized society tries to perserve what is best in the society . . . and an old farm is maybe one of the most important things because, after all, it is agriculture that really has made this country great,'' he says. ''This country's wealth is really based on it's agricultural wealth. . . .''

Commissioner Winthrop believes one way to preserve farms is to lift some of their tax burden.

''I don't think there should be excise taxes paid for machinery or animals,'' he says. ''That was an 18th century way of measuring a man's wealth - by how many animals he had, and we're still taxing people on the number of animals.''

Some of the oldest of the century farms, and the richest in heritage, are tucked among the river valleys and wooded hillsides of New England. At right are profiles of three such farms and their owners. They are typical of the venerable, family-run operations that have contributed to the rich flavor of America's rural heritage.

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