Nutkin Knoll is just as charming as its storybook name promises, even in the monochromatic landscape of Maine’s late fall. That graceful spread of property in Newburgh, now a Christmas tree and maple sugaring farm, did not achieve its picturesque form by itself. Len and Nancy Price have worked diligently, with a devotion to their land that goes way beyond commercial interest. Their land, in its turn, has given back in unexpected ways.
Some people inherit their attachment to land directly. In the Prices’ case, the inclination toward land stewardship skipped a generation or two. For Nancy’s mother, who grew up on a farm in Michigan, farm life was toilsome drudgery. Len’s grandfather, also from Michigan, was a farmer as well. But when Len was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, “being a farmer was not considered an acceptable thing.”
Nevertheless, Len knew when he was 5 years old that he wanted to be a farmer (he also wanted a helicopter, but that has not materialized). He always enjoyed his grandfather’s Michigan farm, not far from his childhood home. And every December from the time he was 8 years old he remembers going into the woods behind his house to cut himself a Christmas tree.
Still, the pressures of expectation directed Len toward a professional career. The vision of his farm never left him as he made his way through years of higher education.
In the 1970s, Len was doing graduate work in London. Nancy, a college student in Georgia, took a summer trip to Europe during which she met Len. They were pen pals for two years before Len moved back to the states, and they decided to spend their lives together. Appropriately, it was Christmastime when they married in 1978.
Len and Nancy were both eager to find a home and tree farm. With that in mind, they moved to Maine in 1980. Len got a job teaching science at Brewer Middle School, Nancy worked as a full-time dorm supervisor at the University of Maine, but they never lost sight of their goal.
In 1987, a property in Newburgh went on the market. A week later, Len and Nancy had their land. Very soon, they had planted their first Christmas trees.
Nutkin Knoll is aesthetically beautiful, but the charm of the place is more than its beauty. The Prices are avid believers in education and community outreach. In managing their land, they
consulted with foresters and farmers, biologists and lawyers, and learned everything they could — both to educate themselves and to learn how to educate others about responsible, healthy land management.
While Nancy was home raising their two children, she was able to host many school field trips and community enrichment events at Nutkin Knoll. Upon winning Maine’s 2005 Outstanding Tree Farmer Award, they hosted a field day filled with tours, education and fun. Over the years, many children and families came for picnics, scavenger hunts, flower and vegetable planting and maple sugar tours. They always learned something that fostered admiration and respect for the natural world before going home.
After Nancy went back to teaching seven years ago, the farm had to cut back on weekday events, but the Prices continue to do community outreach whenever they can. They learned about maple sugaring from a neighbor, whose grandson is now learning the same skills from Len. Several hundred people show up on maple sugaring Sunday every year.
And of course, there is Christmastime — hot cider, warm welcomes and a cheerful sense of family everywhere you turn — “We want our customers to feel the real farm experience.”
Last spring, Len retired after 30 years of teaching, but another event changed their lives even more. Len and Nancy’s teenage daughter, Kelsey, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On Nov. 9, Kelsey turns 17. In a barn party at Nutkin Knoll set for Friday evening, she will celebrate not just her birthday but the completion of her chemotherapy treatments.
There could be no more appropriate setting for the event, since Kelsey is as devoted to the farm as her parents are. In some ways, I get the feeling that Nutkin Knoll has supported the whole family through their difficult time.
Living and working the farm means living the life Len and Nancy have dreamed of since childhood. The land has provided sustenance and education, but that’s only the beginning. It also gives them work in the fresh air, a meaningful connection to the earth and to local people, daily challenges for mind and body and peace of mind. There could be no better salve for troubled times, at least not for the Price family.
Call for stories! By popular demand, Conversations With Maine is publishing another “readers’ stories column” on Dec. 30. Send your stories of New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day traditions, memories and mishaps, in crowds or in solitude, humorous or heartwarming to email@example.com or 20 Summer St. Hampden 04444.