September 8, 2013

After 53 years, farmer is still growing strong

Louise Randall is 85 years old but still working on the land she loves in Connecticut.

By JUDY BENSON The Day of New London

LEBANON, Conn. - 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.

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Louise “Teddy” Randall is an 85-year-old Connecticut farmer who is still enjoying the trials and tribulations after 53 years on her land.

The Associated Press

"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.

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.

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