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46 Huntoon Rd. (P.O. Box 77) Danbury, NH 03230
Huntoon Farm, Danbury, NH
It’s Thursday at 9 o’clock on a still, frosty morning in early March, but, inside the farmhouse, the kitchen is warm and bustling with activity. Phil Sprague is putting pans of bread, rolls and small carrot cakes in the oven as I arrive and by the time he hands me a cup of tea, a buzzer is going off, and he’s at the oven again, rotating a tray and resetting the timer. His wife, Donna, arrives shortly thereafter, having taken the new puppy, Juniper, for a walk. Within minutes, she has already iced a batch of cupcakes and rotated some more trays. “Wednesday night and Thursdays are our baking times during the winter,” she explains, “along with the day before any market we’re signed up for.” She deftly lines another tray with waxed paper and spoons batter onto it -“Whoopie Pies, they’re considered our specialty,” she says, in a tone of both pride and amusement.
Emotions color a lot of what we talk about over the next couple of hours. For example, how the farm—now 362 acres—has been in the Huntoon family since 1856, when Donna’s great-grandfather, Harvey Huntoon, raised his family and their food here. How William, her grandfather, shipped milk by train to H.P. Hood in Boston and her father, Willard’s dairy operation was put out of business by new regulations in 1971 determining that the farm did not have enough milk for regular pick-ups. It was at that point that Donna—fresh out of UNH with a degree in Dairy Management—decided she would have to “leave the farm” in order to save it. While her dad had moved into raising meat, she continued to farm as much as possible with him but, she needed to work off the farm to make money doing something else—but what?
She had cooked a lot when she was younger; it seemed like it might make sense to do it professionally. Within short order, she had two offers: one from the local grocery store and one from Jerry Sprague, who owned Pastries Plus in New London (where China City is today, at the Gallery). Donna wanted to learn to bake from scratch, and she knew that Jerry was the best. “Of course,” she says with a laugh, “then I met the owner’s son.”
Phil—a mechanic by training and between jobs—was helping his father fry donuts on the weekends. “It never entered my mind that I would be a baker,” he says, “but my dad and I were close, so if he was doing something, I was doing it with him. I must have absorbed things over the years.” Working with his father in the bakery eventually led to a job at Hannaford Supermarket and, after that, to running the bakery department at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Today, the presence of Jerry’s beautiful old scale, his mixer, rolling pin, and two-pound weight keep his father’s memory alive in the Huntoon Farm kitchen. “I have this family legacy here with the farm, and the whole cooking thing is really a big piece of Phil’s life,” Donna notes, “so we both share in the family connections.”
Phil and Donna are excited about the expansion of their line of meat products as they like having a range – beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. “I don’t think we’ll go into rabbits,” Donna says, with a laugh, “but there’s definitely a call for lamb, which appeals to me because it was historically part of the farm.” The couple is always weighing questions about the future against the farm’s past.
“It’s very rewarding for me to think that I’m working the land worked by my father, and by his father, and his father before him,” Donna says, while the buzzer goes off once again, and as she pulls more Whoopie Pies from the oven. “There are times when I’m out on my Allis-Chalmers tractor, driving back and forth across the field raking hay and not paying much attention, just looking out for rocks, and I’ll look up at the barn. It’s like”—her voice suddenly thickens—“I’m out there on the same land that my ancestors were on and working really hard to save it so that someone else in my family—I don’t even know who—will be able to do the same thing. It’s a big deal to me, but it also adds a burden because it’s not just that you’re farming; you’re farming a legacy. It guides everything that I do, every decision I make.” Phil takes up the theme. “It’s like we don’t even own the farm—I mean, obviously we own it, literally—but it’s like it’s a responsibility, like we’re responsible to it. The farm has a life of its own, and we’re just the hands that work it.”
Hands that work steadily and with care, as another buzzer goes off and a few dozen more cupcakes are ready to be taken out of the oven.
Donna and Phil Sprague
46 Huntoon Rd. (P.O. Box 77)
Danbury, NH 03230
Meats: beef, pork, chicken, and turkey
From the commercial kitchen: baked goods and prepared foods
Retail: (direct-to-customer sales)
Farmstand at the farm, year-round
Local Foods Plymouth (LFP), year-round
Baked goods available at the Danbury Country Store
Summer farmers’ markets: Wilmot and Plymouth
Winter farmers’ markets: Danbury Grange (1st Saturdays, November-May, 9-1) and New London (dates vary)
Kathy Neustadt has a PhD in Folklore, with a concentration in New England foodways and culture. She lives in rural NH with her husband, Tom Curren, a conservationist, farmer, and historian, and a gaggle of farm animals.
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