Published September 02. 2013 4:00AM Updated September 02. 2013 11:34PM
Lebanon - Banging her golf cart along a rugged dirt farm road she has traveled more than half her 85 years, Louise "Teddy" Randall stopped to check on a field of tilled brown soil, her hazel eyes peering out from under a straw hat to scan for sprouts.
"We just planted the beans there last week," said Randall one morning in late August, sitting behind the wheel of the cart, its rear compartment laden with empty harvesting buckets and shovels. "We planted three or four times this year, and had no crop. My beans were so beautiful last year, I never dreamed I wouldn't be able to raise beans. It's just been such a crazy year."
This summer, her 240-acre farm, in a town considered a stronghold of Connecticut agriculture, has produced bushels of yellow summer squash, bundles of Swiss chard fans, baskets of romaine lettuce heads and other vegetables, even as typically reliable crops like beets, carrots, beans and tomatoes have been undersized - or nonexistent - compared to past years.
Wet weather and weed infestations nearly ruined much of her 20 acres of hay. The hay, along with 90 acres of silage corn sold to a neighboring dairy farm, are main sources of income for the farm. But the vegetables are also an important part of the mix and a source of employment for Randall's half-dozen part-time helpers.
Even after 53 years of farming this spread, this seasoned farmer finds herself confounded by the vagaries of weather, new pest infestations, the endless challenges of training young staff in the finer points of customer interaction at the town farmers' market and finding new markets for her vegetables. But while many of her peers long ago retired from full-time responsibilities, Randall, though disheartened at how her peak months for vegetable farming have gone this year, isn't ready to give up or give over her life's work.
"She's got a passion to keep it going, and she wants to be the one in charge of it," said her son, James Randall, a local contractor who says he and his four siblings inherited fortitude and a penchant for hard work from their parents. "Sometimes she gets frustrated, but being busy and working at something keeps her going. A lot of people much younger don't produce what she does in a day."
In 1960, when 75 cents would buy a gallon of milk with change to spare, Randall and her husband, George, bought what was then a run-down dairy farm that barely yielded five bales of hay the first year. They and their five children, then ages 1 to 9, moved into the old farmhouse, and began a lifestyle familiar to her from childhood in Manchester.
"My father worked in a factory, but there were nine of us kids, so we grew most of our own food, and had four cows," said Randall, recalling how the cellar was always filled with home-canned, home-grown vegetables. After she and her husband took over Our Acres - a name she chose to connote a place shared with the community - they brought one field after another back into productive use, continuing the agricultural legacy of land that, according to the Lebanon Historical Society, has been farmed since the 1700s.
During 10 of the early years on the farm, Randall supplemented the dairy income by teaching elementary school, but by 1974 had left the classroom to help take care of her elderly mother-in-law and run the farm.
"When we started, we had 35 cows, and by the 1970s we built it up to 86, and then we got up to 140," she recalled, standing in the now obsolete milking parlor that adjoins the large, handsome red barn that probably dates from the late 1800s, according to the historical society.
In 1986, looking to curtail overproduction of milk and stabilize markets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered a dairy herd buyout program. Like many of their fellow dairy farmers with high debt, the Randalls took the offer. Suddenly the warm, docile creatures that set the pace of life at their farm - rising for 5 a.m. milking, days of leading the herd to and from pasture, hauling hay and silage, book-ended with the second milking at 5 p.m. - were gone.
"I still miss the whole thing," said Randall, showing a visitor the long-stilled milking stalls, calf breeding chart and milk collection system that was once the heart of her farm. "Most of our friends were dairy people. We had like problems and successes."
In the barn basement that once housed the dairy herd, Randall keeps one Hereford cow and her calf, just "to help use up some of this hay." The only other animals are two horses kept by her daughter, Mary Lou Soileau, who lives next door. A cow's moo still makes Randall nostalgic.
"I grew up milking cows, feeding calves," said Soileau, now a geographic information specialist in the USDA's Rhode Island office. "Growing up, I got to enjoy hard work, the smell of hay, being outdoors. I miss the cows, too."
Development rights sold
After the buyout, Our Acres' hay and silage corn crop went to feed other farms' cows, and some of the former pasture was planted with vegetables, raised organically. The farm began playing host to dozens of vocational agriculture student field trips and projects.
About a decade ago, Randall added Harvest Your Meal events, when parents are invited to bring their children to dig their own potatoes and pick their own tomatoes.
"You would see the children when a carrot would come out of the ground, their eyes would get so big," said Randall, her expression still showing a teacher's delight in watching a child learn something new. "Some adults who would come here didn't even know that potatoes came out of the ground."
Two years after they sold the cows, the Randalls closed on a another deal to pay off more debt, when the state agreed to buy development rights to their farm for $331,500. Today, Randall has mixed feelings about the decision. Under the program, farms remain privately owned and pay local taxes, but the state obtains a permanent deed restriction on the land that prohibits non-agricultural uses. Randall said selling the development rights helped financially at the time, but now the farm can't be subdivided. While she believes in preserving agricultural land, she also acknowledges that the restrictions leave her and her children with limited choices when planning for the future of the property.
"It did pay our mortgage debt off, but we would have been better off selling off two building lots, and then we could do what we wanted," she said.
Her children, she said, want her to keep the farm, but are all established in their own lives and careers, not inclined to give that up for longer hours and less pay running a farm.
"In theory it's good," Randall said of the development rights program. "But nowadays, someone has to have a good job just so they can have a farm. That's not right."
Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust, said about 90 percent of the 250 farms that have sold their development rights to the state are being actively farmed. If the Randall family were to decide to sell or lease Our Acres, he said, he expects there would be a willing buyer, because of its location in a town he called "the epicenter of agriculture in eastern Connecticut," with highly productive soils and an existing culture of support businesses and farm-friendly local government.
The tougher problem, he said, is deciding when the time is right to make a change.
"That's the hard part, and the one that's so gut-wrenching for the family," he said. "It's not always a comfortable process, and sometimes it doesn't get dealt with until there's an event. But once the decision's made, the tools are there, and it can be relatively easy."
One unique challenge for the Randall farm, however, may be its size - small by national standards, but large for Connecticut, where the average farm is about 83 acres, according to the state agriculture department. The recent trend among new farmers is toward specialty farms that produce high-end products such as goat cheese or wine, Talmage said, and these tend to be smaller.
Still, Joseph Dippel, of the state agriculture department, believes that when - and if - a "for sale" or "for lease" sign goes up next to the rustic wooden "Our Acres Farm" sign, it would attract a lot of interest. There have been 10 recent resales of farmland in Lebanon, he noted.
"There is a market for them," said Dippel, bureau director of the Agriculture Development and Resource Preservation Bureau.
But he understands that that time hasn't come yet, given Randall's determination to continue running the operation herself.
"She's quite a pistol," he said.
Among farmers, he and Talmage both said, working full time well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s isn't all that unusual.
"It's not the typical profession where you turn 64 and start planning to move to Florida," said Talmage. "It's really more of a lifestyle. The average age of farmers continues to climb."
Finding a Christmas tree
Randall, for her part, remains firmly involved in the present, looking to learn more about organic agriculture methods, fussing over the small self-service, honor-system stand out front to make sure the eye-catching sunflowers are arranged just right to attract customers, making new connections with the Norwich school system to sell her sweet corn and squash.
Ever the teacher, she never seems to tire of instructing her young staff about important details - like making sure tomato stems are trimmed so the fruits don't puncture each other in the harvest buckets - and keeps her sense of humor about the all the unpredictable challenges of running a farm.
"I don't have to go to the casinos to gamble," she joked.
But she has tried to plan for the future of her farm, twice bringing in potential successors through the state's Farm Links program that matches farmers looking to sell or lease land with those looking to enter the business. Neither pairing worked out.
"I'd like to see the farm continue to be used for research and eduction," Randall said.
Her daughter said the family, which now includes 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, has mulled over the future of Our Acres, but not made any decisions. They still gather there for holidays, she said, and a few years ago revived an old Thanksgiving Day tradition. After the meal, the whole family searches the back acres for the farmhouse Christmas tree. When she was a child, Soileau recalled, her parents would have chosen a tree ahead of time and given clues about where their children would find it. Under the tree would be one small gift for each child as a kind of warm-up for Christmas Day.
"Our hearts are tied to this land," Soileau said. "We know where the rocks are, where the wet spots are. Our family's hard work went into moving those rocks, planting the corn. We don't want to just let it go. But I have no idea what we're going to do. I guess we're going to have to cross that bridge when we come to it."