The Ox Whisperer: When Farmington Lost A Quiet Farmer

"I just can't imagine the Cornish Fair ox pull competition on Saturday night without Artie Scruton and his team in the ring… a terrible accident… just awful."

former Commissioner of Agriculture, Stephen Taylor

The obituary which ran the day after Memorial Day stunned the state's farming community. "Arthur Scruton, age 58, died at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover on Sunday May 25, 2008, from injuries sustained in the field by a harrow…A 1971 graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture. After completing his education, he came back on the farm…he always wanted to be a farmer."

Scruton was president of Scruton Dairy Inc. in Farmington, a lifelong farmer and a perennial farming fixture. By all accounts, Artie Scruton never had an unkind word for anyone. His brother, Reverend John Scruton, offers that Arthur was "always an optimist – a necessity for a farmer. His three passions were farming, family and his Christian faith."

Scruton epitomized that stereotypical quiet farmer. N.H. Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill says Scruton was "unfailingly calm, quiet, gentle, effective." Renowned for working with trained oxen, Scruton was a master teamster. "He had a way of talking to his team, like an 'ox whisperer' – invariably he won competitions." Merrill continues, "He didn't say much but when he did speak, his chose his words carefully. People really listened to Arthur- he got people's attention. He never whined or complained and always looked for good traits in people. In a quiet way, he brought out the best in those around him."

Scruton's Dairy is well-known in the statewide agricultural community. Former Commissioner of Agriculture, Stephen Taylor says of Scruton's accident, "It just punches a huge hole in the heart of New Hampshire agriculture because the Scrutons are great people."

Everybody knew Artie. His mom and dad were fixtures in many New Hampshire farm organizations. Art's wife's dad, Dick Bailey worked for years at the Department of Agriculture. There are so many family farming connections. It was a horrible accident, a tragedy and a terrible outcome." Reflecting on the loss to the annual Cornish Fair close to Taylor's own farm outside the Plainfield village of Meriden, he adds ruefully: "I can't imagine the Cornish Fair ox pull competition on Saturday night without Artie Scruton and his team in the ring – he managed to win half of 'em."

Arthur's brother, John shares this story: "When we were young, my brother and I would yoke up steers and go with our grandfather out in the woods to get cordwood. One of Art's favorite sayings came from those tasks: 'Load light and go often'. We would take a break at lunch, start the old Dodge truck to which we were hauling the wood, heat our sandwiches on the manifold and dry off our gloves and then go back into the woods for another load." With obvious pride John points out that Arthur continued to work with oxen his entire life, pulling at fairs for 50 consecutive years. "At Rochester (Fair), Arthur continued a tradition that has seen our family compete for over 100 consecutive years."

Outside the Peaslee Funeral Home in Farmington, an estimated 400 to 500 people – farmers, families, 4H friends and former students – gathered to express condolences and to remember Artie Scruton. The line stretched out a door and part way down the block, a tribute, not only to Scruton, but to the enduring loyalty of the regional farming community. Commissioner Merrill adds: "it was like a big reunion of New England 4H families, across the generations – sons, wives, children, and now even grandchildren."

Farmers intimately understand cycles of birth, life, death and continuity. Scruton knew how critical it is to mentor the next generation, to cultivate a crop of aspiring young farmers. Scruton was a role model for 4H'ers from around New England as an advisor and occasional instructor to 4H kids working with steers in the "Yankee Teamsters" club. Scruton hosted UNH dairy management and cream class field trips to his dairy operation where the Scrutons milk nearly 300 Holsteins.

In the statewide land conservation field, we spend time identifying and reviewing maps of agricultural soils "of statewide significance." We work to identify and to protect and conserve the best remaining farmlands. In agricultural science, farmers calculate soil drainage characteristics and measure minerals – nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium or calcium. Perhaps we overlook the most critical human element: farmers themselves. We only seem to notice when once-rural landscapes become deficient. Farmers are a dwindling resource of statewide significance. The loss of an accomplished local farmer ripples across our communities and the traditions of the working agricultural landscape.

Each year in late summer and early autumn, agricultural fairs display livestock and farm produce. Farmer's markets and county fairs are run by hard-working farmers. Last week's gathering of the tribe in remembrance of a quiet farmer epitomizes the spirit of a farming community with mutual respect for shared values: farming, family, faith, hard work and close ties to the land in all seasons.

There are no substitutes for elemental sunshine, rain and soil fertility; no substitute for hard-won wisdom and the experience invested in the remaining farmers. They risk the vagaries of weather, occupational hazards and potential economic ruin to continue farming. Their livelihood raising agricultural commodities makes the suburban and citified supermarket lifestyles possible.

Few children now share classrooms with farm families. We're less familiar with where our food comes from. Visit a local farmer's market during strawberry season, buy fresh sweet corn and sun-ripened local produce or pick your own apples. Share a family meal and talk about where food comes from. Try visiting the local county fair and bring some children or grandchildren. To learn more about agriculture in New Hampshire, visit the Department of Agriculture website at www.agriculture.nh.gov.