PEPPERELL -- "It's a good time to be a farmer."
So said Marie Hill, who, with her husband Carl, has owned the Kimball Fruit Farm on the border of Pepperell and Hollis, N.H., since 2000 and has managed the land since 1990. The Hills were the guests of honor at an oral presentation at the Lawrence Library last fall; the couple was interviewed about their farming history and practices, and the interview was taped and broadcast by Pepperell public access.
The presentation was one in a series sponsored by Freedom's Way, a national heritage organization located in Ayer dedicated to the "preservation and protection of historic resources of the 45 communities in Freedom's Way," according to Marge Darby, one of the organization's founders.
The group is collecting "oral history" of local farmers before putting together a book on the subject as part of a project funded by the Bruce J. Anderson Foundation. The collection, called "In Their Voices," will be available for research purposes through Freedom's Way.
"The goal is to interview the farmers to see what their concerns are with the hope in mind that we would help to explain farming to people who don't really understand how important farming is to the regional area," said Darby. "The main focus is to educate people on the plight of farmers and farming."
Luckily for the Hills, as Marie indicated, because of the increase in interest in buying produce locally over the past several years, farmers have quite literally been able to reap the benefits.
Although the Hills have only owned the farm for 12 years, Carl's family has worked the fields of Kimball's Fruit Farm for decades, beginning with his father in 1939. When investors out of Boston bought the property in 1969, Carl's father began leasing the land, and by 1990, the lease switched into Carl's hands.
In order to protect the 180 acres of farmland, 176 of which are in Pepperell, Carl pursued an agriculture preservation restriction, meaning the land can only be used for farming.
"It's a great thing because it was going to be 54 house lots," said Carl.
Due to the processed food market, said Carl, when they first took over managing the land, it seemed "inevitable that we weren't going to make any money."
It was around that time that Carl and Marie were encouraged by the state Department of Agriculture to begin selling their produce out of farmers markets in the greater Boston area. Although Marie was initially hesitant, it turned out to be the right decision. The couple still travels to Boston for the markets and has become well-respected in the farmers market community.
One of the major keys to their success, said Carl, is the ability to be adaptable to the ever-changing food market.
"Since we've owned (the farm), we keep changing our products a little bit to fit the farmers markets," he said.
In recent years, the Hills have become renowned for their tomatoes. Not only have they been recognized for growing the biggest tomato in the state several times, including this past year, they also supply tomatoes to 40 restaurants.
But just because the Hills have experienced success, the job is not without its challenges.
"One of plights of most farmers is that it's a seasonal job, so we have phenomenal people who work for us ... and you lose those people because eventually they need benefits, they need a year-round job," said Marie.
In an effort to extend their growing season and offer employees a longer period of work, the Hills have plans to take their farm to the next step and increase productivity.
"We just got approved by the state APR board to put in a hydroponic greenhouse," said Carl.
The soil-free greenhouse will be about 6,000 square feet. But the project is not without its drawbacks: It will cost approximately $500,000.
"It's a huge financial commitment," said Marie.
Another challenge faced by farmers is finding employees who are not only capable but interested in the workload.
"We (as a society) are not raising our kids to (farm)," said Carl following the interview. "We're raising them to be computer people, doctors, lawyers. The last thing anyone wants their kid to be is a farmer."
As a result, the Hills apply through the Department of Labor to seek help outside the country, mostly from Jamaica. But due to the unemployment rate, the department requires that the farmers offer the work to jobless American residents first. The problem, said the Hills, is that Americans who take the job often find that they're not interested in the work and quit after only a few days. It presents an issue when the product needs to be picked on a daily basis.
"We'd lose out shirts if our apples are dropping or our potatoes," said Marie.
Throughout the years, other struggles present themselves as well. One year, a new strain of acid-resistant E. coli ruined the cider production. Other years, it's pest management. In general, said Carl, the main struggle is spreading awareness about the necessity of farms and the need for public support.
"The more you support them, the more they stay in business, the more the land stays that way," said Carl.
Still, despite the struggles, Carl said he will always be a farmer.
"My mantra is find a job you like and you never have to work a day in your life," he said. "It's my life, it isn't a job."