AYER — “It’s been awful hard for us in the last six to nine years in farming,” Ralph McNiff said. “It hasn’t been easy.”

Farming commodities like milk are constrained with prices fixed and dropping. The same is true for pork and beef values. “A farm is like a stock market,” McNiff said. “When everything drops, it drops on us,” but rued that the price for the farmed products “doesn’t drop in the stores.”

He was glum on the prospects of any turnaround. “No, all of your farms in the area are seeing developers” visit to buy up land. “They can’t stand the (pricing) caps any further.”

“This month it’s three-cents off a pound on animals on the hoof,” McNiff said, referring to his beef cattle and pigs and the prices he can get at auction. The head count stands at two goats, 75 pigs and 18-20 cows.

Milking stopped 15 years ago for McNiff. The cattle are purely for meat these days, which “go off to market alive” at the Littleton FLAME Animal Auctions off Route 119 behind the Agway store. They go as soon as they plump up to 1,400 to 1,600 pounds for the steer, which is at about two-and-a-half years old.

The meat is headed for foreign markets, he said, via Pennsylvania and New York slaughter houses. He keeps little of the meat he raises. “It’s just as easy to go to the store and buy the meat when it’s on sale,” he said.

The future for McNiff and farming are equally bleak. “I’m not replacing any animals anymore,” he said. “As soon as they go” he’ll figure out where he, too, will go to live.

“God only knows at the moment,” McNiff said. “My plan is to stay put. This was one of 13 farms in town years ago when I was in grammar school. There’s only a couple of them left.”

One of the last, McNiff said, was down the street by the Red School House at the junction of Westford, Willow and Sandy Pond roads, which used to be a sanctuary like Benson’s Animal Farm was in the 1960s. Now, it’s a housing development.

Regarding the long standing complaint of some that the farm yard is, well, a pigsty — McNiff answers, it’s a working farm, complete with all that brings.

“They don’t like the equipment around the yard,” he said. “It’s hard.” He noted that the animals themselves like to knock things around the yard, though he admitted that doesn’t get to the heart of accumulated items like truck trailers.

As to hiring help, McNiff said, “Help? Most of it I do myself, with some help with feeding and haying. You can’t afford help today. You get help, pay taxes and workers comp. Where do you wind up?”

“They were all decent people,” McNiff said of the selectmen at the late April meeting. Selectmen had stated a desire to protect the third-generation farmer, and McNiff said he “appreciated” their sentiment. But the farming lineage stops here.

McNiff has outlived one son, and his other children, a son in Florida and a daughter locally, do not want to carry on the family business. “My children told me right up front that they didn’t want to farm,” McNiff said. “You can’t blame them. Animals are seven days a week. ”

“They say ‘Sell the farm, Dad, and go and enjoy yourself’ (but) I was happy here. I’ve enjoyed my animals. I like to have them grow,” McNiff said. Whereas farmers could purchase babies from auction, that practice is gone. Now farmers need to breed the babies locally and the nature of the beast has changed.

“This is the first year I’m not going to hay,” said the farmer looking toward the next winter of his life. “I don’t know what will happen. It depends on my health.”

“It’s heart-breaking when you see the fellows in town with pieces of the town that are being developed,” McNiff said. He supposes many succumb to the need for the money. But, as to his money woes. “I’ll get it straightened out.”

At the same time the town sought the back taxes, McNiff said it seemed that there was an emergency expense popping up. “Something happened, you’d fix it, like any house, try to fix something and it costs a lot of money today,” he said.