The LeClair Farm on Piper Hill Road has been named Outstanding Dairy Farm of the Year for New Hampshire. The award is part of the New England Green Pastures Program, which names an outstanding dairy farm from each New England state every year. The top dairy farmers are invited to a banquet in their honor at the Big E.
Gary and Jean LeClair are known to many in the Claremont community because of their farm stand, not only a place to get fresh local produce but a first job for many Claremonters who are now grown up and doing other things.
The farm was once Gary’s father’s, but he sold it in 1976.
“We didn’t have any money,” said Gary. Jean’s father was a farmer, however, and after two years of working for him the young couple thought they might as well try going out on their own. They got a small loan and bought the farm back.
“The first couple years we didn’t have any help at all,” said Gary. “Jean worked while she was pregnant, right up until the baby was born. We did milking together that night! Then we went to the hospital, and I came back because I had to finish milking.”
After their son Tim was born, Jean would bring the baby stroller into the barn while she did the milking. “The humming and the rhythm of the machines always put him to sleep,” said Jean. “He would stay asleep the whole time.”
“The kids got bigger and we kept adding cows,” said Gary. A second son followed, Jason, and their herd expanded from 25 to 60.
“It was a gradual, progressive expansion,” said Jean. As they got money, they put it into the farm. They used to milk four cows at a time, and now they do 20.
They also used to sell corn on the picnic table in the front yard, but 12 or 13 years ago, they opened the farm stand. There are fewer farms around them, and fields Gary used to harvest hay on have become housing developments. Although there is still lots of farm land around, they have to travel farther to get to it. Currently they have 400 acres of their own, and more that they rent. The equipment has gotten bigger and more complicated, making it possible to get more product in less time, with less hands-on work, but that means fewer farmers over all, and fewer people needed to do the work.
“I’m not sure,” said Gary. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
Both Gary and Jean are college-educated, which they say has been critical to their survival as farmers. Gary has a degree in business, and Jean studied medicine, which she said came in handy for dealing with the cows.
One thing that hasn’t changed is fixing the equipment. The building that houses the farm stand now used to be their shop, where Gary and his sons work on the tractors and multifarious machines needed to run a modern dairy farm. Grandson Liam rides along in some of the equipment; he even has his own seat, and he can explain the use of much of the big equipment even though he’s just entering first grade.
We didn’t send much off the farm to get fixed,” said Gary. “We still don’t.”
“We’re banging on a truck right now,” said Jason.
The farm has 500 head of cattle and produces hay in square and round bales, as well as the vegetables at the farm stand. Tim and his wife Cory have added maple syrup products to the stand, and the family has thoughts of maybe expanding the stand in the future — maybe offering prepared food and a place to sit and eat.
That would work, because the LeClairs have a way of making people feel welcome. With the many families who come through and want to talk about the farm, as well as all the young people who have worked at the stand over the last four decades, the LeClairs are ambassadors for agriculture.
“I like to think that we’ve done that for the community,” said Jean. “I like to think we’ve set an example.”
-- GLYNIS HART