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Tuttle's Family Farm | House for Sale

Tuttle’s Family Farm | House for Sale
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Lucy Tuttle sits on a patch of grass facing the empty storefront where she has sold her family’s produce for the last 35 years. She leans back, pressing her palms into soft grass still wet with dew. It is an unusually warm spring morning in Dover, New Hampshire. The air smells fresh, a combination of flowers and dirt. This is the smell of her childhood, the smell of the sowing season. Because she was a girl, she was never expected to help spread manure or plant seeds in her youth. Her brother did that. Instead, she and her little sister, Becky, roamed the farm’s 245 acres, paddling rafts along the irrigation canals, spying on the teenage boys their father hired as farmhands. Now there are no farmhands. The fields behind her lie fallow. The store before her is dark and empty.

The sign by the road still bears the store’s name in bold letters: Tuttle’s Red Barn. But the marquee that once advertised the day’s selection of crops is blank. Dandelions have sprouted in the gravel around it. Lucy can see the red paint starting to peel in patches from the storefront. Empty produce baskets are lined up by the front door, as if waiting to be allowed in. A white plaque by the door still reads: Welcome to Tuttle’s / America’s Oldest Family Farm / Est. 1632.

This is the first spring of Lucy’s lifetime that the fields haven’t been planted with corn and cucumbers, strawberries and squash, pumpkins and peppers. In fact, it’s the first time in nearly 400 years that this land hasn’t been planted by a Tuttle: her brother, Will; her father, Hugh; or any of the nine generations of farmers who came before him. Lucy’s forefather, John Tuttle, made his way to what today is the seacoast town of Dover–one of New Hampshire’s oldest permanent settlements–in 1635 with a 20-acre land grant, secured three years before from King Charles I of England, and broke ground in the middle of a point of land between two tidal rivers, the Bellamy and the Cocheco.

Now the farm is up for sale. At first, Lucy resisted the decision to sell, which was her brother’s. “Over my dead body,” she told him. As recently as five years ago, Lucy believed that the farm would live on in Tuttle hands. She still expected some member of the 12th generation–her son, one of Will’s four children, or one of Becky’s three–to come back and take the reins. Failing that, she secretly believed, well into her sixties, that she and her siblings could simply go on farming forever.

Seated on a patch of grass that is still–for now–Tuttle soil, Lucy looks around at a landscape so familiar that she almost can’t bring it into focus anymore. It’s like looking at herself in the mirror: She doesn’t notice the details, just an overall impression of a part of herself, staring back. She thinks about what it would mean to no longer claim this land as her own.

She tucks her left leg beneath her, stork-like. Her knee still accommodates these origami folds; it’s just a little creakier than it once was. At 67, she’s the eldest of the 11th generation of Tuttles. She feels like the youngest. Will has been as stubborn as an old man for decades. When Lucy wanted to breathe new life into the struggling farm, Will resisted. Why not let people pick their own strawberries or pumpkins? Let them interact with the land? Will didn’t want strangers tromping around the fields. Why not play up the farm’s deep history–offer hayrides and tell tales about the early days on the Tuttle Farm? No, Will said: no hayrides. The conversation ended there.

A red-tailed hawk soars overhead. Lucy reaches up a hand to shade her eyes and watches it circle. She doesn’t argue with her brother about the farm anymore. After all, Will owns the land and two-thirds of the business. The decision to sell, she recognized, was his to make–just as the decisions about strawberries and hayrides were his to make. Where she once chafed, she now acquiesces.

Two years ago, she finally told Will, “Well, okay, we can sell the farm. But it can only be to the most fabulous person, with the greatest ideas in the world.” So they met with planners and developers. They entertained a proposal by a nonprofit group that would have used the land for agricultural education, training would-be farmers–but the arrangement faltered after one season. In the meantime, Lucy thought deeply about this most treasured of Tuttle heirlooms.

The gem of her family’s farming legacy, she realizes now, has also been a burden. It has divided the three siblings of the 11th generation: the two girls, who wanted to take over the farm but were denied it by patrilineal order, and Will, who early on wanted it least but has borne its yoke. New Hampshire farming, as Lucy knows, is not for the fainthearted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture charitably describes the state’s soil as “relatively infertile.” New Hampshire ranks third to last nationally in the worth of its agricultural exports.

The Tuttle family is one of the few to have consistently plucked a livelihood from that stony soil. In the centuries since Charles I doled out land grants to New Hampshire’s first wave of farmers, all but the Tuttles at some point gave up on the land, and on the grueling 18-hour workdays, to pursue other lines of work. The Tuttles held out for almost 380 years.

But at what cost? Lucy wonders. Is the farm’s longevity testimony of her family’s disposition for farming, or of their sense of duty? Is the Tuttle legacy one of love for the land, or of stoic obligation to tradition? And what would it have taken to keep it going?

Lucy’s house sits just up the street from the red barn, overlooking the eastern fields. Will lives in the old farmhouse, where their grandparents lived when he and Lucy were young. Out back, a barn houses old tractors–some of the same ones from Lucy’s childhood, still in working condition.

She smiles when she replays some of her memories of the farm: lively family dinners, the antics of colorful farmhands, the night Will slept outside after being sprayed by a skunk he was trying to catch. Lucy grew up among three generations of Tuttles: her grandparents, her parents, and her siblings, Will and Becky. When the family sat down at night around a heavy wooden dinner table, her grandfather would boast that everything on the table except the salt had come from their fields. “And the rum,” someone would add–although the family did make their own hard cider from the apples her grandfather grew.

Updated Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
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