LEOMINSTER, MASS. -- The weather had cooled a bit and the season was winding down, so Warren Gove, a farmer known for his extraordinary tomatoes, had time to talk -- although he was thoroughly perplexed.
"There's no news here. We're just making a living," Gove said.
That, in fact, is the news in the northeastern United States. Agriculture here has plenty of problems, but the economic crisis of the 1980s that has bankrupted tens of thousands of farmers elsewhere has largely bypassed this part of the country.
Unlike the troubled midwestern Farm Belt, agricultural land prices have remained high because of intense development pressure. Climate, steep terrain and small farming tracts have required farmers to diversify and scramble to stay in business. And a huge urban population assures that virtually every carrot, every drop of milk, every bunch of herbs will find a ready market.
Throughout the Northeast, small-scale agriculture is undergoing a resurgence -- the number of farms actually is increasing -- due to growing consumer interest in fresher food and innovative state programs designed to keep farmers on the land and to make consumers less reliant on food imports.
"They have 55 million people in 12 states -- that's the key," said Howard W. (Bud) Kerr, small-farms expert at the Agriculture Department in Washington. "The Northeast is one of the few places where they're doing something -- it's not all that talk about more exports. It's what you can do at home and do well."
Vegetable grower Gove's experience is a case in point.
Although he and his son, Paul, farm about 50 acres -- a drop in the bucket for a midwestern grain farmer -- they live comfortably by selling almost everything they grow from a roadside stand at the edge of their property.
They build some of the special equipment they need for vegetables; Gove has pioneered techniques that keep tomatoes alive long after frost has stopped other farmers. He's expanding his greenhouses to meet the increasing demand for profitable bedding plants.
"Transplant me to Iowa, and I'd do no better than they are," Gove said. But as he talked, the spirit of innovation and the willingness to live within his means -- traits shared by many farmers in the region -- punctuated his remarks and bespoke success.
Worcester County extension agent Alden Miller, a transplanted midwesterner, put it this way: "Warren Gove has one of the best farms in New England. He is innovative. He can make more profit from 5,000 tomato plants than growers with 48,000 plants. I was used to large-scale farming when I came out here . . . but 'big' is not the way to go in New England. The farming is more intensive here, and if you're good, you're doing well."
Here in the Northeast, many farmers have learned the lesson of survival. As Kerr put it: They must adapt and take advantage of local marketing opportunities. If that means sweet corn and squash instead of easier-grown barley and soybeans, so be it.
And, contrary to a widely held belief that only Washington holds the keys to agricultural prosperity, the states of the region are finding new and catchy ways of stimulating local farm production and preserving farm land under intense development pressure.
New Jersey and New York, for example, spend more than $1 million a year to promote locally grown foods. Vermont's aggressive program promoting the "Vermontness" of local food products is so successful that there is a shortage of raw materials. Connecticut promotes its own produce; Maine farmers so long reliant on the potato are expanding into other vegetables such as broccoli to tap the regional markets.
In New Hampshire, where the state encourages farmers to diversify, dairy farming has been displaced from its traditional No. 1 position by vegetable growing and nursery production, much of it sold directly to consumers at elaborate farm stands.
A textbook for success is being written by Richard Clark Jr., who gave up dairy farming near Bedford, N.H., nine years ago and created a vegetable and flower operation that draws national attention. Clark's produce is sold from a handsome stand on a remote side road. His innovations produce tomatoes that ripen earlier and later than most others in forbidding New England weather, and his retail flower output is the state's largest.
But Clark and his family are strapped by the same dilemma facing other farmers in the region. They are increasingly hemmed in by urban development, and skyrocketing land costs make it impossible for them to expand.
The pressures have become so intense that Clark's oldest son, Dickie, is uncertain about the farm's future. A neighboring, 60-acre dairy farm was sold to developers last year for $1.2 million. At those prices, the Clarks cannot think of expansion.
"The land pressures are such that they may force us to go to greenhouse operations only. But in order to survive, we have to be diversified," young Clark said. "It kills me -- all this agricultural land being developed, and it can't be returned to farming. Agricultural production here will be a necessity in the future. But there's no concern now about where the food will come from."
"There are staggering opportunities for marketing in this region," said Steve Taylor, the state's agriculture commissioner. "And all kinds of young people want to do these things . . . . We used to think of farm stands as a piece of plywood on two sawhorses. Now they are like supermarkets, and the supermarkets have countered by tripling the size of their produce departments."
The premier agricultural promotion schemes may belong to Massachusetts, where Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) and two hyperactive agricultural commissioners in the last decade have launched several programs designed to bolster farming, ensure more food self-sufficiency and relieve environmental pressures.
"Pesticide drift and pollution of groundwater and urban development are our biggest problems," said August (Gus) Schumacher Jr., appointed by Dukakis as food and agriculture commissioner in 1985. "But the sheer prosperity of our state is overwhelming agriculture. Farmers are just not sharing in the general prosperity, even though their 1978 pickup trucks are fully paid."
Dukakis and Fred Winthrop, who preceded Schumacher in the job, decided in the mid-1970s that the state had to step in forcefully to halt the rapid decline in the number of farms, which had dropped from about 35,000 to 4,500 in 30 years.
"They said, 'That's enough,' and they put together a farm policy that included aggressive promotion of Massachusetts agriculture and farm land protection measures," Schumacher said.
Schumacher, a former World Bank economist and truck farmer who paid his way through Harvard by growing Indian corn, has kept the ball rolling. He talks farming comfortably, knows many constituents on a first-name basis and is on the road constantly, promoting efforts such as these:
As a response to public health concerns and pollution problems, more than $500,000 has been allocated by the state this year to increase the integrated pest management program so as to allow farmers to reduce chemical pesticide use, yet control insects and weeds.
A program that pays farmers to keep their land in food production has spent $42 million to assure that 213 farms will remain in business for the long haul. The problem now is money, Schumacher said. The state is receiving more land preservation applications than it can pay for, but puts a priority on saving dairy farms to assure a continual supply of fresh milk.
Because community solid-waste dumps are filling quickly and refuse-disposal costs rising, the Dukakis administration is about to begin a program designed to help farmers buy equipment that can be used to compost organic matter that otherwise would go into the landfills. Farmers will sell the finished product as garden and nursery soil supplements or use the compost on their own farms.
"Massachusetts Grown . . . and Fresher" campaign, with in-store promotions and television coverage, has opened new marketing opportunities to dozens of the state's fruit and vegetable growers and encouraged others to get involved. The Stop and Shop supermarket chain, the largest in the state, is an active participant, as is the smaller Bread and Circus natural-foods chain.
At least 65 companies have received state loans designed to promote expansion of the food-processing industry. State financing allowed John Ricca of Westminster to consolidate his widely scattered egg-production firm into a state of the art, computer-run, brown-egg facility that is New England's largest, selling 90 percent of its ultra-fresh eggs in Massachusetts.
In addition to about 100 full-time roadside farm stands and perhaps 700 part-time stands, a state-sponsored program has opened more than 50 new farm markets, most of them in inner-city areas, since 1978. More are on the drawing boards to encourage farmers to sell directly to consumers. Farm tours for restaurant chefs have allowed farmers to make new sales contacts.
A food-coupon scheme started by Schumacher to draw more low-income consumers into state markets is expected to put about $94,000 into farmers' pockets this year. Poor women with children and the elderly, identified through social service programs, exchange the coupons for fresh produce at the markets. Cities in at least three other states have set up similar coupon programs.
To help overcome the agricultural land shortage, Schumacher has started another program to lease state-owned land to beginning farmers who do not have the capital to buy or lease other property. The first of these, at Belchertown, is under way and neophyte farmers are selling their produce at local markets.
At markets statewide, farmers talk warmly about programs aimed at boosting agricultural income and helping the state to reduce its dependence on food from outside. About 85 percent of the food consumed in Massachusetts comes from outside the state.
Even highly successful farmers such as Raymond Duda of Easthampton, one of the state's largest dairymen, are talking about change for survival's sake.
"We're trying to redesign our operation so we can stay alive . . . . I'm farming on $50,000 building lots," Duda said. "We've been surviving through our efficiency and technology. But how much more efficient can we get? In the Northeast, we can't expand. The land is not here."
Duda's "redesign" involves compost, which he produces from horse and cow manure and which he thinks will bring in as much money as his milk. "I can see this blossoming, now that the state is promoting it," he said. "Most farmers and communities will be using compost regularly in the future, there's no doubt in my mind."
The rest of the region keeps an eye on Massachusetts' programs because, in the words of New Hampshire commissioner Taylor, "Whatever Schumacher does down there helps us. These marketing promotions help our farmers more than anything we can do . . . . More of our food is staying at home because the market is here -- well over 95 percent of what we eat is from outside. We're surplus only in apples."
Between sales at the busy Cambridge farmers' market on a recent afternoon, Doris Mills, an orchard operator from Westport, said, "They've done so much for farmers . . . . It's fantastic. We've had a 50 percent improvement in sales since last year because of Schumacher's coupon program."
Mills and her husband are on the road seven days a week, traveling to the state markets with fruit from the orchard her grandfather started in 1898.
"What we're fighting in Massachusetts is that the markets buy so much from outside," Mills said. "This gives us a chance now to survive."