The northeast is a terrible place to be a farmer.

Somehow, Allandale Farm has hung on since before the United States was a country. John Lee, who manages the farm for the Allandale family, looks out on Allandale’s rows of vegetables, but sees mostly stones.

“This is New England," Lee said. "We grow stones."

Those stones are part of the reason why, today, nearly all of the food people in New England eat is grown someplace else — in far-off places like California. The system is working for now, but in the future, those faraway farms may not be as reliable, and their produce may not be as affordable. That may create an opening for New England farms to start producing more of our food for the first time in 200 years.

To explore the constellation of issues that revolve around the food we eat, WGBH News has partnered with The American Academy of Arts and Sciences to produce a special five-part series. This is the first installment.

Once, in the mid-1800s, New England had almost 250,000 farms. The region could feed itself until farmers went south to fight in the Civil War — and discovered that soil elsewhere wasn’t riddled with rocks.

"These young men just went off to war and saw what the economic opportunities were, and a lot of them didn’t come back,” Lee said.

They were the first New England farmers to opt out. Many others followed as America expanded and transportation got easier and cheaper. New England farmers couldn’t match the low prices of big farms out west growing food year-round. Farmland in the northeast disappeared, replaced by residential areas.

“It’s pretty clear that we could never grow all of the food we need in New England, given our population and the small amount of farmland,” said Brian Donahue, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Brandeis University.

He said the conditions that gave California growers an edge over New England farmers are changing. Donahue and other scientists are coming to a consensus: Climate change and the accelerating droughts out west mean farmers there will have to charge more for their produce.

"Farmers are going to be looking for crops that give them the highest return for the water," he said.

Due For A Comeback?

If the cost of imported produce goes up, New England-grown fruits and vegetables will be back in play as competitively priced. That would be a happy turn of events for people like Donahue. He was among a generation of college kids who returned to farms in the 1970s and helped spark the local food movement. Donahue helped start Land Sake Farm in Weston, just west of Boston. He and others bought it from the Arnold Arboretum in 1986 for $3.5 million.

That "was the highest price ever paid for a single piece of land in Weston at that time," Donahue said. "Today it would buy you two house lots."

The cost of land has been a huge hurdle for people trying to bring farming back to New England. But their work has paid off; local’s kind of a "thing" now — there's a demand for local food that didn’t exist back in the '50s, when frozen dinners had a certain glamour. And — although it’s still nothing compared to what it once was — the number of New England farms has grown in response.

Donahue said those farmers have to consider the impact of climate change too. He said growing seasons, on average, are starting a week earlier and ending a week later. Theoretically, that’s a good thing because it gives New England farmers more time to plant and harvest.

"But the downside is that you can get caught in a frost,” Donahue said. “Especially in fruit growing. This happened to the apple growers a few years ago. It blossomed real early and, son of a gun, here came a kind of ordinary frost, some time in May, and they really got zapped."

Farmers in New England can’t plan on consistently longer growing seasons because of climate change. Erik Baum, who manages Land Sake now, says the drier, warmer air brings more weeds and new insect pests. There are also more frequent, destructive storms.

“There’s only so much frustration I can feel,” Baum said. “This is my profession and part of my job is to adapt to whatever conditions are confronting me. And climate change is a big one.”

Many farmers have found other ways to bring in more money to make up for losses. At Allandale Farm in Chesnut Hill, Lee got through some tough years by running a daycare.

Now, business is booming at the farm’s store. Partially because, Lee says, people are willing to buy more traditional New England vegetables like sunchokes — otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes.

"That’s one of those crops that five years ago you couldn’t give 'em away. Nobody wanted them," Lee said. "And that’s a function of the local food movement. People have gotten interested in these old heirloom crops. Sunchokes used to be a staple in colonial and post-colonial America.”

Their success has allowed Allandale to build a new greenhouse. Now Lee isn’t held back by the two ancient adversaries that were the bane of New England farmers for so long: short growing seasons and rocks. The farm is working is working toward selling produce year-round.

"That would be nice," Lee said. "But that’s a couple years away."

Lee and other farmers want to be prepared to grow. The local food movement has helped them build their businesses up part of the way — and climate change’s impact on California might get them to the next level.