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Volunteers keep stand running after farmer’s untimely death

Volunteer Carmela Horlitz cleaned garlic, part of an effort to help keep McGrath Farm in Concord open since owner Patrick McGrath’s sudden death in June at 64.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

Volunteer Carmela Horlitz cleaned garlic, part of an effort to help keep McGrath Farm in Concord open since owner Patrick McGrath’s sudden death in June at 64.

Before leaving for a friend’s barbecue the first Sunday in July, Diane Taubner of Concord made her usual stop next door at McGrath Farm to pick up some fresh produce for the party.

But she found the farmstand’s door locked. Patrick McGrath, who devoted his life to farming the land bought by his grandfather, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack on June 30 — a loss that seemed even more poignant as the summer harvest season was swinging into full gear.

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Over the next few days, as more neighbors and other customers showed up, the same question kept arising among them: How can we get through the summer without McGrath Farm to supply us with corn, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, and asparagus? And what will happen to the farm now that Patrick is gone?

Tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash and a variety of flowers were for sale at the McGrath Farmstand in Concord.

Brian Feulner for The Boston Globe

Tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash and a variety of flowers were for sale at the McGrath Farmstand in Concord.

McGrath’s cousin, Susie Davies, who also lives in Concord, couldn’t answer their questions. The 64-year-old farmer had run the business alone ever since his divorce almost a decade ago, with just one employee, a foreman who worked in the fields. As executrix of the estate, Davies said, she knew that she and her husband, Christopher, couldn’t operate the farmstand while dealing with the household decisions that McGrath’s sudden death left behind.

But something unexpected happened as customers learned the news. “Upon hearing it, people would sometimes walk away, go back to their cars to compose themselves,” recalled Taubner. “And then they would return and say ‘How can I help?’”

A solution became clear to Taubner and another neighbor, Colleen Smith Giddings. McGrath’s longtime foreman was still working the fields and harvesting fruits and vegetables; what was needed was people to staff the stand.

So Taubner went to an office supply store and bought a whiteboard. “It was that simple,” she said. “We drew up a schedule, and people could sign up in one- or two-hour blocks or whatever they wanted.”

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The response amazed everyone involved. “Almost every shift for the last two months has been filled,” said Giddings, who has lived across the street from the farm for 18 years. “Roughly speaking, there have been three shifts a day since the start of July. Already that’s approximately two hundred shifts.”

A photo of Patrick McGrath in his thirties was placed on a bench in front of his farmstand in Concord.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

A photo of Patrick McGrath in his thirties was placed on a bench in front of his farmstand in Concord.

While the rudimentary whiteboard technology got the project launched, Taubner said that they wouldn’t have been able to sustain staffing throughout the summer without a much more modern innovation: social media.

“I’d been urging Patrick for years to set up a Facebook page or a website. He was not the least bit interested,” she said. “In the past, people were always stopping by to ask him when the asparagus would be ready or when the strawberries would be picked. I finally convinced him that a Facebook page would make it easy for him to get the information out.’’

The farm’s Facebook page was launched in late May, a month before McGrath died. “The irony is that it’s through that same Facebook page that so many people found out about his death,” said Taubner. “And they showed up immediately, asking what they could do.”

Ultimately, though, said Giddings, what really kept the operation running all summer was sheer devotion to the man and his farm. The Barretts Mill Road property is replete with history: McGrath’s grandfather purchased it in 1910 from the descendents of Colonel James Barrett, one of the Minutemen who confronted the British at Concord’s North Bridge on April 19, 1775. Across the street is Barrett Farm, the site where the Concord militia stashed gunpowder and other supplies during the buildup to the Revolutionary War.

Volunteers like Diane Taubner, right, helped run the McGrath Farmstand in the wake of the owner Patrick McGrath's death in June.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

Volunteers like Diane Taubner, right, helped run the McGrath Farmstand in the wake of the owner Patrick McGrath's death in June.

“It has been so rewarding to see so many neighbors who loved Patrick, and his food, step up and help,” said Giddings. “Neighbors who were on vacation from full-time jobs gave up their free time to help keep the stand running. Friends who valued the fresh food that came from the farm brought their children to the stand to help serve customers and help pick tomatoes. This experience has brought neighbors together, many of whom haven’t spoken to one another for years or who had never met.”

Lissa Walsh has shopped at McGrath Farm ever since she moved to the area 10 years ago. “During asparagus season, I bought a pound almost every day. My father has grown asparagus my whole life, and it has come to signify spring and family and connection to the earth for me,” Walsh said.

“A few weeks after I first discovered the farmstand, I stopped for strawberries and met Patrick and we had the first of many chats while he weighed produce and I paid. He took great pride in his crops, the land, and growing techniques that kept that land healthy and productive. I have gallons and gallons of his blueberries in my freezer, enough to last through next spring. I will think of Patrick every time I cook pancakes or blend a fruit smoothie.”

Like Walsh, Taubner speaks of McGrath as having had an influence more profound than just as a local vegetable vendor. “He had a lot of respect for the town of Concord and its history, including its farming traditions. He loved to talk about the Concord that existed when he was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was a wealth of information.”

And she thinks that uniting over the farmstand in the wake of McGrath’s death has been therapeutic for the customers. It carries on the tradition not only of buying fruits and vegetables, but of free-flowing discussion of common interests.

“We could have just set up a cash drop box,” Taubner pointed out. “We could have just put out corn and tomatoes every morning and trusted people to leave money for what they took. But it’s important for all of us to be here. People want to continue the kind of conversations they used to have with Patrick: talking about vegetables, how to grow different crops, the weather, Concord history. Everyone who serves here as a volunteer is helping to continue that tradition.”

Davies said that the stand will probably stay open through the end of this month, and possibly a little longer, depending on growing conditions. Looking ahead, she does not know what will happen to the farm, but she does know the past two months have been eye-opening.

“We had no idea of the extent of the love and caring that existed in this community for my cousin. The customers we meet now — some who are locals and some who come from Cambridge or other communities — all say they came here because they loved Patrick’s conversation and stories,” she said.

“We never imagined this,” Davies said. “And I don’t know if he could have imagined it, either.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached by e-mail at ­nancyswest@gmail.com.

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