Hopkinton’s Derek Owen: A farmer of many hats

  • With his “FARM HERE TO ETERNITY” hat on, Derek Owen always stood for what he felt was right. That included the legalization of hemp. David Mendelsohn Courtesy

  • Proletarian Man, played Derek Owen, and Arts and Cultural Woman, played by Virginia Prescott, wait to go on stage during a rehearsal of the production of “Our Town” on the Hopkinton Village Green in 2015. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • Christine Hamm and Derek Owen wave to the crowd during a parade in downtown Contoocook in 2015 to promote their production of “Our Town.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 10/12/2020 1:55:40 PM

Derek Owen’s baseball cap said it all: “FARM HERE TO ETERNITY.”

He was a farmer first, running Owen Farm in Hopkinton with his wife, Ruth, for decades before passing away at the farm on Oct. 2 at the age of 88. He was also a legislator, builder, activist, mentor, therapist, foster parent, amateur actor and on and on with a list that could seemingly stretch for eternity.

“There was always some story on the farm, always something going on, it was such a vital place,” said Shane Smith, who met Owen through the Concord Food Co-op, where Owen was a board member and Smith works. “So, Derek was always doing something, always had a ton of irons in the fire, even into his 80s.”

That vitality was multiplied by all the people the Owens took in on the farm. They adopted children, had foster children, taught new and old farmers, hosted exchange students and welcomed anyone who was struggling and needed a roof for a night, week or a lifetime. The “FARM HERE TO ETERNITY” hat is part of this legacy – it was a gift from two exchanges students, one from Brazil and the other from Kazakhstan.

Not only could those in need find a place to sleep at Owen Farm, they could find work as well. Farms need all the hands they can find, but Owen also believed in work as therapy for those in a tough spot. Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord agreed – the organization began sending clients to the farm in 2011 and named Derek and Ruth Owen one of their “Champions for Mental Health” in 2012.

“Their history has always been to welcome people from any place in life and any struggle in life,” Joab Owen said about his parents, who are sitting on either side of him at the family kitchen table, in a 2015 interview with Christine Hamm that can be found on YouTube. “We’ve had a lot of different foster children and a huge number of exchange students from Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Nepal, Thailand. So we had those exchange students the whole time we were growing up here, which was pretty neat adding to the diversity of our world awareness and other cultures.”

Hamm first met Owen in the 1970s, but she didn’t get to truly know him until later.

“Derek and his family became renowned stonewall builders (he explained stonewall building at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., in 1999) and they were building a wall on my property and I became quite intrigued because I would overhear them talking and they weren’t talking about what I might have expected,” Hamm said. “They were quoting Shakespeare and stuff like that.”

That was in the mid 1980s. By 1992, Hamm and some other Hopkinton Democrats were talking Owen into running for the state Legislature. He wound up serving 10 two-year terms, from 1992-2012.

“I ran the first time to see if I could help get some relief from the unfair property tax,” Owen told New Hampshire Magazinein 2016. “Unfortunately, after 20 years, I still hadn’t gotten anywhere. People are still losing their homes.”

He was a constant champion for the environment and agriculture during his time in the Legislature, and he sponsored or co-sponsored a bill to legalize the industrial growing of hemp in each of his 10 terms. In that same New Hampshire Magazine story, Owen said, “The federal government is opposed to its growth because of ignorance. Hemp is not marijuana. It is not psychoactive. It is a fibrous plant with unlimited uses, and the American farmer is being denied the right to grow this cash crop.”

Owen could also be seen wearing a baseball hat with the word “HEMP” on it. And Hamm, who served in the Legislature with Owen from 2002-2012, has a fond memory of him wearing a “dashing looking black hat that was probably a little too much,” when the two of them went to an inaugural ball for Gov. John Lynch. Owen was also wearing a tuxedo from one of Hamm’s sons that she had altered with some quick stitches and Velcro.

“He is in this outfit and dancing with Fran Wendleboe, who was a very well-known Republican, and then he cut in on the governor and his wife dancing,” Hamm recalls with a laugh. “Derek was a pretty good dancer, by the way.”

This wasn’t Hamm’s only experience putting Owen in a costume. She also directed him in several town productions of “Our Town” after she cast him as the Stage Manager, the main character in the play that serves as the audience’s guide. Hamm said the crowd loved Owen in the role, but it was his contributions off stage that she remembers most.

“In Hopkinton we had a mix of people – natives who were more rural and then also professionals who had moved into the town. That mix was in our cast, and that play brought people together in a way that I did not expect but was really gratifying,” Hamm said. “It was really lovely, and for all of us who were part of that production over the years there was a real bond forged, and a lot of it was around Derek. Everybody just looked up to him.”

The 2015 interview with Hamm, which was shot and edited by Bob LaPree, ends with a poignant moment that helps explain why “everybody just looked up to him.” Owen says he was known in the Legislature as the person who would follow the precautionary principle and Hamm asks him to explain what that is.

“Well, very simple,” Owen said. “A precautionary principle is don’t do anything harmful to anybody if you can find another way to do it.”




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