On the farm, cultivating for the next generation
Local growers innovate to keep pace with a changing landscape
STOW — Chelcie Martin grew up on the family farm, tagging along after her father, running the bakery during summers as she studied horticulture at UMass Amherst, and joining her dad in the front office after graduation.
Her father, Andrew, was planting carrots and trailing after his father by the time he was 6.
“There are customers who knew my grandfather,” Chelcie said during a mid-morning break from sorting peaches at Honey Pot Hill Orchards. “They love this place almost as much as I do.”
For the Martins, farming is both a job and a life. The father-daughter pair are carrying on a tradition that began four generations and nearly a century ago. Like other farms in the region — Smolak Farms in North Andover and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon — Honey Pot Hill in Stow embarks on this fall’s harvest season straddling both past and future.
To survive, they’ve had to innovate in ways unimaginable to their forebears. In addition to growing and selling fruits and vegetables, many farms now promote agritourism, a composite of entertainment, food, and activities, including petting zoos, school programs, bakeries, and event space for birthday parties and other gatherings.
According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the most recent available, there were 7,755 operating farms in Massachusetts. A woman was principal operator at 32 percent of the Commonwealth’s farms — more than double the national rate of 14 percent — and the average age of farmers was 56.
Andrew, 58, and Chelcie, 26, are the third and fourth generation of their family to run Honey Pot Hill.
On a steamy afternoon in late August, the orchard looked like a lush and rolling carpet. Apple trees stood in rows, an occasional ladder resting against a trunk. Butterflies and bees abounded. And the laughter of children rose, as sweet as the fragrance of cider doughnuts baking inside the farm store.
Bedford resident Tarah Fitisemanu and her four children, Arabelle, 12, Helena, 9, Ruby, 4, and Ezekiel, 2, had just finished picking apples and were headed to the blueberry fields for another round.
“I want them to know how things grow,” their mother said.
What it takes to grow this bounty is a marathon few see from start to finish: the 25,000 apple trees Chelcie and Andrew begin pruning by hand in the raw chill of New Year’s Day; summer work weeks that grow longer and more arduous as the days shorten; and wave after wave of visitors from near and far who arrive in mid-July to pick the first crop of blueberries, return to buy peaches, and come back for apple picking from late August through the middle of October, filling the 20-acre parking lot daily all the way to November’s pumpkin harvest and the first frost.
“It’s not ‘buy in, cash out,’” Andrew Martin said of carrying on the business.
For Michael Smolak, farming was in the stars.
Smolak’s grandparents, immigrants from Poland, established Smolak Farms in 1927. In 1972, when his father died, leaving his mother with five dependent children, Michael decided thatonce he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was studying architecture and biology, he would return home to run the farm.
“Life sends you where you’re supposed to go,” said Smolak, 66, who became the third generation owner-operator of the 125-acre family farm.
The first thing he did was to auction the dairy cows. Next, he added 300 apple trees to an inventory of 160.
Over the years, Smolak has studied trends and found ways to attract more visitors. A dinner series features restaurants from Boston whose chefs donate a portion of sales to their favorite charities; education programs bring thousands of children from across Greater Boston and nearby New Hampshire. A 200-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model is growing. It lets members subscribe to the harvest by paying up front and picking up shares of the harvest every week.
“If you keep your eyes on the future, that is where you will end up. If you look side to side or backwards, that is where you might end up,” Smolak wrote in an e-mail. “The backbone of the farm was developed to be pick-your-own and we have gone on from there.”
Jim and Bob Ward, the operators of Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, had farming in their blood. But it was their father’s faith that 7,000 blueberry bushes — planted in 1981 and 1982, after he bought the farm, and flourishing when he died in 1985 — that convinced the brothers to keep going.
“Those blueberry bushes guided us. They began to bear fruit,” said Jim. “We had to market the crop, care for them, and that gave us a reason to continue.”
Today, the original 7 acres of blueberry plants has grown to 200 acres of vegetables and fruits, a bonanza of pick-your-own that changes with the season and includes every crop but apples.
The harvest begins in June with strawberries, followed by lettuce, peas, summer squash, and beans; in July, the blueberries and raspberries are ready for picking; August brings corn, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, and flowers; and by November, pumpkins and squash land all at once, as if they’d been dropped from the sky by an army of elves.
The next generation of farmers to run Ward’s Berry Farm is likely to come from outside the family. Even though the brothers have seven children between them, none has shown interest in agriculture. Instead, a handful of full-time, year-round employees, passionate about farming, hold the promise.
“My most important job is mentoring this group,” Jim said. “They have the energy of youth. They care. And they’re smart.”
So while the earth yields its bounty with flourishes as bright as tinsel, as spectacular as fireworks, and as bullish as a New Year’s toast, the farmer stays grounded.
“It’s pretty fundamental. The harvest is the moment when we have an opportunity. We have to properly bring in the crops we’ve put all that energy into growing,” Jim said. “It better be our busiest time. We’re working all year to produce it.”