John Bemis
Hutchins Farm
754 Monument Street

Age 59

Interviewed March 29, 2006

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Click here for audio in .mp3 format.

John BemisThis farm is a beautiful spot, and it's probably understandable that our great-grandfather, Charles Lewis Hutchins known as Old CL, couldn't resist buying it at auction years ago for that very reason. He in fact has subsequently manipulated the environment to make it appear a little bit more dramatic. Monument Street used to run right by the house that is across the street. He built the stone walls and got the road moved further away. His son was Gordon Hutchins, my grandfather. The story goes that my great-grandfather was on his way out to Barre, Massachusetts for the weekend to visit his wife's family. But, he read that there was an auction here at Punkatasset Hill, and he had seen a few things on the list that he thought might like to bid on. So he came by the auction and ended up buying the farm. His son, Gordon, our grandfather, having graduated from college was teaching school down in Pennsylvania. He called him up and said you're going to agriculture school next year and sent him to Cornell.

The farm was in those days significantly larger and included both the land, 62 acres we have here on this side of the street, as well as a few extra house lots that my grandfather sold off, and then substantial acreage on the other side of the street. The farm buildings were on the other side of the street, and the remains of those exist in what is now the Connolly's buildings.

The initial purchase of the farm and buildings was in 1887. My great-grandfather subsequently bought other acreage.

My grandfather had an apple orchard, a dairy herd, and five acres of commercial asparagus that he used to take into market in Boston. I think I remember stories of my grandfather taking the asparagus into Boston overnight where he spent the night in Boston. He had pigs and he grew currants??. It was one of his favorite crops. The buildings today have been changed dramatically by the present owners, but there were significant changes made by our great-grandfather as well. He was a big idea man.

The house that my parents live in today at 806 Monument Street is the house that my grandfather built for himself and his family. He built it in 1917. They lived in it until after World War II, and then they all moved across the street. The acreage here that my brother and I farm today was primarily crop land -- hay, corn and whatnot for the cattle. It was a Guernsey herd, brown and white, which is pretty rare today. My older sister and I were the only two in the family of five that can remember actually going over into the barn across the street when there was still a dairy herd there. The herd was sold off in the very early ‘50s. The farmhouse was sold off as were the barns. My grandfather lived until the fall of 1969 and was keeping himself afloat by occasionally selling off some of the property. But very fortunately, he was also involved in the sale of property to Harvard University known as the Estabrook Woods which included a portion of his land. He also sold off 75 to 100 acres some time in the ‘70s to the Town of Concord known now as Punkatasset. I don't think recreational funds were used for it. But, growing up the pond was a place to swim and there is a ski hill there.

The farm originally was between 200 and 300 acres -- the 62 acres we have today, the various house lots amount to about 10 acres, the sale to Harvard was over 100 acres, and the sale to the town was about 75 acres. Year ago they took ice out of Punkatasset. There was a barn over there. The only intriguing aspect of the past is the barn was made out of chestnut as most of the hill on the property was covered with chestnut trees. The blight killed all of those off sadly. And, the 1938 hurricane knocked down a lot.

During the years growing up, the fields my mother owned were rented out to I believe at first DeNormandie & Verrill, who were dairy farmers in Lincoln and Concord who had a significant dairy. Our memory goes back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. At that time the Mattison family over at Nine Acre Corner on Williams Road hayed the fields. They didn't fertilize them very frequently nor reseeded them, but they had magnificent equipment. They took just a single crop of hay, and they would usually start cutting over 4th of July. We have fond memories of watching the first person to come over. They had beer coolers in every vehicle and one lap around the field and the tractor driver was off to get his first can of beer. For years we'd find Pabst Blue Ribbon cans around the edge of the field.

My brother was a student in engineering at Tufts starting in 1969. We just looked at the fields basically. But there was an extended family farm up in New Hampshire that my brother had worked on a little bit haying and whatnot, and he spent a whole term of his senior year in high school working on a farm owned by some conservation group in Southern New Hampshire. As an outcome of that, he became really interested in conservation and sustainable agricultural ideas. He sought to pursue that in some course of study which the engineering department at Tufts would not support, but the faculty of the liberal arts school did support it so he pursued two years of independent study that involved starting a garden and using composting and whatnot. So I think in 1971 or '72, he initiated that venture while at the same time he was working for Steve Verrill and his father over at Verrill's farm as a primary vegetable hand in the gardens. So that's how he sort of learned about gardening. And he's been very close to Steve Verrill ever since.

Those gardens that my brother started here were large enough to provide food both for our family but also large enough that he took produce that was extra in to health food stores in Cambridge and one in Boston. There was one on the corner of Mt. Auburn and Putnam Avenue, and there was another one on Mass Avenue near Arlington, and an additional store over on Newbury Street in Boston. From the beginning, he was very organized in this approach so he would take orders as these stores all wanted organic produce. There was no certification process then. Concord already had one organic farm or a farm that was reputed to be organic, and that was the Perry farm over on Lexington Road. They were a Portuguese family. The organic community of Boston used to come out to buy. Principally they were following sort of old world practices in agriculture and grew wonderful stuff. But most of their production was sold out of a retail farm stand on Lexington Road so we weren't competing with them for the wholesale market. Still he had some competition from various other small ventures. Those were usually people who would come in with a truck full of product of one kind or another and go around to the stores and peddle the produce. That always bothered him because he would have orders and sometimes he would arrive having presumed an order and they wouldn't take it then. But right from the beginning, Gordon's focus in addition to the organic was a real quality product.

We never sold in those days to local stores. I got involved with Gordon in 1973 and we started a partnership in 1974. From time to time we would sell a little bit locally. I can remember taking peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes down to Crosby's Star Market when it was on Lowell Road to be astounded that they would just take our produce and put it in their cooler downstairs. It was a cooler that was primarily for dairy and cheese so it was kept at 33 degrees which is not at what produce should be kept. They would keep our produce there until they sold what they had on display which would mean it didn't look any better than what they were selling by the time they sold it. So we didn't really like that. We have sold when we had extra stuff beyond our usual wholesale markets to diNapoli's at Idlewild Farm in Acton. They've always been very receptive and supportive in giving us a good price. We would still be inclined to do that. We also have small accounts now at Concord Provisions, the store on Thoreau Street, and we take orders from The Cheese Shop.

Gordon was selling from 1970 to 1972 and I don't know if he was using the Hutchins Farm name or not. But, we formed a partnership in 1973, Gordon & John Bemis, DBA, Hutchins Farm, and at that point started a farm stand at the top of 806 Monument Street which was serve yourself. That worked pretty well. We had a cash box. That grew fairly rapidly over the years. I think in about 1980 there were two additions to that original farm stand. We built a cooler out back. Then it was clear it wasn't big enough and we didn't really have any farm buildings because we never had access to those because they had been sold off by my grandfather. Basically my mother inherited this side of the street, and her sister who lived in Westford was the beneficiary of the other side of the street. But much of that was sold off by my grandfather before he passed away.

In about 1980, we built our present building here at 754 Monument Street. It was the first thing we ever built that wasn't too small the day we finished it, and it's served us very well ever since. We've expanded the greenhouses over sort of behind 820 Monument Street. This building has two additions, one a roof structure that has a porch off it, and the other a greenhouse.

Today to use the word organic you need to be certified by one of the agencies that qualifies with the Federal government to interpret their rules for growing organic. They have very strict rules. I think the first certification ever was in about 1980 and that was done by the Massachusetts division of the New England Organic Farmers Association. But we had been organic before. The basic concept was that commercial agriculture today feeds crops. They put fertilizer on the soil so they can grow crops, and they control insects and diseases by applying materials that will kill those things with pesticides which are chemical based. Organic agriculture's basic concept is that they nurture the soil to make the soil healthy and that a healthy soil will grow healthy produce. Diseases and insects are primarily controlled by the belief that a healthy soil will contribute to the plant's natural capacities to resist disease and insects supplemented by the use of materials that are naturally plant derived or bacteria derived concentration of natural materials. Sometimes they are not particularly selective but often are only useful against specific insects and therefore will continue to allow for the development of beneficial bacteria and insects that control [voice fades]. So one nurtures the soil through soil amendments and composts and rotation of crops, both rotation of crops that are productive as well as rotation of crops into non-productive crops that are hopefully restoring nitrogen or creating biological activity that will diminish the growth of pathagens that develop over time in the soil. We certainly over the years have focused on production. In some ways we have been absent of not having long enough rotations and taking plants out of production. We haven't had land to do that. We've been trying to make some significant contributions to the income of three families for the last 20 years and that involves some levels of production probably exceeding the ideal on rotation and use of land here.

The farm is presently owned by Gordon, myself, and our three sisters. It's run as a partnership business with Gordon and myself. In our biggest years which were probably from 1985 to 2000, we were growing 40 acres of vegetables. There are about 15 acres of the 62 acres that comprise the farm here on Monument Street that are not capable of being productive. They involve woodland or swamp. But we have supplemented the production here with extra little pieces of property. For some years, we grew three or four acres of pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn up at the Beecher property further up on Monument Street. It also bordered the river so we had access to irrigation. We farmed for several years a piece of property between Lowell Road and Estabrook Road a field that is not visible from the street. That land was not irrigatable so we grew potatoes and pumpkins and squash from time to time. As the deer population grew, that became a more challenging venture and the field was difficult to access, so we gave that up. We also have a small field up at my brother's house at1501 Monument Street that we occasionally put into production. Again that's not land we can irrigate because it was very wet land. In recent years we've had the lease on the fields over at the sewage treatment plant on Bedford Street and that's probably a 15-acre field of sandy loam. It has a pond that we can irrigate. Before we got the lease on it the Columbo's used to grow corn over there. When they gave it up, Gordon secured the lease primarily because the then Natural Resources Commissioner, Dan Monahan, required that any use of the land take into account the breeding cycle of the landing turtle, and Gordon was the only farmer who could relate and address that issue. We presume there was some kind of competition for that. We still use that field and it's a wonderful addition to the land we have here. We do not feel secure that we will have that lease forever. It is a definite likelihood that the sewage treatment plant will expand and in fact at least a quarter of the field is property that is owned by the cemetery. It doesn't look like they need to expand right away but it may come.

We have fruit trees and we sell apples. We basically have fruit trees here on Monument Street in areas where the land is either too rocky or too hilly for us to use it productively for produce. For the first 20-25 years, we used chemical materials for the orchard because there was no one who knew enough to tell us how to do it organically. We used absolute minimums of those materials and followed practices that today are called IPM, integrated pest management, but even less than that. There was always pressure from the certifying organizations for us to move toward organic production. It's also true that our production has been diminished some since we've done that. [voice low]

Through the use of multiple plantings and the other techniques that have been around for a long time we get pretty reliable production in vegetables. But apples are perennials, and they've been grown in this area a long time and there are lots of pests around. It's a moist environment. We don't live on the top of a hill or up in the mountains. Air drainage is non-existent in a river valley and that puts another level of moisture in the orchard.

In about 1987 or 1988 we worked with the town and the state again through Dan Monahan and the Department of Natural Resources to be included in what's called the Agriculture Preservation Restriction Program that is administered by the state. It involves a required commitment of support from the town. This is a program which has been used most frequently in areas on significant agricultural production such as the Connecticut River Valley to preserve important pieces of productive land. They've been a little reluctant to commit to agricultural land in suburban kinds of communities because the value of the land is so high that their ability to preserve acres is significantly hampered by that. This deed here was deemed to be very valuable because most of it is developable, and the process requires coming up with development plans to show what the value would be if developed. Ours was high enough in fact we ended up working out an arrangement whereby we got $600,000 from the town and $600,000 from the state for the development rights for 62 acres. The actual development value was $5½ million so the rest was a gift on our part. It doesn't do us a lot of good because we don't have enough income for that gift. It just throws us into the alternative minimum tax issue. It was a nice time to get the money that we got. The stock market has done very well since then so it was a nice arrangement. But, we primarily, and I think our siblings, have always been very much interested in keeping the land out of development. So it wasn't so much that we feared we were trying to protect ourselves from development, but rather that we recognized that it might be wiser to take the value out of the land so that in the long term there would be no dissention or squabbling in the family over potential dollars. Have we regretted it? Occasionally, yes. There are requirements that involve scrutiny and communication with our partners in the ownership at the state level that are a little bit challenging. For example, the difficulty in building housing on the land for farmer workers. You have to go through a challenging process in order to get approval.

We have one house on a lot here in town that's adjoining our property. It's a pretty substandard house but we do have a man and his family who works with us and lives there. But we have no housing for farm workers and that's an issue. It makes it very hard. It forces us to try to rely on recruiting young people who live in the area, which we've always enjoyed doing. Much of our pride over the years has been the nurturing we've been able to supply the youth of Concord in giving them jobs and watching them grow and learn how to work on a farm. But, it's increasingly difficult to rely on that source of labor. In our peak years we filled out two dozen W2 forms over the course of a season. We try to keep our field force below ten because whatever requirements there are when you get over ten are difficult to deal with. Two or three people might work in the farm stand at a time. If we're lucky, we get a couple of people who work for a whole season, and it's especially nice when people come back for a second or third year because they really know what they're doing. But it's very characteristic that we have to go out and hire a totally new crew in the fall for the harvest because everybody goes back to school in August.

The early success in the market for organic product was much defined by macrobiotic movement in Boston. There was a place called the Kushi?? Institute. Kushi was a man of Japanese descent and had a strong belief that organic produce and a macrobiotic diet could be a useful tool in helping beat some diseases. They had a series of houses in the Boston area where people could come to live and be trained and eat according to these principles. They were a wonderful market for those of us in organic production. That was supplemented by sort of the hippie type kind of culture of living. I can remember some customers who we used to sell a lot of carrots because they would choose carrots primarily because they were cleansing their system with carrot juice after going on a drug binge. I can remember a group of people who would come and wear orange clothes, had orange hair, and their skin was sort of orange, and they would write checks in orange ink, and buy carrots. In those days from a wholesale point of view, we had a ready market. There was not a lot of food elsewhere in the country that was organic as was coming in so the health food stores really did rely on us. With the growth of the Boston Food Coop and the Bread & Circus supermarket chain which was subsequently sold and has become Whole Foods, there would appear to be a growing market for organic produce.

But in fact to the contrary, we had real difficulty with that market because they wanted almost exclusive rights to local production. We couldn't sell our leftovers to them; we had to give them the primary production. We needed the retail price that we could get at our farm stand in order to support ourselves. Then ultimately those two organizations got together and moved some people who had been produce buyers out to the West Coast to buy for them year around. That meant buying significantly out there to justify the cost. That reduced even further their desire for local production. One hears that there's this growing market for organic. In fact, we used to sell enormous quantities of produce to Italians from the city who would come out. They'd bargain for a hard price but they truly cooked vegetables. We sold a lot more peppers, eggplant and vegetables that were cooked years ago than we do today. They didn't care if it was organic or not. They cared that it was good quality and fresh.

The market today is also challenged by the fact that everybody is so busy and in such a hurry that they really want virtual ready-to-eat food. From that point of view, we're not a one-stop shop. People have to integrate the produce they're buying here in with the products they're buying at the supermarkets. Concord fortunately has a strong tradition of farm stands. There's definitely a feeling that different neighborhoods support different farm stand whether they are organic or not.

There's one restaurant in Boston that is of real value to any farmer and that is Henrietta's Table. Peter Davis is the chef at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. In our heyday we would sell $1400 worth of produce to Peter in a week. Now there is another restaurant in the same hotel that is very high end. At the same time we were delivering $1400 a week to Peter, we would sell $60 a week to this other restaurant. We've sold to many other restaurants in Boston over the years and some of the chefs are friends. One in particular, Stephano Sorgen??? [missed some] at Aigo Bistro in Concord was someone we [side one ended]

She used to explain to us that to keep a restaurant profitable they have to watch their pennies pretty carefully on their purchases. Most restaurants rely heavily on the quality of their fish, their meat, and their vegetables they think they can make look good without spending a lot of money. So there was a lot of competition for a small market. Most restaurants don't buy that much vegetable produce. The single exception to that is Peter Davis who has a restaurant that probably seats 200. He sells a vegetable as much as he's selling the entrée meat or whatever else. The restaurant is owned by the hotel, but he is the executive chef. A typical example to describe Peter and his approach is when winter squash comes in in October, Peter will buy 15 bushel of butternut squash and have his kitchen staff cut it all up and freeze it so he can serve organic squash all winter long.

Organic produce is slightly more expensive, but not has much as it used to be. I think it will become less so. The fact is this country can produce a lot more food than our own population can consume. So there's a fair degree of downward price pressure and a lot of competition. I tell the story that we would have been totally unable to get into this business any earlier than we did in many ways because there was a little window of a really favorable price for production of a particular vegetable be it corn or zucchini or whatever. In the Boston area the market would be taken by growers in New Jersey who can produce this stuff two weeks before we could so by the time local growers could produce something, the price had already come down. Fortunately as we got started, there wasn't much produce from New Jersey coming up any more because New Jersey was being developed and the market for their product was more local. So that allowed us to focus getting things in earlier and we could get two or three weeks that we could really command a good price. What we tried to do over the years was to establish our own prices and try to keep them free of the pressure of the larger marketplace, to set a fair price and hold that price across the season. That stabilizes our business and our customers are satisfied with that.

The facts are today the prices in the supermarkets don't vary that much a season. Certainly, the margin the supermarket is getting varies but they'll keep the same price. Occasionally they will have discounted prices as leaders but most supermarkets don't make any money off their produce. They put it inside the front door to give the fresh produce look. They'll sell what they can and throw the rest away.

There are oriental greens that are mixed in salads today by everyone. There are many more varieties of tomatoes grown, but nobody is making ratatouille any more. Cooked vegetables are not as much a part of the diet from my perspective as they used to be. That which can be eaten raw, salad type things, yes, that's a standard line. Maybe it was 15 years ago we put a survey out to our customers in hopes that we didn't have to grow some of the traditional vegetables that we felt were not particularly profitable for us to grow. Lettuce is certainly profitable for us. It is probably the most profitable and over the years defined our customers more so than any other product.

I would generally say that not much has helped in any change to the people of Concord. It would be nice to think that all the new people in town would be interested in organic vegetables. And perhaps that's true. But the busy nature of lives I think offsets that potential advantage. We used to have an old farmer, Brad Leach, who was our board of health officer. If he were to receive a call about the smell from spreading manure or something like that, he would just say this is a standard farming practice, no problem. Not true today. Sound pollution, smell pollution, these are the issues I find that have been detrimental. We get calls from neighbors. I had the fire department up here while I was burning two months ago because a neighbor called up. I've never had a fire get out of control in 35 years here. But this year I get a lecture from the fire department. And that was because a neighbor had called. There are many more regulations about what you can burn, what you can't burn, about everything you can do around. Driving on the roads with farm equipment is hair raising. The most obvious reason for that is when the town renovates a road today they put a curb in. If you want to pull over to the side of the road when you're pulling a harrow for example, and you're trying to drive on the road with a wide harrow, it's truly dangerous. But more than that, you don't drive very fast when you're on the road with a tractor or a piece of equipment, the impatience of people on the roads is just unbelievable. They will pass absolutely regardless of where you are after 10 seconds. They will not wait behind you for longer than 10 seconds. It's just truly frightening.

There are times today when our location is detrimental. We're not on Route 2 to come to us. If you come from Carlisle you can come from a direct shot, but if you're coming from Boston or coming from the other side of Concord, you have to get through Concord Center. Well, on weekends in Concord Center, now there are so many events and celebrations and tourists and people coming out to bicycle or whatever, there are times people give up trying to get here. We have sought to make this a farm that exists on its own production, not on entertainment, but on the sale of food that we have grown. I don't know how long realistically that can continue. At some point, there may have another element that brings people here, whether it be a restaurant type of spot. Verrill has captured a strong market as a function of the prepared food he has. Other farms elsewhere are working as sort of an entertainment thing. We don't have room to park a lot of cars here.

It would be really nice to have a sign at the foot of Monument Street in front of the Colonial Inn that said "Hutchins Organic Farm, 1.5 miles". That would be great. I've been harassed when I put seasonal signs down there. We don't want to go the way of a tourist [voice low]. But it would be nice to have more people know we're here. Advertising is expensive. The local newspapers are absolutely absurd. They're living off the money they make from advertisers and they don't reach that many people. Articles are nice but they tend to be extremely inaccurate. It's risky subjecting yourself to that exposure. We have a website now. I think it's I can't always remember what it is. We're trying to use that to let people know we're here.

The town is forming an agricultural committee. I am one of the proposed members. Concord has a strong agriculture history. The fact that agriculture exists in this town is a function of the unique topography of the town, the joining of rivers, the amazingly slight drop of the rivers and over the width of the town, there is significant acreage on the edges of water that is good land for farming. It has been productive long enough so that the consciousness of the public that cares about preserving open land had the opportunity because the land was still open to engage and to save a good bit of the town. So there will always be the appearance of agriculture here. People are supportive of the farm stands. Certainly, those on Route 2 have a little bit of an advantage.

Having said that, I think the value of property has increased so significantly that the traditions of the town… I used to say that new people moving to town assumed the values and traditions of the existing population. I don't believe that now. I believe firmly that the new people in town have expectations of the level of service that bears very little relationship to the traditions to this town. An example is the potential loss of farmlands to playing fields. I like playing fields as much as the next person, but there is some farmland that will be threatened as a function of that. So there needs to be some forum such as an agricultural committee or commission that can be a sounding board as new ideas and plans evolve that can allow for a formal opportunity for the farming community to express an opinion. I think that's the primary purpose. Whether people will be listened to of course, is still questionable.

The town has chosen not to follow a state program that involves institutionalization of agricultural commissions which have a more formal authority. They've chosen to operate with a committee that is under the board of selectmen, is nominated by the board of selectmen, and therefore can be controlled by the board of selectmen. There is a bill I believe passed that set up a system for forming commissions with a fairly real agenda and some power. We won't have any power. There's been talk that they will start with a committee and it will become a commission. But, I'll believe that when it happens. A commission would still be through the board of selectmen. But there would be specific license to practice [voice low]. What exactly the committee will do, I don't know.

In the short run, there is one particular selectman, Phil Benacassa, who has expressed a desire to have a farmers' market in town. I know his vision is probably not the same as that of the farmers, but he is receptive to some interpretation of a committee. The opinion I have heard from another farmer I think is the strongest concept is that first of all a farmers' market should not be one farmer at a time. There are those of us who could put on a hell of a show at certain times, but the likelihood of there being any consistency by the various farms in Concord done on a one-to-one basis will not generate any real visibility. To have a day a week for farmers' markets here in Concord I think that would take too much away from the farm stands. But to have a day a month or a day a year or season where all the farms are in a really prominent place so that the differential wares of the various farms could really be put on display, that would be terrific and would very much bring the population of Concord into greater contact with the various farms. There was a farmers' market 10 or 15 years ago on Thoreau Street. It was one day, and it was great.

Gordon and John Bemis