Standing near a series of barns and stables he built with his father and three sons, L. Arthur Randall Jr. surveys the 160-acre farm his family has worked since 1905 and talks about the way things used to be.

He remembers when Stroudwater Street wasn’t filled with commuters speeding between Westbrook and Portland and when the skies were not filled with passenger jets from the Portland International Jetport. And when a 60-acre field across the way didn’t have an Interstate 95 connector road or an exit ramp that claimed 13 acres of his land.

He remembers vast tracts of farmland when the only noise was mooing cows and other sounds of a working farm.

Three generations of farmers have tended this land. But the ongoing building bonanza in Greater Portland has Randall, who is 75, feeling the pinch.

“It’s closing in,” he said during an interview at the century-old family farm, where the original home and barn were built with timber harvested off the land.

To Randall, the rolling expanse of pasture land is the vestige of a bygone era. A place where, during the Depression, his grandfather, Elmer Randall, a father of 10, would give destitute families with children free milk and veal.

“Those people had pride enough to offer to come down and cut alders by the brook, cut firewood,” he said. “The women would offer to come and do housework in return for the milk. And we had veal calves, so a little milk and little meat, you know, he let ’em have it, because he had put some money in a sock. If he hadn’t put money in a sock like that, it would have been bad.”

Armed with a quick wit, keen sense of humor and penchant for speaking his mind, Randall talked to Source about the history of his family farm – and its precarious future, how it’s remained a constant in a rapidly changing environment and why he refuses to sell out to developers.

L. Arthur Randall Jr. pets one of his cows as he walks around a pasture looking for a newborn calf on his farm near the Westbrook-Portland line. Randall’s farm is one of a handful left in Westbrook, and he is holding out against encroaching development. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

THE EARLY YEARS

Arthur Randall Jr. began his life on Pride Street in Westbrook, where his family kept three milking cows. His childhood home was roughly five miles from the family farm.

“My job, at 5- or 6-years-old, was to go across the street, get two cows, lead them across street and put them in the barn, so when my dad got home they could be milked,” he recalled. His dad, Llewellyn “Lew” Randall, worked at the S.D. Warren paper mill in Westbrook. “And I had one old cow with horns, and she didn’t like a small fry leading her, so I would take and put my arms over her horns and then she couldn’t see by me.”

When he was 7, his family moved to Gray, where he still owns over 200 acres. On his 11th birthday, he and his 10-year-old brother received 22 cows for milking.

“Seven days a week, $10 a month,” he said. “Up in Gray, we’d milk and put it in 40-quart cans – 10 gallons – and send it to Hood’s. The cans weighed 80 pounds and I weighed 50. Every once in a while my hands would stick to the cans in cold weather, and I’d follow cans into the cooler.”

After graduating high school at the Pennell Institute, Randall served “one hitch” in the U.S. Navy before returning to Westbrook and moving into a small house built at the foot of the hill where the original farmhouse is perched.

He has six children, three sons and three daughters, and his sons still help him around the farm.

The farm used to process milk. Today, it has about 80 naturally fed, antiobiotic-free cattle for meat.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Randall was never able to earn a living from the farm. For decades, he worked on the Portland waterfront, doing mostly mechanical work on fishing vessels and tankers. He helped his father tend the farm on nights and weekends.

But for the last 14 years or so, he’s devoted most of his time to raising cattle.

“There’s plenty of money in farming,” he joked. “All you want to put in.”

Randall raises about 80 naturally fed, antiobiotic-free cattle for meat on his Westbrook farm. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

CATTLE WITH GOOD, STRAIGHT BACKS

The family tried growing corn in the 1970s, but it proved to be impractical and too labor-intensive, especially for a family with full-time jobs off the farm and land that was nearly impossible to harvest after a fall rainstorm. ”

This was before four-wheel drive tractors. We’d have one tractor, pulling another tractor, pulling a wagon and a chopper. … It was just a struggle.”

In the 1970s, Randall said a bunch of dairy farmers got together on the Stroudwater Street farm and dumped out gallons of milk to protest low prices. More recently, he and other cattle farmers boycotted several large slaughterhouses over alleged price fixing.

Farmers are known to be an independent and crotchety lot. He described his grandfather and father as “hardworking and straight-up” men who didn’t mince words. Randall seems to be cut from the same cloth.

As for cattle, Randall said he keeps the good breeders but the others are destined for slaughterhouses.

“I keep the best,” he said, going on to list desirable qualities: “Good feet. Good straight backs. Fleshy. Good attitude. Short nipple, or teets. Bag tucked up underneath so they’re not dragging it or tearing it. I don’t like to go by color.”

For years, the family shunned government handouts. But these days, Randall Jr. gets an agricultural tax break for much of the Westbrook land.

Arthur Randall Jr. brushes young bulls to get them used to him. He’s been known to verbally “ambush” anyone inquiring about buying his land. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

DEVELOPMENT A SORE POINT

His is one of just a small handful of farms left in the town, and when the discussion turns to development, Randall gets worked up.

He gazes across Stroudwater Street towards a field that was once 60 acres.

“That field across the street, which had 13 more acres to it, was taken by eminent domain for that bypass, was bought 60 some acres for $1,000 (by his family),” he said, noting that the state converted additional pasture land into wetland to make up for what was destroyed for the bypass.

Today’s residential development boom, which is converting more pasture land into subdivisions, reminds him of the late 1980s.

“Anyone with a friend at the bank could label themselves a developer, when they had never even developed a roll of film. So, that’s when they had the crash. They overbuilt. They overspent. They pulled back for a while. Now all of the sudden, it’s off to the races again. ‘Course, they love a wide-open space. No rocks. No stumps.”

In recent years, former farmland on Spring Street was developed into a subdivision and now, next door to Randall’s farm, something similar is happening on Portland’s Camelot Farm.

Randall used to graze his cattle on Camelot Farm, 45 acres of rolling pasture land by the Stroudwater River. But last fall he removed his cattle – the city’s last cattle – when the property went under contract with a developer who has plans to build 95 homes.

He believes farmland needs to be preserved.

“We need to cleanse the air,” he insists. “This is the breathing room between two cities. And they’re trying to develop them so they merge. … When is it going to slow down? Where is it going to stop?”

WHEN DEVELOPERS CALL

He’s quick with stories about developers trying to buy his land. “I ambush ’em,” he says with a wry smile.

Sometimes they ignore the “No Trespass” signs and drive up the long driveway to the old farmhouse.

“One day, I was changing a tractor tire on the hay-barn floor. Hot day. Sweat pouring off me. And a guy with a fancy car drives up, gets out and struts up.

“He says: ‘You know, you people could be very wealthy.’

“So I told him: ‘Go on.’

“And he said: ‘This land is valuable. I come from a farm up in Aroostook County.’

“He was trying to get a little camaraderie going.

“I said: ‘You know, I didn’t get very far in school, you know, third grade.’ I said, ‘Will this land get more valuable?’

“He said: ‘Of course! Yes, it will.’

“I said: ‘Just what I thought. Now get your ass back down the driveway.’

“He said: ‘You ambushed me!’

“I said: ‘Just keep going.’ ”

Other times they call, like a well-known commercial broker in Portland did when he offered to buy Randall a cup of coffee:

“He said: ‘Would you consider selling some of your property?’

“So I asked him if he had any property and he said, ‘Yes, I have some in Cape Elizabeth and some in Florida.’

“So I said, ‘Would you consider selling either one of those? We need a place to expand our calf operation.’ ”

They never ended up having coffee, he said.

At 75, Randall isn’t getting any younger, so why not cash out?

“Money is something God lets you use for a little while. But (farming) is a way of life that you can’t buy. … I can sleep at night. Your mind is fatigued. Your body is fatigued. I don’t even take an aspirin. … My doctor is 47 (years old). I told him I was going to fire him because I’m going to outlive him.”

He sighs when asked whether his three sons, who help around the farm, are as committed to the cattle operation as he is. Will there be a fourth-generation cattle farm on this land? One of his sons has already “gone to the dark side,” he says, by raising sheep on the Westbrook farm.

“Jury’s still out on that. I’d like to see more interest. I’d like to see more time. But I understand they have lives of their own.”

“But if their dream isn’t my dream …” he continues, taking a long pause, as the wind builds up across the fields, “then so be it.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings