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From the archives | October 22, 1997

Harvest of time

Gerry’s Farm in Brockton.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff/file 1997

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on October 22, 1997.

BROCKTON -- Joseph Gerry is sitting in an easy chair in the farmhouse in the middle of the day, something he rarely does. His right shoulder, slung with a heating pad, is throbbing. It’s hard to tell it’s aching because he seems cheerful. The day before, the door of his farm stand’s walk-in refrigerator whacked him as it closed. But this isn’t a bruise, he says, it’s bursitis. And he doesn’t need a doctor because he knows the course of treatment: no medication, except for a painkiller if it’s unbearable in the night, heat for half an hour, then farm work, then more heat later. ``Ice yesterday. Heat today,’‘ says Gerry.

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Listening from the kitchen, Dolores ``Dolly’‘ Gerry, a nurse by training, doesn’t interfere with her husband’s diagnosis. ``Dr. Gerry does his own thing,’‘ announces his wife of 48 years.

``The last time I had a bursitis attack was 35 years ago, right, Ma?’‘ But Dolly Gerry, 68, is on a mission. She sprints across the driveway to the farm stand, where her daughter, Julie Ann Clark, and daughter-in-law Cynthia Gerry are in the middle of a busy Saturday.

When Joseph Gerry knows his wife is out of earshot, he sits up. ``It’s so sore,’‘ he says, the pain finally showing in his eyes, ``that I can hardly touch it.’‘ Slowly, the 72-year-old farmer eases himself back into the comfort of the old chair.

A week later the shoulder is healed. Gerry announces that it wasn’t bursitis. ``Probably a virus moving through my body,’‘ he says, cheerful again. ``It’s a long season. It doesn’t seem to give in,’‘ he says. ``We work 10, 12, 14 hours. We need a break.’‘ After Halloween, Gerry Farm will close for the winter.

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Joseph Gerry and his wife and family are nearing the end of a hard season, one in which the start was slow and cold and the peak came during the worst drought in 50 years. ``It wasn’t meant to be easy and it isn’t easy,’‘ he says. ``I figure next year has got to be a better year, and if it isn’t, it’ll be the following year. Long as I got my health pretty good. Everyone’s got a battle.’‘

This is his. And most of his war is fought against rain, or the lack of it; cold; pests (airborne leafhoppers this year); machinery; and fatigue. The small annoyances -- for a while now, a doe and her fawn have been nibbling on escarole and lettuces at night while the Gerrys sleep -- don’t faze him. ``What little bit they eat,’‘ he says, ``they can have.’‘

Farming is a matter of balance, he says. ``Mother Nature doesn’t want you to be too happy or jump too high,’‘ he explains. ``She’ll give you a little bit this time, then she’ll take it back.’‘

The Gerry family, however, has made it through 75 years, making them one of the last surviving farms in the area. On 55 acres near Route 24, the business was begun as a raspberry farm in 1920 by Joseph Gerry’s father, Joseph Boleslaus Gerry. Though he worked until he was almost 90, the father handed the land to his son, Joseph George Gerry, 55 years ago. The father was in the middle of his life; the boy was still in high school.

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Joseph George Gerry married Dolly Pazyra and brought her to live with his Polish-born parents. They have five children. A son, Andrew, 46, is a cowboy in Oregon; Joseph Henry, 45, is a chemical engineer at Zeneca Agricultural Products in Wilmington, Del.; and the three other children are part of the Gerry Farm team. Carl, 44, works the land, and Christopher, 41, manages the greenhouses and farm stand. Their only sister, Julie Clark, 38, also works at the stand, but over the years she has moved away twice.

Whether Gerry Farm will flourish in its fourth generation seems more left to whimsy than design. Joseph and Dolly Gerry say it’s up to their children. ``We’re passe,’‘ says the father. All the children say no one was pushed into farming and the three children who are here won’t push their kids.

None of the Gerry siblings will speculate about the next generation. All the grandchildren are 16 or under. Clark says her children want to live in a small New England town -- though she thinks the farm is something of a small town. Carl Gerry thinks his brother Chris’s daughters show an interest in the farm stand. Dolly Gerry watches Carl’s son Gregory, 6 1/2, and there’s something about him that makes her able to picture him here at his father’s age.

A son who didn’t stay, Joseph ``Joe’‘ H. Gerry, loves to work here on his vacations from his job in Delaware. ``I never thought I was tied here,’‘ he says. ``No one felt tied here.’‘ The siblings who stayed made up their own mind.

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Paradise for kids

Like Clark, her brother Joe describes the farm as a paradise for kids. There were a couple of motorcycles when he was growing up, and everyone drove trucks as soon as they were old enough to reach the pedals. Clark had a horse, and there were lots of dogs, cats, and cows.

The Gerry siblings never suffered from the common complaint of feeling too removed from modern life on the farm. The Gerrys sent all their children to Catholic schools (Joe Gerry drove with a friend’s father to Boston College High every day). Today, he doesn’t know how his parents managed four tuitions at once. He left to go to the University of Notre Dame and then to Cornell University for graduate school, and never returned to the farm permanently. But he isn’t surprised that his brothers came back after college.

``Carl likes it. I’m not sure Chris would want to do anything else,’‘ says Joe. ``My father could have done other things, but he enjoys the farm.’‘

Taking Gerry Farm into the next century might mean making changes in the business now. Some customers wonder why the Gerrys don’t become more entrepreneurial. They suggest selling a few pies, using Gerry’s famously plump raspberries or the meltingly sweet peaches the family gets from Carver Hill Orchards in Stow. Maybe quick breads, made with the small, cherubic sugar pumpkins picked in their fields.

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Another family farm, in Concord, one that the Gerrys admire, sells pies and confections from a kitchen attached to their farm stand. Two years ago, Stephen and Joan Verrill, of Verrill Farm, moved from a tentlike structure that once housed their vegetables into a big farm stand with a kitchen. They added the kitchen because their daughter, Jennifer, 32, a professional baker, wanted her own spot.

Jennifer Verrill began baking on her own, and the business grew so quickly that she has had to hire five assistants.

Stephen Verrill wonders if it would have worked without his daughter on the premises. ``You need a cook who is also a manager,’‘ he says. The start-up costs run about $50,000, since kitchens must meet local codes, with such requirements as a three-compartment sink and special wall materials.

The Gerry siblings wonder whether the cost of a kitchen could possibly be made up in baked goods. Like her brothers, Julie Clark doesn’t like the idea of staying open year-round just to offer California produce and compete with local supermarkets.

``This is nice just the way it is,’‘ she says.

Her brothers agree. Carl Gerry says that even if the kitchen were feasible, the local fruit season is so short they might be forced to use ``imports’‘ (from California) -- which would run counter to the original idea. Christopher says, ``Up to this point, you’re reluctant to have changes.’‘

Though Dolly Gerry makes ``the best apple pie in the world,’‘ according to her husband, with ``a crust like butter,’‘ he thinks they’re both too old to ``jump into something crazy.’‘ If his children want, he told them, ``I’ll insulate the building,’‘ which means they can keep the stand open all winter.

No place like home

Though the season was late and dry, says Carl Gerry, it wasn’t a loss. But there isn’t cash this year to pump back into the farm. They won’t, for instance, build a new greenhouse they would like. Joseph Gerry won’t buy the brush chipper he wants. But, he says, ``I’m patient.’‘ Four families earned income, and everyone except Joseph and Dolly Gerry will work other jobs through the winter.

Selling their own produce at retail prices helps. Carl Gerry did a lot of small plantings so they could put almost everything up for sale at the farm stand, which is better for them than getting wholesale prices at New England Produce Center in Chelsea (see sidebar).

All the Gerrys prefer to stay close to home, though they’re not without a sense of adventure. Julie Clark says she can’t imagine being on the farm when she’s her mother’s age, then tells her mother she feels awful having said it.

Joseph and Dolly Gerry listen earnestly to their customers’ travel stories, though they never make plans to go anywhere themselves. Dolly Gerry admires a customer’s dazzling topaz and diamond ring -- it’s the color of some Polish amber she’s seen -- and then later uses the same enthusiasm to explain how she researched a presidential-history question for one of the grandchildren. A cup of tea and a good chat replenish her the same way that a hunting trip fuels her husband. ``I haven’t brought anything home in years,’‘ he says. ``I couldn’t swat a fly.’‘

The annual fishing trip Joseph Gerry took with his boyhood friend in rural Canada in September was as harrowing as usual. The Cree pilot who drops them off flies right beside the mountains, holding a map in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. ``He’s a fly-by-your-pants pilot,’‘ says Gerry. But it doesn’t frighten him because it fits with one of his theories.

``The minute you’re born, there’s a clock that tells you when you’ll go,’‘ he says; like customers at a deli, everyone’s in line, holding a little ticket. ``I don’t get scared,’‘ Joseph Gerry says.

After supper one night -- Milk Lunch biscuits and tea because they eat a big meal midday -- the Gerrys walk over to the farm stand to work until closing. These days it’s dark outside and chilly inside. The farm stand is lit up and the couple are bundled up, Dolly Gerry hugging a heavy sweater over her long apron.

``It’s almost winter, Ma,’‘ he tells her, and they begin to chat about when he began calling her Ma instead of Dolly. The commuter cars coming off Route 24 are whizzing by, and the farm stand, with its long rows of pumpkins and flowering plants, is a beacon on the road. An off-duty Brockton fireman pulls up, drawn to the light.

Crunching numbers on green beans

For small farmers like himself, says Carl Gerry, it isn’t cost-effective to sell produce through New England Produce Center in Chelsea. He has built-in expenses that larger farmers in New Jersey and Delaware -- with whom he competes -- might not have.

One is paying workers to pick everything by hand, which limits bruising. He’s also operating closely with the farm stand, so everything that is sold on it has been picked just hours before. Someone literally runs into the field to pick another bushel of produce when the stand gets low.

Gerry doesn’t own a mechanical picker that one person can drive down the rows of fields and use to grab a bushel in no time. Nor does he want one. Using a bushel of green beans as an example, Gerry runs the numbers, which tend to vary during the season.

A picker earns $5 an hour and takes between 45 minutes and an hour to pick a bushel of beans; each bushel of beans contains about 22 pounds. At the end of September, a pound of green beans on Gerry Farm stand went for $1.59 (a bushel totals $34.98). At New England Produce Center, the wholesale price for a bushel is $16 to $20.

If Gerry sells his own beans retail, it’s not all profit. He has to subtract the $5 he gives to the picker, plus more for a worker who cultivates, and then fertilizer, seed, and water costs. The most he can make on home territory is around $23.

From the Chelsea figure, he has to subtract the same field costs, carton prices, gasoline for driving to Boston, and a commission for the broker.

At the height of the season, when the glut arrives from New Jersey and Delaware, the wholesale price of beans goes down to $5 per bushel, which would earn the Gerrys -- after expenses -- nothing at all.