A shared love of nature first brought John Merrill and Lorraine Stuart Merrill together, as students studying at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s. Over the course of the next forty years, the couple steadily cultivated that passion into a thriving dairy business, founded upon conservation and stewardship. Today, the Merrills farm land in Stratham, New Hampshire first purchased by Lorraine's parents and aunt and uncle in 1961.
Farming is a family affair for the Merrills. John and Lorraine's elder son, Nate and his wife Judy are now their partners, living and working on the farm, along with their daughters, Hannah and Sammy. Lorraine's parents, James and Lorraine Stuart, now retired, also reside on the farm and help oversee operations. Although four generations live on the farm today in New Hampshire, the history of Stuart Farm began in Massachusetts. Before coming to Stratham in 1961, Lorraine's family had farmed in Littleton, a small, rural town about 40 miles from Boston.
The family's fate was changed when plans for a new Massachusetts interstate highway began to take shape in the late 1950s, charting its course right through the Stuarts' land. The property was taken by eminent domain, so Lorraine's parents and aunt and uncle purchased a new farm in New Hampshire, where the family lives and farms today. "I was very young, but I remember these giant, earth-moving machines carving up our farm. It really affected me," Lorraine recalls.
Today, Stuart Farm is a 270-acre dairy operation, consisting mostly of Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, nestled at the edge of the Great Bay Estuary in the town of Stratham. "My parents and aunt sold the development rights on this farm back in the early 80s," Lorraine says, "One of the first farms protected by the state of New Hampshire. They wanted to ensure the farm would remain undeveloped, and it also made it possible over time for us as the younger generations to buy the farm and keep it in the family."
In 2012, the family purchased the former Ath-Mor Farm in Lee, NH, and a conservation easement was sold at the closing to permanently protect the and it's Lamprey River frontage from development. The second farm location is used to grow haylage, corn silage and for raising the heifers that will oneday join the milking herd in Stratham.
Conservation and environmental management are at the core of Stuart Farm."I remember feeling sad to leave the Littleton farm, but I quickly fell in love with the farm in Stratham. There was a whole new ecosystem to explore here, with the tidal river and salt marshes. I loved the birds, and developed a deep connection to this land," Lorraine says. Protecting that ecosystem is a top priority for the Merrills. “Conserving our soils and waters – our future depends on it,” Lorraine says. In 2003, the Merrills were named Stewards of the Lands by the American Farmland Trust, the organization’s highest honor.
The family continues to be actively involved in the public policy of conservation. Nate has been very involved in local and regional land conservation efforts, and now serves on the Exeter-Squamscott River Advisory Committee. As John farms full time, along with Nate and Judy, Lorraine serves as the New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, the state’s highest agricultural office. In this role, Commissioner Merrill is responsible for shaping agricultural policy at the state level. “I am fortunate to have a job that allows me to stay connected to our farm, while also working to ensure a viable future for agriculture in New Hampshire,” she says.
“Our children and grandchildren love the farm and the animals. It’s hard to imagine not farming, not working with the land. John grew up hiking in the White Mountains, working on trail crews in the summer. I’d spent my childhood on the farm, always outside, exploring,” Lorraine says. “We found we had a lot in common.” Values of family, community, stewardship of the land and caring for animals are the bedrock of this multi-generation farm business.