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Durham, N.H.
Bradford Towle and son Christian, 8, in the store at Emery Farm in Durham, N.H. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)

Emery Farm preserves the land, and a way of life

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / September 5, 2007

DURHAM, N.H. - Like many tracts of open space in New England, Emery Farm has been eyed covetously by developers for decades.

With about 120 acres of forest, fields, and pastures, Emery - one of the oldest family-owned farms in the country - is a longtime local landmark. For more than 350 years, it has occupied a prominent spot on Route 4, a main road leading into this small college town.

But its longevity could not guarantee its survival; the farm's owner, David E. Hills, has become a veteran of rejecting overtures by builders who want to buy the land and construct houses on it.

"Eventually they gave up," said Hills, 53, a 10th-generation owner, "but every year they'd be asking, 'Are you sure? Not at any price?' "

Finally, last year, Hills made sure the farm would retain its natural beauty forever: He secured two conservation easements that will permanently protect about 60 acres of the property from development. The remaining, unprotected land will continue to be used for agricultural purposes, such as growing hay, corn, pumpkins, berries, and other produce.

"The farm is a place we really love and adore," said Hills, "so I definitely felt that it was my responsibility, if at all possible, to continue to keep the space open."

Hills took over management of the farm in 1974 at age 20 when his grandfather, Forrest Emery, died and his mother inherited the property. Their ancestor, Joseph Smith, had been granted the land by the king of England in 1655. Because his mother lived in Ohio, and because Hills was the only one of her five children who, as he puts it, "didn't have my roots too planted anywhere," he moved to Durham to run the farm and study at the University of New Hampshire.

For most of its history, Emery Farm was used primarily for timber harvesting and for growing hay and grain, which was sold locally for animal feed. From the 1930s to the 1950s, it also housed a modest dairy of about 60 cows. But when Hills arrived, he recalled, "I looked at the farm and said, 'What can we do with this beautiful land that could give the public more access to it?' "

His solution: He turned it into a pick-your-own operation where visitors can roam the fields and orchards picking pumpkins and blueberries. To make the farm even more inviting to families, he also added a petting barn, picnic tables, sand box, hayrides, and other child-friendly amenities. And he built a farmstand and "country store" that sell baked goods, greenhouse supplies, locally made crafts, cut flowers, specialty foods such as jams and honey, and fresh fruits and vegetables grown at the farm, including squash, green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and mums.

"It was a way of giving the community an opportunity to do something different than going shopping at malls, and to get out in nature as a family," Hills said. "We felt it was a better vision."

Although Hills still lives on the farm with his wife and one of his daughters, he has leased the property for about 15 years to a pair of brothers, Bradford and William Towle, who make a living farming the land and running the store and farmstand. Hills works full time in Portsmouth for A.G. Edwards, a financial services firm, where he does socially responsible investing.

Protecting the farm in perpetuity with conservation easements, which prevent the land from being developed, was also part of Hills's vision of the property. When he moved to the farm more than three decades ago, the property totaled 300 acres. But several years ago Hills sold 180 acres to the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization, which agreed to permanently protect it.

Then he secured permanent protection for another 60 acres with two conservation easements. One of them, covering 48 acres, was funded by the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture, and the Town of Durham. The other easement, covering 11 acres, was a donation by Hills.

"For me, the easement was an opportunity to create a legacy for the land to always be used for agricultural or open space," Hills said, "and we really felt like that was a gift to the community."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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