Century Farms; The Appleton farm, Ipswich, Massachusetts

Joan E. Appleton is a habitual early riser. By three a.m. she's up without fail, puttering down the pitch black drive to the dairy barn where her daily chores begin. In the wee morning hours she's met by the farm's manager, James Geiger, and a mooing herd of 40 Holsteins and Jersies.

Her example of unremitting hard work brings to mind the sturdy New England farm women who persevered down the centuries. One word, however, and it's clear that Joan is a relatively new arrival on these rockbound shores. Her accent is unmistakably British, even after 50 years as a New Englander.

Her husband, Francis R. Appleton Jr., passed on in 1974, and it is now for him and for ''future generations'' that Mrs. Appleton devotes herself to the daily labor of keeping the farm going.

''It was my husband's wish that we keep the land open in perpetuity,'' she says, indicating with a wave the farm's 1,000 acres of broad, rocky pastureland, woodlands, and fields.

''In order to keep the land open you've got to keep it productive, and to keep it productive you've got to have stock,'' she explains.

Thus, when her husband was gone Joan slipped on the overalls and began mowing the fields and making decisions concerning the 346-year-old farm, with the help of her manager. Today, she tends two herds: one of ''dairy people'' (her affectionate name for the reddish-brown Jersey and black-and-white Holstein cows), and a second of Beefalo, a cross of cattle and bison that is known for high-protein meat and ''cozy fur.''

Francis Appleton was the 9th generation to farm this land. Preceding him was his father, Francis, his grandfather, Francis Randall, and his great grandfather , Daniel Fuller. And back before them all was the original Samuel Appleton. In December 1638 Samuel Appleton was deeded about 1,000 acres by the town of Ipswich and the following spring plunged his wooden plow into the New England soil.

''It's been farmed ever since the days of old Samuel,'' says Joan Appleton of this picture-book farm, with its peacocks prancing about and ancient stone walls capped with carved lions.

''There used to be a lot of market gardening done; the produce used to be taken into Boston by horse and cart,'' explains Mrs. Appleton, touching on the farm's history.

''And then there's always dear old Eurotissima,'' she adds, referring to a prized Jersey dairy cow that won the title of world's record butterfat producer at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Today, the farm hosts another record-breaker. Blandina, Joan's ''great girl,'' has been cited as the top New England milk producer, supplying enough milk for about 22 families a year.

As idyllic as it may sound, however, the farm has had its struggles, both past and present. Its pastures border the creeping suburbia of Ipswich.

Some time ago it became apparent to the Appletons that something would have to be done to preserve the farm. Through an arrangement with the Trustees Of Reservations - a Massachusetts-based, privately administered organization founded in 1891 to preserve ''places of natural beauty and historic interest'' - a portion of the Appleton land is periodically set aside for such public use as cross-country skiing and walking.

Seated in the golf cart that ferries her about the farm, Joan Appleton talks about her desire to keep the farm intact.

''You're living on the land, you love the land,'' she says earnestly, ''and you want to keep it open for future generations. If you don't, what are they going to have?

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