Agricultural Legacy, Lorraine Stuart
Stratham, NH 03885
For nearly six decades, the Stuart Farm, with its rolling hills and dairy cows, has been a landmark in Stratham, New Hampshire. I drove up to the farm on a long winding road surrounded by tall, majestic trees, both beautiful and totally enveloping. There was a certain weightiness to this interview—Lorraine Stuart represents a farming family who has left its mark on the agricultural landscape of New Hampshire in myriad ways. I sat down with Lorraine and her husband, Jim, on an overcast day to hear their story and more about the history of the farm.
Lorraine grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts, and went to Radcliffe to pursue her education in English literature. Her father was a pharmacist in Newton who loved being outdoors. Eventually the family bought a house in Westford, Massachusetts, where they had a fruit stand, dairy bar, and gift shop. Lorraine met Jim Stuart when he came into the dairy bar one day to get a coffee frappe. They started dating and eventually eloped, as her parents never wanted her to marry a farmer.
Lorraine and Jim farmed in Littleton, Massachusetts, with his brother, Robert, and sister-in-law, Helen, before relocating to New Hampshire in 1961.The four purchased a large seacoast farm with a colorful history of continuous operation dating back to the early eighteenth century, including highly successful dairy operations, racehorse breeding, cattle breeding, and large-scale poultry production.
The Stuarts started with egg production and dairy cows in Littleton; Lorraine’s role was to prepare, wrap, and sell the eggs. Dairy, however, was the farm’s primary focus. When pressed about how she helped around the dairy farm, Lorraine said that she was engaged in farming, but not the nitty gritty day-to-day work. Jim corrected her a bit by adding that she managed the accounts and payroll for many years as farm production continued to grow. She also worked behind the scenes, canning, freezing, and wrapping meat. Preserving food for the winter was an incredibly important task in those times. “Farm women have always been strong and have always been the backbone of the farm,” he said.
Lorraine noted how agriculture has changed in the region. Roadside stands used to be common and there weren’t quite as many farmers markets. “Everything is bigger nowadays,” Lorraine says, reflecting on the nearby Exeter Farmers Market which she likened to a carnival with all the vendors. Intense commercial and home development in Stratham has led to the loss of farmland, and today Stuart Farm is the only remaining dairy farm in the area. Lorraine and Jim, along with their sister-in-law, Helen, permanently protected the farm from development in 1981 when they sold a conservation easement under the Agricultural Lands Preservation Program.
Today Lorraine and Jim’s daughter, Lorraine Merrill, and her husband, John, own the farm along with their son, Nathan, and his wife, Judy. Nathan and Judy have taken over operation of the farm with John, while Lorraine Merrill serves as the New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food. Jim is a master gardener who until the last few years tended to two to three acres of small fruit trees and vegetable gardens for the family’s personal use.
Lorraine Stuart and I spent much of our time together talking about her family; I could tell that the spirit of the farm is built upon these strong familial ties and love. When asked if she was proud that her daughter has served as the Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food, Lorraine said, “She is remarkable. I am tickled with her,” and added, “I am proud of each of my children.”
I could hear the pride in Lorraine’s voice as she talked about her grandchildren who are carrying on the farming tradition. While the process of milking has become more mechanized over the years, she says, one thing has stayed constant at Stuart Farm— all of the cows are treated with respect and kindness. Her grandson and his wife have been known to get up in the middle of the night to check in on and bond with the cows. Her granddaughters started and operated their own business, Hannah and Sammy’s Magical Eggs, and sold then at On the Vine in Exeter for several years. Hannah is currently at Cornell University studying agriculture.
“I wish people would realize how much farmers care. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it,” Lorraine says. It’s clear from my time with her and Jim that they have loved and cared for the Stuart Farm for over 60 years.
73 College Road
Stratham, NH 03885
Author Erin Allgood is the founder of www.allgoodeats.com, a consulting company
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