Its roots trace back to the early 19th century, when governments all over New England were looking for ways to reduce the economic and social costs of caring for the poor and infirm. Today the Grafton County farm in North Haverhill is the last vestige of a great experiment.
Virtually every year, the future of the farm hangs in the balance as the county commissioners and the legislative delegation hammer out the operating budget. The script doesn’t change much from year to year: Some legislators call the farm an anachronism that shouldn’t be competing with private sector agricultural enterprises, and others, including a majority of the board of commissioners, invariably defend the Grafton County farm as a worthwhile endeavor that makes good use of valuable county-owned land, provides meaningful work experience for inmates at the county correctional facility, provides donations of vegetables to charities and, so long as it covers its expenses, is worth keeping in business.
Today, the Grafton County farm is the only government-operated farm in New England maintaining a full-fledged dairy operation, a piggery and a market garden with a farm stand. The dairy herd totals 190 head with about 80 cows in production at any time. The herd comprises purebred Holstein and Jersey animals that consistently rank among the top farms in New England for milk production per head. The genetics of the herd are sufficient that other farms often seek to purchase heifers bearing Grafton County pedigrees. Milk from the herd is marketed by the Agri-Mark cooperative.
The pig operation has a herd of breeding sows that each yield two litters of piglets a year. The piglets are sold at weaning, mostly to the numerous backyard pork growers around the region. The garden yields vegetables for the county nursing home and correctional facility food service with additional produce sold from a small farm stand on busy Route 10 near the county complex. Surplus crops, primarily potatoes, go to food pantries, shelters and feeding programs all over Grafton County.
The whole Grafton County farm enterprise is budgeted to generate about $550,000 in sales in 2018, which, even with a depressed price for farm milk, will match projected expenses, helped largely by lower anticipated costs for purchased feed grain for the dairy herd. Hay and corn silage for the animals’ roughage diet is produced on sprawling Horse Meadow, a treasure of prime agricultural soil on a large oxbow in the Connecticut River west of the county complex.
A farm manager and two other county employees are responsible for the overall operation and for supervision of inmates who perform much of the daily labor, including staffing the farm stand, an assignment granted only to low-risk prisoners.
The idea of aggregating paupers, the infirm and helpless and even the insane and petty criminals took hold in the 1820s in what would become known as “the New England method.” Up to that point, the impoverished and the helpless were placed through an auction process — often as part of town meeting — in private homes. New Hampshire Gov. Levi Woodbury proposed in 1821 doing away with what, to him, was a costly and often inhumane system and replacing it with a town-owned lodging place.
Woodbury’s idea was too radical for that time, but it would hang around and eventually would be tweaked with the addition of tying a residential facility to an agricultural operation. In 1828, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law enabling towns to purchase property to become what would immediately become known as “town farms.” In no time at all, towns were buying farms where they could settle their paupers and infirm and establish farm operations to help feed them and keep them busy.
Savings on welfare costs were much ballyhooed in those early years — Claremont’s $3,500 investment in a town farm cut the expense of supporting the poor to $48 from $800 in the second year. Other towns boasted similar budgetary gains. But it wasn’t long before problems began to arise and purported savings began to disappear. Poor management and corruption were serious problems, and even worse was the incidence of disease. Sickness, especially from such afflictions as tuberculosis, undulant fever and smallpox, made town farms dreaded places.
And as the abolitionist movement took hold in New England in the 1850s, critics began to liken the town farm, with its coerced labor and almost impossible chance of escape, to the enslavement of African-Americans in the South. Ferment over town farms would simmer on the back burner during the time of the Civil War but would boil up with a vengeance immediately after. By 1868, towns were abandoning their town farms in droves.
The response to this upheaval was to kick the problem of caring for the poor and infirm to the counties, and by 1875 every New Hampshire county would have a “county farm” to lodge paupers, incapacitated elderly, orphans and insane people (often called maniacs). Counties already were in the jail business, so the use of inmates to work on the county farm was a logical course.
County farms were looked upon to provide milk, meat and produce for the sustenance of the residents, a pattern that would hold for close to a century. The counties had problems with this system just as did the towns earlier on. Lax management and corruption were chronic issues. A terrible fire in a wooden dormitory-style building at the Strafford County facility in Dover, killed more than 80 residents in 1884.
A 1922 study funded by the Fraternal Order of the Moose in the Northeast found shocking conditions at county institutions throughout the region, but it would take decades for reforms to take hold. Today, New Hampshire’s county nursing homes have achieved solid reputations for quality care. The wisdom of maintaining a farm to support populations of the infirm and prisoners would come under challenge, and gradually county agricultural operations would begin to be phased out.
In New Hampshire, Rockingham and Hillsborough counties shut down their dairy herds in the late 1960s followed by others over the ensuing half century. These farms all had valuable real estate, and most of the counties would use cropland to expand parking lots and build structures upon. Remaining tillable land would be leased to neighboring farmers in some instances. Sullivan County had very little cropland but it had 2,000-plus acres of woodland, now devoted to recreation and supplying fuel for the boilers that heat the county complex in Unity.
When Coos County closed out its dairy operation in Stewartstown in 2013, it left Grafton County alone among New Hampshire counties with a functioning commercial farm enterprise. Despite the perennial presence of critics within the county legislative delegation — the body that ultimately decides county budgets and sets major policy — the Grafton County farm appears good to go for yet another year.
County Commissioner Wendy Piper, of Enfield, said there’s solid support for keeping the farm going among the three commissioners who serve as the county’s executive board, and with the 27-member legislative delegation.
But she added there are “always worries” about the farm’s ability to remain financially viable given the reality of sluggish commodity prices versus continually rising input costs.
Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden and contributes occasionally to ENTERPRISE.