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Tubing on sugar maple trees on the Pearl Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire.
Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Saving farmland is a sweet deal for New Hampshire maple producers

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Picture, if you will, a maple sugar harvest. It’s a storybook scene: a snowy New England forest, a bucket hanging on every tree catching a steady drip of sap, and a big vat simmering sweetly over a wood fire in a tumbledown barn, slowly reducing the sap into rich, amber syrup.

“Nope—mine doesn’t look like that at all,” says Howard Pearl, whose family has been farming the same land in Loudon, New Hampshire, since the late 1800s. “What we’ve got going is a much more technological type of operation.” Like a lot of family farmers, Pearl learned his trade from working alongside his dad as a teen and young adult. But that doesn’t mean his operation is stuck in the past.

nh_pearl_farm_20190617_009Howard Pearl's family has been farming this land in Loudon, New Hampshire, since the late 1800s (and they farmed across town before that).Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Today, Pearl’s 285-acre farm is a proving ground for maple industry innovation. Each of his 11,000 taps is connected by a network of vacuum tubing—450,000 feet in all—that induces the tree to produce more sap and pipes it to a centralized location. The collected sap then passes through a reverse osmosis system that filters out 80 percent of the water that would otherwise need to be boiled off. “That cuts down significantly on our fuel,” Pearl says, “And I can make as much in an hour using osmosis as it would take me in a whole day of boiling.”

From the traditional to the futuristic, Pearl and his fellow maple producers in Loudon are part of the agricultural backbone of Loudon. Once maple season ends—usually about this time of year—Pearl turns his attention to his fields, where he grows vegetables like zucchini and winter squash to supply local wholesalers and farm stands. 

nh_pearl_farm_20190617_087Each of Pearl's 11,000 taps is connected by a network of vacuum tubing—450,000 feet in all—that induces the tree to produce more sap and pipes it to a centralized location. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

But maple technology isn’t the only change that’s come to Loudon since Pearl was a kid. “There used to be six farms along our road, and throughout my lifetime, they’re all gone,” he says. In Loudon and across New England, more small producers like Pearl are struggling to make ends meet, and many have been forced to sell their farms. 

“Loudon is still rural, still affordable, but as close as we are to Concord and Boston, we’re growing very fast,” says Julie Robinson, who chairs the Loudon Conservation Commission. “Agriculture plays a significant role in stewarding Loudon’s rural landscape, and it’s central to our economy, our culture, and our history,” Robinson says.

That’s why the community has come together to protect farmland. So far, Loudon residents have voted to preserve three local farms, directing their tax dollars to cover part of the cost of conservation easements that ensure the land will never be developed, while providing local farmers with much-needed revenue from the sale of the easement. The conservation commission has also gotten funding from the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program—a source of state funding for conservation that The Trust for Public Land has long advocated for in Concord.

nh_pearl_farm_20190617_063“There used to be six farms along our road, and throughout my lifetime, they’re all gone,” he says. In Loudon and across New England, more small producers like Pearl are struggling to make ends meet, and many have been forced to sell their farms. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Next on the list for conservation? Howard Pearl’s farm. The Trust for Public Land is working alongside Pearl and the Loudon Conservation Commission to finance a conservation easement on the land. The deal will create an opportunity for the public to use this land for recreation. “At the top of the farm, you’re just looking over the farm and forestland of Loudon Ridge, which is one of our highest areas in town,” says Robinson. “It’s just a beautiful pastoral view of farmland and some water and trees.”

[Read more: How The Trust for Public Land helps state and local governments design, pass, and implement legislation and ballot measures that create new public funds for parks and land conservation.]

Meanwhile, the income from the sale of the easement will help Pearl stay in business, and make for a smoother financial transition to the next generation of farmers who will care for this land. This long-term stability is especially important for maple growers, says Pearl, noting that trees don’t even start producing sap until they’re 40 years old.  “You can’t just go make a maple orchard. It’s taken generations to get where we are, and I’ve spent a lot of my life planting, weeding, and cultivating, to where there’s just now a lot of growth potential here,” he says. “The next generation after me is going to have one hell of an orchard.”

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