Food & dining

From the Archives | May 28, 1997

Farm team

8/14/97--GERRY'S FARM BROCKTON ---Joseph George Gerry is pleased with the previous night's rain, his flowers look beautiful.
Joanne Rathe/Globe staff
Joseph George Gerry was pleased with the previous night's rain.

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on May 28, 1997.

BROCKTON -- Joseph George Gerry, 71, could be the county psychiatrist, having listened intently to generations of customers at his farm stand. He never tires of them, he says, and he tells a finely woven story about himself as well. It’s doled out in pieces. Sometimes he depicts himself as the one son willing to farm his father’s land, so the task fell to him quite naturally. Or he might describe the allure of open fields and the system by which the moon alerts him to planting and harvesting times. But standing in a greenhouse between rows of flowering annuals on a drizzly May afternoon, beside Dolores ``Dolly’‘ Gerry, his wife of 48 years, Joseph Gerry adds a flirtatious twist to why he stayed on Gerry Farm, established in 1920, for a lifetime. ``I had my truck packed and I was ready to leave for Alaska. I was going with my best pal. Then I met my wife and I stayed.’‘

So the man who had a youthful case of wanderlust settled down in 1950, moving his bride from Chelsea into the second floor of his parents’ farmhouse on Pleasant Street here. Luckily, Dolly Gerry spoke Polish, so she could talk to her new in-laws. Joseph Gerry has hardly ever left since. Sons Carl, 43, and Christopher, 41, began farming with him after college. ``I tried to kick them out,’‘ says the father.

Today, Gerry’s is one of the few farms left in the area, surrounded by newly built houses and office buildings. Even with state programs to help keep farmers on the land, nothing comes easy. The season is short, devastating frosts have come as late as June, and just when the fields are full and the Gerry family has hired dozens of teenagers to pick vegetables by hand so nothing is bruised, supermarkets offer cheap produce from Southern states -- virtually ignoring neighboring farms.

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Yet Joseph Gerry and his sons continue, earning enough, with the sons working other jobs in winter, to support three families. ``Everybody lives frugal,’‘ says Gerry. And each season, new vegetables appear, many inspired by gardening segments on television or articles that Dolly Gerry, 68, reads. (She is a proud charter member of Martha Stewart Living magazine, she says.) Come summer, heirloom tomatoes will sit side by side with buttery lettuces and bunches of slender baby carrots.

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To survive this late into the century, says Alford Peckham, the state’s agricultural historian, farm owners need to do certain things. One, they must be willing to work long summer hours and outside jobs during the winter; two, they must be able to live on little, since farm wages are always low; and three, they must develop a marketing niche and pump money into it. In the case of the Gerrys, this means their greenhouses, which extend the season for both flowers and produce beyond the short New England summer.

``They can get ahead of imports,’‘ beating them to market, says Peckham. ``Imports,’‘ he says, can come from Holland, Florida, or New Jersey.

Peckham says that Gerry Farm also has another crucial element -- Joseph Gerry. ``Part of his stock in trade is talking to customers,’‘ Peckham says, something that gives old-time farmers a real edge. Customers know when they buy corn and tomatoes at Gerry Farm that it was grown right there by the men pushing wheelbarrows and driving tractors.

Developers have eyed tracts of farmland in this region for years. In the 1950s, when Route 24 went in, Brockton became accessible to Boston. Someone once offered Joseph Gerry millions for his land, but he sat down with his boys, and they decided to keep farming. No one wonders whether Gerry will leave -- not even in a moment of weakness after a bad season. ``He would rather die first,’‘ says Dolly Gerry.

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For the past two months, Joseph Gerry has been in the greenhouses by 4:30 a.m., after making himself hot oatmeal and drinking coffee along with several glasses of milk. A big exterior floodlight provides enough light until the sun comes up for him to mix soil with fertilizer in an old cement mixer.

``Every morning I can’t wait to get back in here,’‘ he says.

Reading the weather

Two years ago the summer was dry and hot, which didn’t bother the Gerrys because they put in an irrigation system 50 years ago. Last summer was ``very, very wet,’‘ says Gerry. ``The stuff rotted and it didn’t yield.’‘ Most things have gone according to plan this spring, though it’s been cold.

There was no damage from the April Fools’ Day storm, so the Gerrys got a good head start on all their vegetables and flowering plants.

This wasn’t all luck. Once the snow started falling on March 31, Joseph Gerry went into the greenhouses and turned the heat up full throttle. It cost him $800 in fuel, but the snow melted as it hit the double plastic covers. After the storm, the Gerrys heard about other greenhouses collapsing because farmers didn’t spend the money to keep the heat on.

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Flowers are the farm’s bread and butter, says Gerry, along with the produce sold before the glut from New Jersey hits, usually around July 1. ``If we gain one week or 10 days,’‘ he says, ``that’s our profit.’‘ Even with the cold, the squash plants were already a foot tall by the middle of this month.

To protect them from the cold, some fields are covered with white plant cover, which has an insulating effect. ``During the day,’‘ says Gerry. ``the sun warms the earth and it stays warm.’‘ Rolled out over the plants, the white clothlike plastic seems to float above them unanchored.

Gerry’s strawberries should be ready to pick next week, then peas come the second or third week of June. Because the weather is so unpredictable, plants can take a beating, which is always a worry. ``New England is the most dangerous place to plant,’‘ Gerry says. ``I remember snow on May 15th and a killing frost on the 1st of June.’‘

He likes to plant by the moon. ``I’ve lived by it all my life,’‘ he says. ``There are two dangers: the full moon and the new moon. The moon draws the cold’‘ and keeps Gerry worried about late frosts. He’s explaining why he won’t plant tomatoes, eggplant, or peppers until two days following the May 22 full moon, when he stops mid-sentence.

Something is flying around the flowers in the greenhouse.

``Oh, there’s my friend the bumblebee,’‘ says Gerry, genuinely pleased. ``I’m always so happy to see them. It means they made it through the winter.’‘

Then he’s back to moons. He’s alone in his moon watch, he says. ``My son goes by a schedule.’‘

Gerry Farm runs as if it were several businesses under one umbrella. ``Carl is the field man,’‘ he says. ``This is his headache.’‘ Gerry gestures with his arm to the 55 acres behind the greenhouses. The family rents 20 more acres from the Ames Estate nearby and from Stonehill College. ``You’ve got to stay within 10 miles of the farm.’‘ Otherwise, the farm equipment wears out from going back and forth.

Carl Gerry, busy on his tractor, isn’t inclined to make idle chat with a stranger. His father explains that Carl is still working his winter job at Raynham Dog Track on and off this month, ``weaning himself.’‘

But the vegetables are in: peas, beets, carrots, spinach, onions, broccoli, lettuces, ``pahdadiz’‘ (as Joseph Gerry pronounces it), corn, beans, zucchini, and summer squash.

Chris Gerry, who is in charge of the greenhouses, reopens the farm stand after Thanksgiving, fills it with holiday greens and wreaths, and does some Christmas business. He also plows snow in the winter for extra money, and he starts the greenhouses at the end of January. He does five plantings a season, so customers can buy blooming flowers most of the summer and vegetables can go into the ground on 10-day and three-week cycles. Most things are picked young, the way customers like it.

Joseph Gerry is transplanting at a bench in one of the greenhouses. Dolly Gerry works beside him until her grandchildren get home from school, when her house turns into a day care of first cousins. Out comes strawberry jelly, made from her own berries, and hot toast.

Chris’ daughters, Anna and Katharine, are there. The Gerrys’ daughter, Julie Ann Clark, also has two daughters, Emily and Kristin. Carl’s children, Jonathan, Gregory, and Carly, also come to ``Babci,’‘ their grandmother.

Dolly Gerry has just read a short story about a Polish family in Western Massachusetts and she’s amused that the grandmother in the story knocked on the steam pipes with a spoon when she wanted to call the children from upstairs. She’s done the same thing for years. She picks up a spoon to demonstrate. Katharine flies downstairs and asks, ``Did you want me, Babci?’‘

Brockton’s changes

Brockton is not the city it once was. Dolores and Joseph Gerry have a hard time admitting this, but no one else does. ``Brockton was a wonderful community 40 years ago,’‘ says city historian Robert Kane, ``but when they built Westgate Mall, all the major stores pulled out of downtown and went to the mall.’‘

Today, Brockton bears the scars of a city whose major industry -- shoes -- no longer exists as it once did. Earlier this century, there were 80 footwear factories. Newly arrived immigrants could appear at one of the companies and get a job. ``You always found a job sewing,’‘ says Dolly Gerry.

Only a dozen factories remained after World War II, says Kane, including Foot-Joy, makers of golf shoes, William L. Douglas Shoes, and Walkover Shoes.

The city was segregated according to the immigrant populations, Kane says, with four Irish sections of town, Swedes in the south end, Jews on the east side (until they moved to the west side, which was more well-to-do), Italians in the center of the city and the east side, Poles and Lithuanians in the north and northeast.

The city suffered a major economic blow with the departure of the shoe factories, which wiped out many local jobs, but the construction of Route 24 in the 1950s helped undo the damage. The highway ``turned Brockton into a bedroom community for Boston,’‘ says Kane. ``They live here but they work elsewhere.’‘ Population, once a steady 62,000, has jumped to 90,000.

Brockton boasts many successful sons, including boxing champions Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler; Billy McGunnigle, who was manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers during championship years at the end of the last century; Stanton Davis, founder of Shaw’s Supermarkets; Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis; Paul Fireman of Reebok; Christy Mihos of Christy’s Markets.

There were once many farms and dairies in the region. It wasn’t until they weren’t there anymore that Brockton natives realized what they had lost. ``We had milk delivered from a local dairy by the husband of my third-grade teacher,’‘ says Alexander Romm Rysman, 55, the third generation to run Romm & Co., a jewelry store.

Joseph Gerry’s father, Joseph Boles Gerry, raised both chickens and cows. He also grew raspberries, corn, potatoes, and some tomatoes. He and his wife, Stefania, were both born in Poland. Joseph B. Gerry and all of his brothers came to this country to avoid conscription in the Russian army. The eldest brother did serve and spent his time training in Siberia. Then, ``as each boy became 18,’‘ says Joseph G. Gerry, ``his father put them on a boat.’‘

A brother lived in Brockton and got Joseph a job in one of the shoe factories. He bought the farmhouse on Pleasant Street when he had been here 17 years. Though the house was big enough for the couple and their four children, Joseph G. Gerry slept upstairs in an open attic, without heat. He says it was common for children to do that in those days. ``I had a great big feather quilt to keep me warm.’‘

When Gerry was in high school, his father told him that he didn’t want the responsibility of the farm anymore. He was happy to do all the work, but he didn’t like making decisions. ``He said, `I’ll do the plowing and harrowing. You do the rest,’ ‘‘ Gerry says. A brother, Zenon, became a teacher; one sister, Leonarda, went to secretarial school; another, Martha, went to Emmanuel College. None were interested in farming. With nothing more official than that, the farm changed hands.

Every day before Gerry went off to Brockton High, he gave instructions to his father, who worked almost until his 90th birthday.

Gerry had an opportunity to go to Northeastern University and study engineering, but he decided to stay on the farm. He met Dolly Pazyra, who was 20 and a nursing student, at a dance in Chelsea at a Polish club. He was 24, already packed for his trip to Alaska with Al Wilbur -- even today his best friend. Dolly Gerry calls Wilbur her husband’s ``first wife.’‘

When Dolly Pazyra and Joseph Gerry danced at the club, he asked her if she was Polish. ``Otherwise, this won’t go anywhere,’‘ he told her. ``When we were young,’‘ says Dolly Gerry, ``you had to marry your own.’‘

Dolly and Joseph Gerry had five children in nine years. She never went back to nursing. Her family took the train from Chelsea on the weekends and helped with the children. ``They cooked and cleaned. I had a maiden aunt who came and whipped this house into shape,’‘ she says.

Joseph Gerry worked all the time. ``He did anything and everything,’‘ says his wife. ``This was an exceptional family.’‘ There were times when the children were small that Joseph Gerry would work from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. at the local egg auction, handling cases of eggs. He would come home, sleep for one hour, get up at 4 a.m. and begin the farm work. Other years he drove a truck all night. ``I never required much sleep,’‘ he says. ``And I’m a workaholic.’‘

The third generation

Today, Andrew, 45, the oldest, is a cowboy in Oregon on a 20,000-acre ranch. Joseph Henry Gerry, 44, is a chemical engineer in Wilmington, Del. He returns to Gerry Farm during his vacation to pick vegetables with Chris and Carl. The youngest, Julie, 38, lives nearby and works at the farm stand. When the first vegetables are picked in early June, the farm stand opens and stays open seven days a week.

On a recent Sunday, Chris and Julie and their parents all wait on customers. Dolly Gerry charges up and down the aisles giving planting advice. She always wears a large apron printed with vegetables that she has made for her by a woman at the local church. The apron fastens in the back and covers her dress from the collar almost to her knees.

Joseph Gerry is showing an elderly man husky red beefsteak tomato plants -- not exactly the kind the man is looking for, but a newer variety that yields early and doesn’t grow as high. The man is skeptical. ``All these plants were invented by professors in laboratories,’‘ Gerry explains, by way of convincing the man that they might be better than the old variety. ``All the hybrids are. I like them very much.’‘ He takes time to explain the differences between the tomato the man wants and the hybrid that’s here. He waits patiently.

No sale. But Gerry doesn’t seem to mind. Like the bumblebee, the customers are back. Someone else will buy the husky reds.

This story tracked Gerry Farm in Brockton in three parts.