Staying Down on the Farm
Despite rising labor and productions costs, the Eastern Slope Farm is a thriving enterprise.
Historically the Saco River Valley has nurtured some of the North Country's finest farms, and it wasn't too many decades ago that Conway was primarily an agricultural community and small farming a way of life. Several world wars, agribusiness and a variety of other factors changed all that, and although a few stalwarts like the Lucys and the Allards remain, today tourism is king. Every rule had its exception though, and Conway's has been Dr. Eugene Hussey's Eastern Slope Farm, situated on the West Side Road. During the decline of the area's other farming enterprises, Eastern Slope has risen to the distinction of being New Hampshire's second largest dairy farm.
Farming was a family tradition for Eugene Hussey, who grew up in Kezar Falls, Maine, during the difficult '30s, and eventually worked his way through the University of Maine and Michigan State Veterinary School. In the early 1950s he returned to the region to establish a practice, which today occupies the majority of his working day, although, as his son Stephen said, "Farming was always in the back of his mind."
During the summer of 1960, the Eastern Slope Farm had its humble beginnings when Hussey leased the Edith James Place (just past Cliffside Restaurant heading south towards Conway on the West Side Road), with its 50 acres and 32 cows. In 1961 Hussey purchased the Densmore farm, today the site of Eastern Slope's three large cow barns, milking rooms and equipment sheds. A herd of Guernseys and Jerseys were included in the package, but were culled in favor of the more productive Holstein. "From there, things just kept getting bigger," recalled Steve, who along with farm manager John Landers is largely responsible for the daily operation of the farm. Today the enterprise encompasses 600 tillable acres (one third of those still leased), and boasts close to 600 select Holsteins with 260 milking, as well as Yorkshire pigs, Dorset sheep, Percheron and Morgan horses, and assorted geese and ducks. Most recently, Eastern Slope Farm also took over as owner of Conway's' Abbott Dairy, to which it trucks 12,000 pounds of its own milk a day.
Although he has chosen to join the family tradition, 26-year-old Steve admits to never really having had an interest in conventional farm youth activities like 4-H. It was only after two years off following high school that he decided to attend the University of New Hampshire's Thompson School, from which he received his associate degree. "It was a matter of making up my mind about the commitment," he explained. "I was never forced into it, and I didn't want to go to school until I knew what I wanted."
With the classroom behind, these days Steve lives and breathes farming. Work begins at 2 a.m. when the cows receive the first of their two daily feedings, a total of 5,600 pounds of silage and grain that has to be mixed and loaded into a huge, mechanized feed wagon, and then pulled through the three barns. Afterwards Steve mucks out the barns and then heads home for breakfast. By seven he's usually on a tractor until the second feeding at noon, and from two o'clock on there's field work until dinner time.
Spring of course, is busier than usual, and the work schedule even heavier. This season Steve did the field preparation for the 480 acres of silage corn that was planted, and rarely was home until dark. "Sometimes, it seems there's no end in sight," he said, acknowledging that it's particularly tough on his wife Peggy and young son Justin. "There's no doubt you really have to like the work to put in those hours." Then again there's always the ever present example of Dr. Hussey, who despite his rounds and office hours, found time to be on a tractor at 5:30 a.m. most mornings this spring to personally plant all 480 acres of corn.
Some of the time, the Husseys keep their schedule not by choice, but by necessity, since as Steve noted, "Getting good farm help is a chronic problem. Not many people want to work for farm wages when they can find a construction or factory job for a good deal more." Over the years the outstanding exception at the Eastern Slope Farm has been John Landers, who joined the operation as manager in 1961 when Dr. Hussey purchased the Densmore property. Landers is quick to agree with Steve's feelings on labor. "One of our regular workers puts in a 54-hour six-day week, and there's no way we can compete with the industrial wage scale. Most people aren't interested in that," Landers explained. "To do this job you have to love it. It gets into your blood, and then you don't watch the clock."
On top of labor problems is the opinion of the general public that food prices are unfairly high, although figures consistently indicate that only a fraction of the average food dollar spent returns to the farmer. As an indication of his feeling on the subject, Steve's truck bears the bumper sticker "Don't criticize farmers with your mouth full," and he elaborated, "People just don't understand about costs. Fertilizer, fuel, grain--they're all going up. We're not in a position to absorb the loss. It has to be passed along."
"It's an awfully hard business, and if you're lucky, in a given year you might make 2% on your investment--not much when you consider the time invested and the risk," Landers stated. "Our costs have gone up astronomically. A tractor that went for $6,000 in 1972 costs $17,000 today, and grain has gone from $75 a ton to $160. In that same period, milk per hundred weight has gone up only 10-15%."
"I can't see where it's going to end," Landers continued. "Food prices keep going up and the consumer yells, but for the most part the farmer doesn't see the money. Of course his investment in land and equipment is worth more on paper, but the only way he'll ever realize a profit is by selling out, and after taking care of a place for years who wants to do that?"
The rise in property taxes has also been a large factor in the even larger overhead of a farm operation. Fortunately, a portion of the Eastern Slope Farm's tillable acreage is flood plain, meaning that it is not developable, and thus taxed at a lower rate than more marketable property. "It's a mixed blessing, though," Steve remarked. "The taxes might be lower, but some of that land takes heavy abuse from the river every spring."
A key to coping with the increasing complexity of farming lies in good management, one reason Steve is grateful for the years he put in at UNH. "Anymore, farming is a business," he said. "There's an awful lot to it, from knowing your yield capacity per acre, equipment depreciation schedule, breeding and genetics, and figuring your expenses and taxes, to handling other people and yourself. Not that school was all so good. Some of the old methods are still the most effective."
Despite the various advantages of modern management, it is some of the traditional facets of the occupation that ultimately attracted Steve to farming. "There are a number of reasons I settled into it, from the responsibility I feel for the place to the change in the work routine from season to season. You're always doing something different," he said. "Still it's a hard pace to keep. You've got to like it if you put in the hours we do, but above all, I guess I just had it in me."