fb-pixel

A (chicken) coup for Needham, a loss for the community

“It’s time,’’ said Douglas Owen about the sale of his family farm, which opened 80 years ago in Needham. He is selling the land to the town, which plans to build an elementary school there.
“It’s time,’’ said Douglas Owen about the sale of his family farm, which opened 80 years ago in Needham. He is selling the land to the town, which plans to build an elementary school there.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NEEDHAM — Walter Owen was a farm boy from Needham who made and lost a small fortune trading stocks in the 1920s. In the teeth of the Great Depression, he took his last $2,000, bought some land along Central Avenue, and opened a chicken farm.

Even in 1935, it was an unlikely move. By then, most of the farms in rapidly developing Needham had already disappeared. But with good service, fresh eggs, and a convenient location, Owen made a name for himself.

Eight decades later, Owen's Poultry Farm is still there — at once an institution and an anomaly, a 10-acre slice of country just 10 miles as the crow flies from Boston Common, squeezed amid subdivisions in an affluent suburb. The letters OPF, spelled across the roof of the hen house, are visible on satellite photos of Needham.

Advertisement



But soon Owen's will vanish. With no fourth-generation owner in the wings, with developers circling, and with Needham searching for land to build a school, owner Douglas Owen decided to sell. On Monday night, Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly to authorize $6.5 million for purchase of the land and $500,000 for related site work, to make way for a roughly $60 million school slated to open around 2020. In a few months, Owen's will close, having sold well over 1 million eggs, chickens, pot pies, and Thanksgiving turkeys in 80 years.

"Everything stops in life, except for death and taxes," said Douglas Owen, 57, who has lived his entire life on the farm and worked there since high school. He had just gotten off the phone with his father, Raymond, who retired from Owen's in 1985.

"He didn't want to see it go," said Owen, a barrel-chested man with ruddy skin and deep blue eyes. His parents met as teenagers, when his father delivered eggs to his mother. He sighed, looking out across the pasture from the parking lot of the store. "But it's time."

Advertisement



When Owen reached out last spring with what town officials now call "turkeys from heaven," they were a few years into reviewing imperfect options for replacing the old and overcrowded Hillside School, one of Needham's five elementary schools, said Kate Fitzpatrick, the town manager.

"Ten acres don't fall into your lap very often," she said — let alone 10 acres a half-mile from the school being replaced.

Douglas Owen said developers offered $2 million more than the town — which has the right to match any private offer on land that receives an agricultural tax break — but he was not interested in a bidding war.

The community is grateful, said Maurice Handel, Board of Selectmen chairman, but even for town officials the sale is bittersweet. Like many people in Needham, he has purchased his turkey there every Thanksgiving since he moved to town.

Owen, who started grading eggs in kindergarten, was groomed to take over the farm as Walter Owen's oldest grandson. When other Needham High classmates spoke of heading to places like BC and UNH, he joked about heading to OPF.

By then, the 15,000-square-foot hen house had been a popular attraction for children for years, and Owen's parents had kept an assortment of farm animals as pets. But Douglas Owen expanded the informal "petting zoo" — keeping two dozen goats, pigs, and llamas — while adding more specialty and prepared foods to the poultry staples in the rustic shop.

He loved it, once holding up a live turkey on Julia Child's television show and selling a few thousand birds each Thanksgiving. But the economics got harder. His local feed supplier went under, forcing him to ship it from the Midwest.

Advertisement



"Grain went through the roof," said Owen, who might have been the last person in Needham tracking the price as anything other than an investor. "Corn went from $3 a bushel to $9!"

A surge in the coyote population plagued his animals and kept him up at night. Young people would work for a few days and quit, turned off by hard labor.

Roughly a decade ago, he shuttered the hen house and stopped raising his own fowl, switching to selling poultry that he purchased fresh from others. He will not carry turkey this Thanksgiving, but he continues stocking the cases with such items as chicken fricassee, using his grandfather's recipe. Tuesday, he tended eight 40-quart kettles of homemade gravy at once on the range, with orders exploding as word spread.

"The whole thing has gone cuckoo," Owen said. "People are buying 10 times what they usually buy."

At the register, customers were bereft.

"We're not happy about it," said Laura Walter of Dover, who at 54 had been coming to Owen's since she was a girl.

"Boo!" added Leila Sigadel, an 84-year-old from Wellesley, who had accompanied Walter, a professional companion for seniors, on a shopping trip. "This is a very nice store to come to."

Some were just getting the news. "Oh my god! I'm horrified," said Judy Caragher of Medfield, a retired teacher who made a habit of stopping in to pick up roast chicken on her way home from work in Newton. "I'd cut through, grab one of these, and dinner was cooked."

Advertisement



Behind her, Nancy Miller, a Needham nurse who had been shopping at Owen's for 35 years, overheard and ducked out of line. "Oh wow," she said. "I better get some more gravy."


Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.