Farms in Transition
When vulnerable farmland changes hands, SELT can help ensure a conservation outcome.
For 100 years Barker’s Farm on Route 33 in Stratham has been a vibrant family farm. It started small in 1917 when Willard Barker and his wife began raising animals and produce for their own uses on a few acres. Three generations later, the farm has grown to 88 acres, with 19 acres under cultivation, 7 greenhouses, and 20 or more seasonal employees. In season, 200 people a day visit the rustic Barker’s Farm Stand and leave with armloads of fresh vegetables, herbs, flowers, strawberries, pumpkins, and myriad other locally grown or made products. When Gordon Barker, great grandson of Willard, died suddenly in 2009, his wife Edie took on all aspects of running the farm and now their daughter Forrest, a recent graduate of Cornell University, is back to help run the family farm.
“Farming is the most rewarding work that you can do,” says Edie Barker (pictured above with daughter Forrest). After a high school semester spent at the Mountain School in Vermont, Forrest knew she wanted to be on her family farm. With a degree in Agricultural Sciences and concentration in sustainability, she is now focused on keeping the farm soils healthy.
In the next two decades, seventy percent of New England farmland is likely to change hands. Securing a farm legacy has substantial challenges, including financial, legal, and family complexities. Farms in southeastern New Hampshire also face increasing development pressures. Already one of the most densely populated parts of the state, this region is expected to absorb much of the state’s projected growth by 2020. SELT is tackling this trend by using conservation easements to help farmers like Edie and Forrest meet their unique needs and ensure private farmland stays productive and viable.
Bob Hills has five beautiful, brown Jersey cows on his Chesley Mountain Farm in central Farmington. The 52-acre farm lies along a quiet, gravel road and borders the Rattlesnake River, which flows northeast to the Cocheco River. The house sits on the crest of land, with hayfields and pastures gently sloping away on each side. After retiring, Hills bought this place in 2013 and is thoughtfully rejuvenating the land. He has built two barns by himself—one for the cows and one for equipment—and, using cow manure and wood ash, he’s making the fields more fertile for hay and grazing. Like Hills, the cows are gentle and friendly. He plans to grow this small herd to provide fresh milk to local cheese makers and other dairy artisans.
“I want to see this land stay as a farm for future generations and not be developed, ” says Hills, who is working with SELT and the Farmington Conservation Commission to place a conservation easement on his farm.
Steve Harriman is the fourth generation of his family to work the 205-acre Bedard Farm along Route 108 in Durham. When Harriman’s great aunt and uncle passed away, the farm was left to 13 heirs, a complexity that took a few years to sort out. Fortunately, all the heirs wanted the farm to stay in the family and supported Steve’s desire to resume active farming. The 1914 stone farmhouse sits atop a knoll at the end of a long, gravel driveway that bisects the hayfield, and commands a sweeping view of the fields and sunsets. In addition to raising chickens–a large friendly flock greets any visitor–Harriman plans to continue haying the fields and raise Belted Galloway beef cows on pasture. As part of a large block of conserved land that extends out to Great Bay, Harriman likes that the farm is home to wildlife too. A conservation easement with SELT will help Harriman feel more secure about long-term investments in the farm. “I would like to create a setting where the public can visit the farm, where kids can see the animals,” says Harriman.
“Successful farms need markets for their products, farmers to work the land, and access to affordable, productive farmland,” says Jeremy Lougee, Conservation Project Manager at SELT. “Our role is to secure the land and ensure that it remains productive for future generations.” Many SELT partners help these farms thrive. Seacoast Eat Local supports year-round farmer’s markets, connecting farmers and customers. UNH Cooperative Extension, Conservation Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, and Land for Good mentor farmers and guide them in land use and business planning.
The farmers’ hard work and their willingness to conserve their land benefits their communities in other ways too. Each of these farms safeguards the water quality of streams, wetlands, and groundwater that lies on or under their farmland—a value that extends well beyond their boundaries. Barker’s Farm links to the Gordon Barker Town Forest and other conserved lands at Stratham Hill Park, which together host 10 miles of popular public trails for hiking, running, and mountain biking. Barker’s Farm is such an important part of the community that the 2017 Stratham Town Meeting voted unanimously to contribute $400,000 toward the conservation easement.
Farmers cherish their farms and their connection to community as summed up by Edie Barker: “Providing our incredibly supportive community of Stratham and surrounding towns with healthy food is why we farm.”
by Ellen Snyder
Your SELT membership dollars support our ability to work with farmers like Edie, Forrest, Bob, and Steve to help advance farmland conservation for the future of our special region. We are proud to be doing this work – Thank you for making it possible! Renew your membership or join today
photos by Jerry Monkman