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From the archives | August 27, 1997

Weathering the season

“Dusty” the family cat. Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on August 27, 1997.

BROCKTON -- This summer Dusty, the family cat, has earned his name. Joseph Gerry of Gerry Farm walks past the cat, who is curled up inside a plastic crate under a tree, smiles wryly, and shakes his head. The driest summer in nearly five decades has been described as so dusty even weeds won’t grow. Weather is on the farmer’s mind from the moment he rises at 4 a.m. The drought has made him work harder, forced him to toss too many dry-topped ears of corn into the compost heap, cost him a fortune in Delaware tomatoes that he had to sell when his own weren’t ripening fast enough, lost him 8 unirrigated acres in neighboring Easton, nearly exhausted the fieldworkers who had to keep moving irrigation pipes, and caused worry where it hurt the most -- ``in my wallet.’‘ He says this, and then he laughs. Over the years, Joseph George Gerry, 72, has survived other droughts and held bills in his hand that he had no idea how to pay. ``Defeat’‘ isn’t a word that crosses his mind very often.


Gerry Farm, established in 1920, is in its third generation. Joseph George Gerry’s father, Joseph Boles Gerry, handed the land over to him when he was still in high school. His sons Carl, 43, and Christopher, 41, joined him after college. Today the farm is one of the last remaining in the region. It sits on 55 acres amid developments just off Route 24, which makes it accessible for customers from the western suburbs who detour en route to Cape Cod. Local residents drop by on their way home from work. And after church on Sundays, the little farmstand is brimming with shoppers in their Sunday best.

Now, at the height of New England’s farming season, Gerry shows off milky Incredible and Temptation, both yellow-and-white ears of corn, and bright purple eggplant called Neon. There are fuzzy green beans with a deep beany taste, lush heads of leaf lettuce, a new variety of curly iceberg called Summer Crisp, tender-skinned pickling cukes, sunflower-yellow zucchini, beautiful beets for baking or borscht, elegantly slender scallions, plump Brandywine raspberries, and red potatoes with such thin skins that they fall off as they’re being scrubbed.


Most days Joseph Gerry’s wife of 48 years, Dolores ``Dolly’‘ Gerry, 68, is running around in her shoulder-to-knee vegetable-print apron, talking to customers. Carl is on the tractor, pulling irrigation pipes from one field to another and giving instructions to the pickers. Chris might be standing at the washing table under the linden tree behind the farmstand, cleaning bunches of carrots or radishes or tying together heads of celery. Daughter Julie Ann Clark, 38, is always close to the register. Seven 10- to 15-year-old cousins are amusing themselves on the property, and old friends and neighbors are looking for Joseph Gerry to chat about the summer and the weather.

Regulars know that Gerry is out back behind the farmstand, trying to get work done. Dorothy Bates, 76, and her sister, Marion Bates, 84, of Milton, aren’t heading back up Route 24 without saying hello. ``For 25 years we’ve been driving down,’‘ says Dorothy Bates. ``These are the only vegetables we like to buy.’‘


That’s a common remark at Gerry’s. Three women from Norwood think nothing of the half-hour it takes to drive here. They won’t return home without several dozen light green kusa squash to make a popular Lebanese dish with ground lamb and rice stuffing.

The unusual fresh quality of the produce comes from moving it from the fields to the stand quickly. If something sells out, Chris Gerry yells to his father, ``Hey, chief, we need carrots.’‘ And Joseph Gerry hops into one of the beat-up old trucks and picks a bushel of carrots for the stand. Everything is handpicked at just about the moment it’s needed. What doesn’t sell each day goes to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea. ``We don’t plan on shipping much,’‘ says Carl Gerry.

Alford Peckham, the state’s agricultural historian, says this time-consuming system reflects ``real pride in having something fresh right from the ground for the customer.’‘

This summer’s dry weather didn’t affect quality or taste, but some crops were lost and others didn’t yield as much. Eight acres of corn in Easton on unirrigated land didn’t grow at all; it comes up only to Joseph Gerry’s hip. ``We never mention it,’‘ says Dolly Gerry.

Carl Gerry says the ``raspberries are especially good this year -- as far as flavor and keepability go, all the beans are very good, and the red potatoes have been nice.’‘ Chris Gerry points out huge lettuces; small, very pale ``lemon drop’‘ summer squash; long finger-length red radishes. He worries about everything, especially the weather, and is unofficially known as ``Dr. Doom.’‘


Earlier in the summer, some experts thought it would take a hurricane to replenish the moisture in the land. By the end of last week, rainfall was finally above the drought level for the first time all summer. Joseph Gerry says he would never wish for as much rain as last summer, when it was ``very, very wet’‘ and produce rotted on the vines. He can handle lack of rain with irrigation and two man-made ponds.

Gerry religiously watches the Weather Channel and listens to radio forecasters. Then he’s apt to say something like ``They’re talking Sunday some afternoon showers.’‘ Sunday comes and goes, and there isn’t a drop of rain.

He finds another system of weather-watching infallible. ``Every time there’s a change in the weather I ache,’‘ he says. ``I ache if it’s going to turn good, and I ache if it’s going to turn bad.’‘ He laughs again.

``If these are the golden years, you can have them.’‘

As is the case with many other couples who have worked and lived together for half a century, there is a rhythmic pattern to Joseph and Dolly Gerry’s conversation and movements. Joseph Gerry’s thick black eyebrows and clear blue eyes make him seem younger than he is. Dolly Gerry, trained as a nurse, is a cool grandmother who reads a lot and closely follows the comings and goings of her fellow Polish gardener-cook, Martha Stewart. She even knows the latest gossip on her unauthorized biography: ``I heard that the man who wrote it had his wedding catered by her,’‘ she tells a visitor one day.


When the Gerrys were first married, the farm raised only raspberries. ``We were the largest growers in New England,’‘ says Joseph Gerry. The land stayed moist because of rocks. ``And we used to use a lot of manure,’‘ explains Gerry. ``We had our own cows and chickens.’‘

The old system depended on chance. ``If it rained,’‘ says Dolly Gerry, ``the fields got water.’‘

In 1956, the summer was especially dry. ``The city gave us water off the hydrant,’‘ says Joseph Gerry. ``That was the last of the gimmes.’‘ It had been the third year of a serious drought.

He decided to look for water on his land. He took a bifurcated branch from an old apple tree, ``cleaned it up a little,’‘ and went searching for a spring.

At the spot where his homemade divining rod began twisting violently, they began digging, and by 1957 they had an irrigation pond 200 feet long, 250 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. The following year, the Gerrys noticed that their cows were hovering around a spot that was wet even when it hadn’t rained.

They dug another pond the same size as the first. ``That’s my reserve,’‘ says Gerry. Lines run from the pond to a sprinkler gun hooked on to an old tractor, turned on to provide power.

``It’s a pretty good system, especially when you don’t have power,’‘ says Joe Keteltas of Larchmont Engineering and Irrigation in Lexington. No one with such an arrangement ever sells theirs, says Keteltas, ``because you can take water from just about anywhere.’‘

At the beginning of August, the first pond dried up, so the Gerrys moved the pipes to the reserve pond. It took almost two weeks for the first one to refill only 4 or 5 feet. ``Years ago,’‘ says Gerry, ``I could leave it for five days and it would come right back up to the top.’‘ He estimates that a more sophisticated system of irrigation, involving underground pipes, would cost about $10,000. ``That’s a pretty conservative figure,’‘ says Larchmont’s Keteltas.

Instead Carl Gerry is lugging 20-foot pipes to keep rotating the sprinkler gun. The tractor’s diesel fuel costs $250 a week.

His son is exhausted, Joseph Gerry says, but he sees his role as keeping things in perspective. ``I tell the boys it’ll put some muscles on them.’‘

They didn’t get off to a good start this year. The cold spring and dry summer made vegetables about 10 days late, so the farmstand lost money early on. At the end of July, a sign near the register announced in large printing ``No corn.’‘ Tiny letters said, ``Coming soon -- before Christmas.’‘ Corn, which draws people to the farmstand, turned out to be seven days late, a long time in a short growing season. By then the produce glut had arrived in supermarkets from Delaware and New Jersey, and the Gerrys had to lower prices to compete. ``It means [losing] quite a bit in the pocket,’‘ says Gerry.

A low brick building adjacent to the Gerry property has a veranda that offers the best view of the fields. Men and women sit in comfortable plastic bucket chairs at umbrella-covered tables, watching the sprinklers go round and whiling away the late-afternoon hours. West Acres Nursing Home, which is housed inside the building, was built on a slice of land that Gerry sold about 25 years ago to pay his taxes. He had an $80,000 tax bill sitting on his kitchen table and no money to pay it.

The sale of the land paid the outstanding taxes. In 1973, a new tax code brought all farmers long-awaited good news. The 61A state tax code revalued farmland at much lower rates than farmers had been paying. ``It saved us,’‘ says Gerry. ``Nobody would have survived.’‘

Sometime before the fall harvest, Gerry and his boyhood friend Al Wilbur, the man Dolly Gerry calls her husband’s ``first wife,’‘ will pack a truck full of vegetables and camping gear and head to Canada to fish. A Cree pilot drops off the two buddies -- along with Wilbur’s son and his friend -- in a remote spot and returns a week later to get them.

Gerry’s eyes light up when he describes the miles of nothingness in rural Canada. ``There are no lights,’‘ he says. ``We’re 100 miles away from anybody. We have nights that you sit there and you marvel. You just can’t believe how gorgeous it is. I come back and I add a year to my life.’‘

Vegetables run from Bodacious to Regal

Carl Gerry, who does the planting on the farm, keeps a logbook that details seed varieties and yields. Like paint colors and racehorses, all bear descriptive names. Earlier this month, he was picking yellow Bodacious corn along with yellow-and-white July Gem. Now there’s Incredible, another bicolor corn that happens to be one of his favorites, along with Temptation and Delectable. Flat Italian Roma beans sit in bushel baskets beside Tema green beans; there are also Bush Blue Lake, a Kentucky Wonder-type bean with a deep beany flavor; Vilbel, a slender young French haricot vert; and French’s Horticulture shell beans. Lettuces include the curly iceberg Summer Crisp and Summertime, a combination head-leaf lettuce that’s leafy when it’s young and more like curly iceberg if left in the fields. There are also pudgy round white Italian Bicolor eggplant and a very bright, slender purple Neon eggplant. Pay Day and Lemon Drop are the two pale-yellow summer squash with yellow stems. Royal and Regal are the names of the pickling cukes; slicing pickles are Turbo and Raider. The beautiful thin-skinned red potatoes are Dark Red Norlands; scallions are Tokyo Bunching, especially sweet when young; and deep-blood-colored beets are aptly named Avenger and Warrior.