By Helen Brody (April 22, 2013)
“To be successful as a farmer, you must earn a living year around,” says Suzanne LeBlanc, describing a Herculean 15 year effort to restore rocky farmland to productivity. “I know it is difficult to do in New Hampshire, but I know it can happen.”
Suzanne and Ray LeBlanc had spent 30 years running a wholesale food distribution business out of Boston but farming beckoned and Suzanne, the daughter of Archie and Helen Coll of Coll’s Farmin Jaffrey, NH, wanted her own farm and Ray joined in her enthusiasm.
In 1999, after touring the state on a motor cycle and snowmobile searching out affordable land, the New Hampshire natives settled on a 95 acre piece of overgrown land with a pond at the top of Grafton’s Hardy Hill. With it came a 1989 log style house in disrepair “but,” says Suzanne, “we loved it; it had good bones.” The many stonewalls lead the LeBlancs to believe that the land had been farmed back in the late 1800s during the sheep farming boom. They harbored no delusions about the amount of workit would take to return this rock infested spread into their own working farm.
By 2002, they were able to enter Enfield and Newport farmers’ markets with their first crops. Five years later, Suzanneand Ray had established a large enough customer base to build a year round farmstand at the top of the hill. “In 2008,” says Suzanne, “we did very well, and I felt comfortable with the enormous investment we had made. “But,” continues this blonde, indefatigable farm woman, “the downturn of the economy forced us to close the farmstand and to rethink the direction we wanted the farm business to take.”
Increasing the number of farmers’ markets, a venue with an immediate income from direct-to-the-customer sales, struck the LeBlancs as a plausible move. Today they have among the largest stands within the five markets they attend, offeringa large variety of vegetables, breads, strawberries, and canned goods.
Today, along with the farmstand the couple has cleared their property, enabling them to build a greenhouse and two high tunnels giving them an early start and later end to the growing season. The first tunnel measures 30 X 100 feet and houses 1000 everbearing strawberry plants, along with other crops. Not that those plants weren’t thriving outside, but the resident yellow jackets found the berries delectable; “They still come into nibble,” says Suzanne, “just not as bad.” The LeBlancs’ berry stacking system allows Autumn Harvestto be one of the first in the area to sell strawberries and one of the latest into the fall.
Tomatoes are also a major crop and, as with the strawberries, the couple strives to have those too to be among the earliest to appear at the markets. “Our tomato plants are grafted from other plants off the farm as one would an apple tree,” says Ray. “Since tomatoes are planted each year in the tunnel, grafting helps to prevent disease that may be carried in the soil from previous plantings.” They purchase grafted plants because the grafting process is a skill and requires a special amount of time and care to be successful. “We choose to leave this to people who know how to do it and spend our time doing other farm chores,” continues Ray.
“For winter income, we have the quilting studio,” said Suzanne, “but to establish all year farm income, frozen meat, like our bread, attracts customers to our winter market stands along with our winter vegetables and lettuces.” Katahdin sheep were bred for meat, since they shed on their own and do not need to be clipped. Sheep in general require much less grazing space so were the most suitable choice for their small barn and pasture space.
Having spent years carefully restoring their land, these sheep will contribute to their goal of fulfilling their dream of making Autumn Harvest Farm a viable year round business.
Autumn Harvest Farm & Quilt Studio
Ray and Suzanne LeBlanc 77 Johnson Lane Grafton, NH 03240 603-632-9144
Retail: (Direct to customer sales)
e-commerce sales on our website Farmstand: at the farm by appointment
CSA: available all year round in 3 month increments
Farmers Markets: Summer: New London, Lebanon, Newport, Enfield, Canaan, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
Winter: Danbury, Enfield, Lebanon, New London