379-year-old NH farm unsold but gets new farmers

It's a good season for the beloved sweet corn on the 379-year-old Tuttle Farm. It also looks good for the crops that weren't there a year ago, produced by a group of visiting young farmers — eggplant, peppers, pumpkins and sunflowers.

The New Hampshire farm, one of the oldest continuously operated family farms in America, raised a lot of interest — and emotion — a year ago when members of the 11th generation of Tuttles announced they were putting it up for sale. Faced with debt and their own mortality, they said the 12th generation is either too young or too entrenched in other careers. A bit of history and tradition was drawing to a close.

Today, the 135-acre farm is still on the market, even though the asking price has been dropped $800,000, from $3.35 million to $2.55 million.

While the Tuttles wait for a buyer amid an uncertain economy, a new group of farmers unrelated to the family is helping to keep the operation going, trying a variety of crops, livestock and organic farming practices, and may even stay on after it's sold. They receive coaching and equipment from a nonprofit group that acts as a business incubator for farmers.

The enterprise is a first for New Hampshire but is a type of organization that has caught on throughout the country in recent years, from North Carolina to California. New Hampshire's was inspired in part by the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vt., which leases equipment, land, greenhouses and storage areas to small, independent farms.

"We need to grow some more farmers here," said Suzanne Brown, founder of the 2-year-old New Hampshire Institute of Agriculture and Forestry, who used to live on a small farm in Chester. "The average age is 56, and two-thirds of our farmers lose money."

She said the Tuttles' story is a familiar one — "farmers getting to a place where they want to retire, they can't, they just can't keep up pace with what's happening with the markets. They would want to transition over to family members, but there's nobody there."

The small group of resident farmers, apprentices and interns started a campaign this year to "Grow Tuttle's Farm."

Jameson Small and Patrick Gale of Rollinsford, both 23, worked for the Tuttles last year, weeding and harvesting and following orders. This year, they are resident farmers, so they have more autonomy.

"I'm not learning to farm; I am farming," Small said. "That's really the big thing that hit us — wow, we're farmers now. ... If something goes bad, it's our mistake. If something goes great, it's our glory."

One of their highlights is a big patch of sunflowers. They plan to produce sunflower oil for cooking, which Small thinks he'd like to specialize in, eventually. It's not commonly produced in New England.

The Tuttles — siblings Becky, Will and Lucy — range in age from 59 to 66. They are happy to see the young farmers.

With the exception of a cousin, Becky said, she never knew a young farmer while growing up. Today, she's seeing more of them at farmers' markets. "It's just such a great, great trend because I really did used to wonder, 'Who's going to grow the food? There isn't anybody learning how to grow food in the next generation.'"

"It's such a wonderful solution," Lucy Tuttle said. "Where the farm has always been kind of a losing proposition on the retail side of the business, a nonprofit can absorb that."

While it's not unusual for a farm to be on the market after a year, the Tuttles think it's a bit of a mystery, even with the fragile state of the economy.

Dover, a few miles from Maine, has grown and developed around the property, designated as conservation land since 2006, meaning the land itself can't be developed into strip malls or condos.

"One of the unique things about this farm other than the history is that a 22,000-car-a-day road goes right through the middle of it," Will Tuttle said. "Most farms — you've got to work to get there."

The farm began in 1632 when John Tuttle arrived from England, using a small land grant from King Charles I to start his enterprise. The Tuttles' grandfather, William Penn Tuttle, built the original 20-acre parcel to about 200 acres. Their father, Hugh Tuttle, was profiled in 1971 by Life magazine as the last of a dying breed of family farmers.

Two investors who've expressed interest in the land want to continue to keep an organic farm operation, said Dan Barufaldi, the city's economic development director. They also want to find someone who can manage a possible on-site restaurant in the barn serving the locally grown food and branding the Tuttle name on products such as tomato sauce made from the farm's tomatoes and pesto from its basil.

"This is something that's very important to the city of Dover, not only because it's an icon," Barufaldi said. "It also is going to add a tourism attraction, it's going to be an educational attraction, it's going to be a wonderful to have a source for locally grown organic vegetables."