As he loaded his truck early one Saturday morning last May, farmer Chuck Currie had high hopes of raising some badly needed cash by selling fresh veggies and pasture-raised beef at a popular farmers market in Somerville.
The severe drought of 2016 had devastated crops on Currie’s 88-acre farm in Raynham, raising doubts about the economic viability of the all-organic farm.
But when he arrived at the market, Currie faced a sudden, new crisis: All the produce and meat he had hauled to Somerville that day was ruined in a freak accident. Instead of making money, he was out $2,800.
Moments before the market was to open, a tow truck hired by the city pulled up next to Currie’s table to tow a car that was blocking access to the vendors gathered in Union Square. A malfunction caused hydraulic fluid to spray all over his wares, ruining them.
Nearly five months after the accident, Currie is still waiting to be compensated for his loss. He says it’s been a nasty experience, far worse than shoveling manure or cleaning chicken coops.
“How does a company get away with just ignoring someone with a legitimate claim and the documentation to back it up?” Currie asked when I met him on the farm. “I feel like I have absolutely no leverage.”
Some businesses can absorb a $2,800 loss, but not Freedom Food Farm, a shoestring operation that gets much of its revenue from middle- and low-income people who pay a modest amount in the winter for a share of next season’s harvest. The farm accepts food vouchers issued to the poor by the government.
Currie, 35, and his life and business partner, Marie Kaziunas, 30, believe it’s imperative to get healthy food to all people, not just those who can afford it. Currie, a North Reading native with a degree in plant, soil, and insect science from UMass Amherst, wanted to farm on the fringe of the Boston metropolitan area, where he believes the need is greater than in farm-filled Vermont, where he had worked previously.
“This obviously is not a get-rich-quick venture,” he said while sitting on a bench near his barn.
Currie and Kaziunas have lived on practically no income since signing a 10-year lease on a former dairy farm in Raynham in 2014.
They work every day caring for hundreds of chickens, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep. They keep bees for honey and grow a wide assortment of vegetables and herbs. They employ about 10 workers.
The loss of $2,800 is “a lot of money to us,” Currie said. “It can help us stay in business for another season.”
At about the same time I began making calls about Currie’s plight, United Road Towing offered an apology to him for the delay and promised full payment within a week. United is an Illinois-based company that had almost $90 million in revenue last year. Two of its affiliates operate in the Boston area and one of them, Pat’s Towing, was dispatched to the farmers market by the city of Somerville, which contracts with United for towing services.
“I will continue to investigate how or where the mistake was made in processing the claim,” Thomas Tedford, a United senior vice president wrote in an e-mail to me.
“Currie’s claim has never been disputed by us,” he wrote.
Here’s where things went wrong: After getting nowhere with United, Currie called the city of Somerville in June to find out the name of United’s insurer. Turns out the company has several, and the one the city had on file — National Indemnity Insurance — was not the one insuring United for the kind of claim Currie presented.
Currie said he made dozens of calls to National Indemnity. He sent all the requested documentation — reports from the police and the Board of Health and an itemized list of his losses — to their office in Nebraska. Over the course of three months, the only time National Indemnity followed up with him was last week, when he was told the claim was denied.
Tedford wanted to make clear that he sprang into action last week prior to my involvement. Fine. I accept that. Currie’s first e-mail to me came early on Oct. 10. It was later that day, and apparently coincidentally, that Currie first learned from National Indemnity that his claim had been denied. National Indemnity denied Currie’s claim without ever having been contacted by me or United.
That led Currie to redouble his efforts, including sending an e-mail to Tedford, whom he had never dealt with directly.
Tedford, a take-charge type, immediately began firing off e-mails to colleagues trying to find out why the claim was denied. He found out Currie’s claim had gone to the wrong one of United’s multiple insurers.
And Currie wasn’t the only farmer with complaints about United. Marie Hills, of Kimball Farm in Pepperell, lost a portion of her food in the stall next to Currie’s in the same accident. She wrote to a local United manager shortly after the accident. “I have called 4 times since our initial conversation to no avail,” she wrote. “I am requesting your insurance information so I can put in a claim for the loss. I don’t understand why you don’t comply. The insurance company will do their own investigation. Please forward this information to me so I don’t have to keep bugging you as we are both busy people. Please do the right thing.”
Hills last summer was compensated $645 for lost produce. Hills’s claim wound up with Pilgrim Insurance, which paid it, while Currie’s went to National Indemnity, which denied it. Currie’s claim was re-routed to Pilgrim this week.
Hills told me she was stunned last week to receive a letter from National Indemnity saying her claim was denied — two months after Pilgrim paid it.
“It was very confusing, but at least I got paid,” she said. “I feel bad for Freedom Farm. That kind of loss can really hurt.”
The whole experience has reinforced Currie’s career choice. He’s fine with working practically every waking hour in all kinds of weather — just not at a desk.
He told me he once reached a United manager at 8:10 a.m. The manager brushed aside discussion of the claim and gave Currie a tongue-lashing for calling too early in the morning. He then hung up.
Too early? Currie shook his head. By then, he had been outside working on the farm for almost three hours.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.