Cloudy
47°
Cloudy
Hi 53° | Lo 35°

Farming since 1771: Hopkinton family readies to pass the torch

  • Nate Kimball refills some hay for the cows one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Nate Kimball refills some hay for the cows one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Under his grandmother, Donna Kimball's watch, Nate Kimball makes some adjustments to a few plants while his sister Megan, relocates a bed of flowers one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Under his grandmother, Donna Kimball's watch, Nate Kimball makes some adjustments to a few plants while his sister Megan, relocates a bed of flowers one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Nate Kimball and his sister Megan get ready to walk two calves one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Nate Kimball and his sister Megan get ready to walk two calves one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Nate Kimball replants several apple trees he grafted together for better root support and better fruit production. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Nate Kimball replants several apple trees he grafted together for better root support and better fruit production. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Nate Kimball refills some hay for the cows one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Under his grandmother, Donna Kimball's watch, Nate Kimball makes some adjustments to a few plants while his sister Megan, relocates a bed of flowers one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Nate Kimball and his sister Megan get ready to walk two calves one afternoon at the Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's farm upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Nate Kimball replants several apple trees he grafted together for better root support and better fruit production. Kimball is in his final year at UNH and plans to return to his family's Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton upon graduation to begin running operations as the ninth generation farmer in his family.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Talk about pressure. In nine months, 19-year-old Nate Kimball of Hopkinton will finish his associate degree in agriculture and begin taking over Beech Hill Farm, a 300-acre property the Kimball family has kept going since 1771.

“I think most of (my friends) are kind of jealous because they don’t know what they are going to be doing, and they think I’m set,” Kimball said last week. “But I could really mess this up, too.”

The good news is that his timing – and location – couldn’t be better.

The growing interest in all things local has been a boon for farmers, said Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of agricultural development for the state Department of Agriculture. Organic? That’s yesterday’s news, farming experts say. Today’s buzz phrase is “locally grown.”

The number of winter farmers markets in New Hampshire has gone from three to 30 in recent years, and there are at least 80 summer farmers markets, McWilliam Jellie said. That’s helped New Hampshire rank in the top 10 states nationwide for direct access to locally grown food.

“Between 2002 and 2007, we saw a 24 percent increase in farming,” McWilliam Jellie said. Updated numbers will come out next year and are expected to show a continued increase. “There is an interest on the part of the consumer for accessing locally produced food, so people are taking advantage of that interest and getting into farming,” she said.

The spike in interest has led to changes at the University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Applied Science. At the request of students, the school created a new associate degree in Integrated Agricultural Management.

Rather than a strict focus on one type of farming – forestry or animals – the program lets students explore a little of everything. That diversity has become critical in keeping small farms afloat, said professor Drew Conroy, who co-directs the program.

One of this year’s four graduates returned home to a farm that specializes in blueberries and forestry; another is on a dairy farm that also raises draft horses and hay, and hopes to add cheese making.

“This (program) reflects how large farms are changing in this state,” Conroy said. “We have a huge market for locally grown (products), and people are willing to pay for it. We are having a (farm) resurrection driven by consumers.”

Student interest in the new degree has jumped fourfold. This May, 16 students will graduate from the program. Kimball will be one of them.

“We can go in so many directions” at Beech Hill Farm, Kimball said. “I really like that opportunity compared to some farms that have a more single focus.”

A family tradition

Kimball is not going to get a fight from his grandparents, Donna and Robert Kimball, who manage the farm now. They’ve had to be clever, too, to keep the farm alive during the last 40-plus years.

Beech Hill Farm off Currier Road in Hopkinton is best known these days for its ice cream shop, which offers 78 flavors and a popular sundae bar surrounded by rolling pastures. But that’s just the farm’s latest iteration.

When Donna and Robert Kimball, both 69, inherited the property from his parents, it was a dairy farm with 600 acres. And they kept it that way for decades, raising two sons and a daughter, mainly by selling milk, Donna Kimball said.

When the youngest child left for college, Robert Kimball tended to 150 cows, milking 90 of them morning and night, every day. “He was the only one who did it,” Donna Kimball said. “There was no money for a hired man.”

In the mid-90s, her husband developed an allergy to the sanitizing solution required to keep the milking equipment clean. His doctor treated the skin irritation the best he could but told Robert Kimball he would continue to suffer if he continued the dairy operation.

“It was traumatic,” Donna Kimball said. “We had to put our heads together to figure out what we were going to do with what we had.” Robert Kimball is the seventh generation to run the family farm, and he didn’t want to lose it.

The family sold half its 600 acres and its entire dairy herd. The land sold, which is across the street from the farm, had already been protected by a conservation easement, so it remains largely undeveloped.

Donna Kimball had already been baking for years and brought in some money by selling her apple breads, pies and rolls. She also started a cut-your-own flower garden.

Her husband cut 100 cords of wood off the property and sold that. Then he started renovating the barn, section by section, into an ice cream shop. Each year, he grew the ice cream stand, which runs from May to October, by reclaiming more of the barn.

Without advertising, the ice cream sales started taking off.

“It was all by word of mouth,” Donna Kimball said. “Everybody in town who knew us were so supportive. They didn’t want to see houses all over the place. They didn’t want us to have to sell out.”

Today, the Kimballs welcome fans from as far away as Boston to the ice cream stand, which is also popular for the small collection of farm animals that seem to especially love young visitors. The family has never charged admission to visit the farm, and they think that’s helped it remain popular.

The Kimballs’ daughter, Holly, and her husband, Peter Rhines, also live in Hopkinton and began adding their own expertise to the farm. Holly, a longtime teacher in Bow, began selling potted flowers and arrangements, and Rhines started planting, designing and cutting corn mazes.

Two years ago, nearly 10,000 people went through the mazes, Donna Kimball said. Admission this year is $5 for all three, which are open through Halloween. This is the first year Nate Kimball, Holly’s son, has designed and cut the corn mazes, which include a tractor design, a Bruins logo and a “superstitions” course.

‘An opportunity’

Nate Kimball has several months before he will be on the farm full time, gradually taking things over from his grandfather. But he already has ideas about what he’d like to add. There’s a stand of maple trees on the property, and he’d like to tap them and start a maple sugaring operation.

“We don’t have anything at the farm in the winter now, and this could draw people there then,” he said.

He has also been thinking about returning cattle to the farm, but he’d rather raise beef cows than dairy cows, he said. The ice cream stand will stay, he said.

Not yet 20, Nate Kimball doesn’t seem weighed down by doubts about his career choice.

“When I was 15 or 16, my grandfather sat me down and asked me if I wanted to take over the farm,” he said. Robert and Donna Kimball’s two sons live out of state and their daughter, Nate’s mother, didn’t want to run the operation.

“It was a big decision (for them) to make at that point,” Nate Kimball said. “But I’m glad they did. From then on, I could prepare for it. I knew what an opportunity it was.”

(Annmarie Timmins can
be reached at 369-3323,
atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.