Our Green Valley




Plainfield, N.H: The field is not plain, despite the name. It is on a plain — a plain renowned for a fertility borne of the work of a hundred million years.It was in the warmth of the Mesozoic Era that the Connecticut River came into being. The attractive crush of continents had given rise to Pangaea, but then the masses shifted, grindingly, into reverse. North America and Europe, once bedfellows, turned their backs on each other, slowly opening an ocean vastness between them.There had been another, smaller plate of continent at Pangaea's creation. Geologists call it Avalonia, and it contained New Hampshire, Maine, Nova Scotia, and all of the British Isles. When North America and Europe collided, Avalonia got caught between them. Its solid body heaved with the impact, thrusting up a chain of mountains higher than the Himalayas. Finally, the two giants ended their rough relations, and they separated, each still clinging to Avalonia and tearing it apart in the process.It was not a clean break. A rift developed, long and narrow, between New Hampshire and Vermont along the eastern edge of North America. Soon, water flowed in this rift, bathing the wound and binding the misfit plates together. By the millions, years passed, and with them came sediment, layer upon layer, brought downstream from the slow erosion of the Appalachians. When the last glacier began to recede from New England, melt-water deposits in southern Connecticut dammed up the great river and created Lake Hitchcock, a giant, flooding pool that worked its way north, filling the rift valley for centuries and added a new kind of sediment — lake-bottom mud — to what would become New Hampshire's premier farmland.It's been 12,000 years since the dam broke and the lake drained. Today cars cut through in zooming parades, riding atop the miles of pavement that follow the ancient contours of the river and its hills. Passengers — tourists and locals alike — gaze out onto the beauty of the land, where corn leaves rustle with the movement of cool air, and the roots of the grasses have little need to stretch. The soil is world-class, and the farmers who tend it also revere it.On the walls of the Plainfield Town Hall, Maxfield Parrish's luminescent artistry finds a fitting home, for the light of his scenery, drawn from these landscapes, is no exaggeration. Down the road, inWalpole, chocolatier Larry Burdick sees the light, too. When asked why he left New York City to set up shop in the Valley, he has a simple explanation: “It's just so beautiful around here, and I wanted a place to raise my kids that was beautiful. That's it in a nutshell. I didn't check on what the taxes were.” And the moment he opened Burdick's Restaurant, he started sourcing locally. He did it, he says, “to support the local economy. And support farmers. If they stay in business, the area stays beautiful, the reason I moved here to begin with. It's really just a straightforward thing. Agriculture keeps an area beautiful and undeveloped.”Beauty can hold a community together, just as the roots of crops and trees can hold together a soil full of wealth and nourishment. Beauty makes people want to hold on; makes them protective. To hold on, many have found, requires a kind of work and support that brings people face to face with each other and with the land. They see the value in each other as part of the very landscape they love. So, to save the beauty, they make a community, and they make a community by saving the beauty. It is always like this.Nancy Franklin, a Plainfield orchardist, has done that kind of community-building, beauty-saving work. For three years she served on a committee with Vital Communities, out of White River Junction, Vt., to help major institutions learn how to source food as locally as possible. As a result, both Dartmouth College and the Co-op Food Stores have become conduits for a fresh, local food supply in the Upper Valley.These days Franklin continues her preservation work as the New Hampshire Chair for the Connecticut River Joint Commissions. These commissions acknowledge the binding force the river has always had on these two states. From her front porch, Franklin can see Vermont, just next door, and she can feel the breeze and experience the loveliness of the old river she has taken pains to protect. Behind her home is the Riverview Farm apple orchard she shares with her husband Paul. In the easy valley soils, some say, you can plant the trees “with a dibble.” Rock picking is for hill dwellers.Larry Burdick is not a farmer; he's a chocolatier. Still, his support for agriculture has made him a vital part of the rural community he loves, despite the newcomer label he might always have to wear in a town that reaches back through the generations to the middle of the 18th century. He understands the connection between what he does and what he values all around him. Because he deals in food and feeding, he's perfectly placed to make a difference.He's not alone. All over New Hampshire, restaurateurs are making an effort to bring to the table some of the wealth of the land around them. One organization built to encourage such efforts is the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection. On its Web site (www.nhfarmtorestaurant.com) is a list of restaurants that buy from local farmers.The Upper Valley section of the list includes Canoe Club, on South Main Street in the center of Hanover, and in the Monadnock Region, Lilly's on the Pond in Rindge, is listed along with Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy.Up and down the Valley, people are getting the connection between farming and the beauty of the rural landscape. And they're translating their understanding into real support.Some people shop at their local farmers market every week, on principle. Others participate in CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — and buy shares of one farm's produce all through the growing season. A few supermarket managers have even carved out “local produce” sections of their stores. Because of these deliberate feel-good, taste-good efforts, more farms now have the chance to survive.Getting people to “get it” has been a chief task and goal for Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire's Agriculture Commissioner. A veteran dairy farmer and former school teacher, Merrill is working hard to help people understand the impact of farming on the landscape of our state. “We estimate here in the Department of Agriculture that 80 percent of New Hampshire's farmland — actual crop land — is supported by dairy cows. So, it's a big footprint on our landscape.” The corollary is this: if you like the scenic New Hampshire farmland, you have to support the farms. They don't just support themselves.Years ago, that kind of understanding came more easily, because farms were more than the pretty pictures you see now on the supermarket packages. They were all around you. You understood that the open acres of corn and hay were directly connected to the butter you bought from the creamery — or maybe even strained out of the buttermilk from your own churn.On this famously fertile edge of the state, away from the state's larger population centers, plenty of residents have grown up with this understanding and have simply never lost it. Steve Taylor, Commissioner Merrill's predecessor and fellow dairy farmer, is one of those people, and he knows a thing or two about the Valley's agricultural traditions. He grew up on a Plainfield farm, moved away to pursue journalism and then settled back onto another farm in Meriden, one of Plainfield's three villages.At first he and his wife had only a handful of animals, but the numbers steadily increased as Taylor decided to give his three sons the same, direct experience with the land that his parents had given him. His sons now own the Taylor dairy business and sugar house, and each has shouldered an active responsibility for maintaining the community that nurtured them: one is the Enfield director of community development, another runs the Meriden Village precinct and the third is a Plainfield town selectman.Despite their lack of agricultural pedigree, many of the newer and younger generations of Valley residents seem to be “getting it” by way of education, if not through their own hands-on, fingers-in-the-dirt experience. Westmoreland shepherd Bill Fosher sees that happening. Back in the eighties, market days would find him out in the garden at 3 a.m., picking by a headlamp, and then up until midnight, freezing and canning what didn't sell. The work was hard enough — all farmers are used to that — but the seven hours in the market stall proved fundamentally dispiriting.“Invariably the first person would come in and look at our green beans and say, ‘I can get those for two dollars less at Stop & Shop.' And so I would just get in a foul mood and say ‘Go and get ‘em then, by all means. Have at it.' It was not rewarding.”Nowadays the markets are thriving, and shoppers tend to greet a vendor with a smile and leave with a full bag of produce and a heartfelt thank-you. Fosher feels that, too, although these days he raises sheep instead of vegetables. He's making the most of the perfect pasture soils in the Westmoreland hills and reaping the benefits of the local food, grass-fed and organic — call it “locagrorg” — movements. His customers used to be 60-somethings; now, they're 20-somethings. “There's a generational change that's gone on,” says Fosher. “People are interested in lamb and they're interested in local food, and at least up to a certain level, they're willing to pay what it costs to produce it.”Not only are they willing to pay for it, they're also disposed to put up with a few sheep in the road when Fosher moves his flock around from one neighbor's pasture to another. “Nobody's cursed me out for that yet. Even the city people around here like the quality of life, and they understand the link between animals and a working landscape and the quality of life that they are enjoying.”One of Fosher's pasturing neighbors is Steve Robbins. He and his wife, Mame Odette Robbins, are the proprietors of Poocham Hill Vineyard, and Steve can attest to both the warmth and the fun of the agriculturally-minded community in the old, Westmoreland hills. For 10 years he and Odette have been making award-winning wine from the grapes he's planted in the fields. They use friends to help determine the best blend of varietals for each new wine; they call them in for tasting parties, and they keep experimenting with different percentages until they can all agree on something.These parties, of course, are a far cry from the daily work they put into their ventures on the farm. Like Fosher, Odette used to raise vegetables for farmers markets, with only slightly fewer hours burned. “I'm telling you, five in the morning until nine o'clock at night, and there's barbecue coming on the breeze and people are sitting out having their sundowners, and you're just out planting your peppers. That's the reality of it. And it's your craft, and if it's your art, you do it because you love to do it.”Back in Walpole, Jackie Caserta is another woman who doesn't often rest. She is the innkeeper at the Inn at Valley Farms, part of a property her parents bought to save from development. The heart of the inn is a beautifully-restored and elegantly-decorated 18th-century farmhouse. Much of the food she prepares for her guests comes from the gardens she grows and the coops and pastures maintained by her brother Chris Caserta. This gives some of her city visitors their first direct experience with farming — and a teachable moment for Jackie. “When I can share information and just kind of ignite an interest and a passion in somebody else in what we're so passionate about, that's what makes it worthwhile.” Bridging the world of tourism with the heart of farming is what “agritourism” is all about.Out in the field Chris is putting into practice the commitment the two siblings have for sustainable living. During the summer, the chickens live on pasture, in portable coops; their “winter palace” is a large greenhouse. “No chicken ever touches the same piece of ground twice in the same year. You get them to eat more grass and bugs, and the by-product is great-tasting meat — and healthier.” And when it comes time to slaughter a batch of broiler chickens, a dozen people come to help and to see where dinner really comes from. Some of the chickens go to these people; some end up on the plates of the happy diners at Burdick's Restaurant.The Casertas' farming operation is a side venture but it fits into their lodging business as if they planned it that way. It's also profitable, riding high on the local food movements. When asked about the future, Chris and Jackie smile. Chris is “absolutely” hopeful. Jackie responds, “I feel a rumble. I'm jazzed.”Across the road from the Casertas' inn is Alyson's Orchard. It, too, combines farming with lodging, except here it was the farming that came first. And with 60 gorgeous acres of trees high up on a hill above the river, agritourism was the obvious path to survival when the farm could no longer make it on fruit income alone. The owners, Bob (now deceased) and Susan Jasse, built an event center that now fills on weekends with weddings, retreats and meetings. Says Susan, “It's very scary, the business of farming. It's very expensive, it's very hard and I don't think you can be a farmer and survive anymore unless you are very creative.”It cannot be overstated how much farmers work — how smart they must work — and how little most of them earn from their labors. Off-farm or multiple income streams of one kind or another are the norm for farming families, especially in the case of dairy farmers, where “diversification” into beef sales or sugaring or firewood might be the only way to stave off a grim end to generations of work. Paul Franklin, of Riverview Farm Orchard, works full-time on the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals. Bill Fosher, once a journalist, is a full-time farmhand on the Cheshire County Farm; his wife is a graphic designer. Chris Caserta is a full-time financial advisor. Steve Robbins publishes Desktop Engineering, a magazine for design engineers; his wife, Mame Odette, has a gardening business. New Hampshire farmers are not in it for the money.Survival, hard work and income were all high on the agenda when two Walpole dairy farmers and their state representative got together for a rare lunch at Burdick's Restaurant. Executive Chef Wesley Babb's masterful cooking and loyal reliance on local food would appeal to any farmer, but Burdick's is undeniably an upscale eatery, with prices to match. Beauty can be expensive, and not everybody can afford it.One of the dairy farmers at the lunch table, Peter Graves, is an eighth-generation native of Walpole. He milks about 75 Holsteins on his farm. How long has he been there? With a friendly grin and a blustery voice, he lets it out: “We've been around here too stinking long! We should've gotten into the chocolate business instead of this stupid cow business. We'd be somewhere else right now! We'd be in Vegas, you know, in a hotel right now, if we were in the chocolate business. Instead, we gotta go ‘milk the cows.'”Next to Graves was Tara Sad, the state representative for Walpole and the surrounding towns and the chair of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee. Her sharp, informed mind stands out behind the stylish glasses, and her heart is plainly for the land and the people who farm it. And it's “Sad,” pronounced like the good earth with clover and timothy attached, not a state of hopelessness and despair.Across from Graves was Sheldon Sawyer, Sad's predecessor in the House of Representatives and a former president of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation. He's a soft-spoken, twinkly-eyed rascal so opinionated and contrary, he would make the Devil beg for a new lawyer. But as Graves tells it, Sawyer is from an upstart family that moved into Walpole many long months after the Graveses settled on the land. Sawyer milks Jerseys. He has the largest herd of this breed in the state, and sells to Grafton Village Cheese.It takes but a moment before Sawyer, Sad and Graves start in about the devastating ridiculousness of the current federal milk pricing scheme — a scheme that leaves dairy farmers simply unable to catch the wave of the “locagrorg” movements enjoyed by the Casertas of the world. Everyone has an idea or 10 about how to fix this problem. Sawyer believes in the free enterprise system and wants to see the market determine the price for milk. Sad counters that this would allow the mega-farms out West to push the small, New Hampshire dairies completely off the map. Graves, for his part, doesn't mind some regulation and policy-making from on high, as long as there's some thought and economic sense behind them.The difficulties of dairy farming today can range from a long-delayed rain to a short-tempered cow to a federal milk pricing system that takes no account of the cost of production. These Valley farmers can and do debate the nuances of agricultural economics until, sometimes quite literally, the cows come home, but it's easy to feel helpless in the face of the powerful lobbying muscle flexed every day by the food processing giants of the world. That's where Representative Sad and Agriculture Commissioner Merrill come in. Together, they have been pressuring the Governor and the Legislature and the state's Congressional delegation to do something. They've offered up concrete, innovative solutions, and they're urging these people to act quickly. “I worry for the survival of our remaining farms,” confesses Sad.It is Sad's love of the Valley that propels her. She takes it with her on her long drive from Walpole to the Statehouse in Concord. You can hear it when she speaks in committee hearings. Commissioner Merrill has heard it: “She'll say, ‘I'm Tara Sad. I represent district whatever, the towns of' — and she just recites the list of towns. There's about six or seven of them in her district. And it's like a poem! Every time I see her step up, I'm like, ‘Oh boy! I get to hear it!' I feel that way about it. She says, ‘Walpole, Westmoreland ...' The way that she recites the words is beautiful, but it's because I can envision them as she goes through her list. I get these photo things in my mind of each of these communities because it's her love of them that comes through.”It's just a list of towns, but each one holds a wealth of people rooted in the soil. NHFarm EtiquetteFarmers love visitors, but before you drop by you might want to know a few courtesies peculiar to rural life.These are working farms. Please supervise your children and teach them to be as respectful of the farm and the crops as you are. Keep them off the farm equipment, away from irrigation ponds and safe from other traffic around the farm.Do not climb the apple trees or tromp all over berry bushes. Doing so often damages next year’s crop and can hurt you as well.Pick only what you intend to take home, and pay for all that you pick. While a little sampling when picking may be allowed at most farms, picking with the idea of getting a free lunch is not at all appreciated. Farmers depend on this income.Dogs are wonderful companions; however, they are best left at home. Because farmers are growing food, many do not want animals marking their territory around the produce — and neither do you.Farmers live where they farm. Respect the privacy of their homes and yards.By Nancy Franklin, Riverview Farm, Plainfield
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