Concord Farmers

Interviews, Spring 1987

Recommendation made to Historical Commission that these interviews should be video-taped with a camcorder because of the importance of the visual impact. The board to date has not approved the selective use of video taping for the oral history program. Transcriptions available and photos by Alice Moulton.

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Angelo and Nat Arena, 101 Fairhaven Road,
Wholesale market gardeners

John and Nat Arena, 167 Fairhaven Road,
Retail market gardeners with roadside stand

Stephen Verrill, 41.5 Plainfield Road,
Dairy farming

John Bemis, 858 Monument Street,
Organic Farming (with brother Gordon)

Edward Nowalk, 955 Lexington Road,
Market gardener with roadside stand

Frank Scimone, 505 Old Bedford Road,
Market gardener with Market gardener with roadside stand

Angelo Arena, age 62, born 1925,
Nat Arena, his son, born 1957,
A. Arena Farms,
101 Fairhaven Road.

Angelo Arena -- "My father Natale farmed this land as an Italian immigrant for Wilfrid Wheeler. Wheeler was known as the "holly man" because he introduced holly trees to the area by successfully planting them on Cape Cod. My father followed the traditional pattern of many Italian immigrant farmers in Concord. He first worked- for an established farmer, later renting land from him and then purchasing his own farm. There are only about a dozen farmers left in Concord. You can't blame kids for not going into agriculture today. The family farm is a depressed market. The cost of tools, machinery and land are such that why encourage kids to put their heads in a noose? But, I'm proud that Nat has chosen farming."

Nat Arena -- "I manage the wholesale business which includes growing produce as well as packaging and delivering it on our trucks. Our farm was honored in March by the Governor's Council for being among the top 10 in the state in productivity. We specialize in lettuce, sweet corn and peppers for the wholesale market. We plant 100 acres in sweet corn, 30 acres in lettuce, 10 to 12 acres in peppers and 6 to 7 acres in pumpkins a year. When a trailer-load of lettuce pulls out from the farm, it is carrying 800 to 1,000 crates a day, with 24 heads of lettuce packed to a crate.

"We sold our land to the town in 1973 with the right to lease it back for farming for 99 years. We have 25 acres here in Concord and we rent an additional 100 acres in Lincoln on a three to five year lease. Land has to be rented for that period of time to make the farmer's investment, to keep it in top quality."

Angelo --
"We would be interested in renting land in Concord, but not if it meant bidding against a farmer who has been here. Everyone has their place. We believe in an agreement among farmers not to underbid each other for land they have tradition- ally rented, so we don't currently rent any land in Concord.

"Labor is scarce and the quality isn't there the way it used to be. We employ two or three throughout the year and keep them busy with equipment repairs in the off-season. From May to Nov. 1, we use five to six former residents of Jamaica and El Salvador as seasonal help. The men live on site in an apartment unit provided for them. They come to us looking for work and we make sure they have an address and a social security number.

"With today's transportation and refrigeration, produce can be hauled from one part of the country to another and imported from abroad so the local grower can't be assured of a market within his own area. The bottom line for the buyer from the supermarket is often not how fresh the produce is but where can he get it cheaper. This hurts the local grower. We are trying to keep local produce [grown in a state] for that state."

Nat -- "California ships out 80 per cent of its produce. In the south and west there are huge conglomerate farms made up of many farms and owned by corporate businesses. Big business maximizing profit is the bottom line. Farming today moves with technology and scientific advancement.

"We have abundant machinery on the farm. All the corn is harvested by machine, while peppers are hand picked and machine packed.

"A. Arena Farms works with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture in testing for pests and the use of chemicals. Students from the University of Massachusetts test for bugs and analyze the level of spray needed. When you are growing on a large scale, herbicides are a necessity. Natural controls can work on a small scale, but you never find a large-scale organic farmer delivering to a supermarket warehouse. If spraying is properly done, there should be no problem. Spraying has been going on for so long."

Angelo -- "Weather conditions continue to determine price. If we freeze, California will make out. One farmer has to lose his shirt for another to make a profit."

Nat --
"The cost of rent, labor, fertilizer, refrigeration and container costs determine what price we present to the supermarket chain owners. Every spring we sit down with our bids and our buyers. We sell to the warehouse directly and the price that is charged is set for the season, so they know their costs. With computers, the main supermarket warehouse sorts out their distribution of lettuce or carrots to all their stores. We supply two or three of the large area supermarket chains every year and this year we are going to start supplying the commissary at Hanscom Air Force base."

John Arena (Angelo's brother), born 1927,
Nat Arena, his son, born 1953,
Arena Farms,
Route 2 and Fairhaven Road (#167)

John Arena -- "We are market gardeners and we run our own produce stand here at the corner of Route 2 and Fairhaven Road. We have 12 acres here at the family farm site."

Nat Arena -- "We lease 20 acres of agriculturally-restricted farmland in Sudbury, 6 acres of private-owned land off Bedford Street, 25 acres of National Park land off of Lexington Road and 100 acres in the town of Wayland. It would take almost two full days to look at the different fields and crops. Having the dispersed fields offers the advantage of avoiding a total loss due to weather since weather conditions may vary at different locations. We raise 75 different vegetables and small fruits, with the greatest volume in eggplant, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes, winter squash, rasp- berries, strawberries, beans and lettuce. We grow one-quarter of the eggplant in New England. With 18 to 20 eggplants packed to a bushel, we send out 700-800 bushels a week to the supermarket warehouses.

"We're excited about putting in 10,000 new asparagus plants on the Sudbury land where the soil is sandy loam and suited for early planting. Three years is required before the asparagus can be harvested so it will be 1990 before a crop. Asparagus used to grow so abundantly in Concord that it was known as Concord grass. Maybe it can make a comeback. The standard varieties disappeared from this area because of the fusarium fungus popularly known as asparagus rust. Attempts at chemically controlling the disease, which appears as reddish blotches on the roots in the spring, failed. We stopped planting our last crop of asparagus six years ago but we hope this new cloned hybrid plant developed in an experimental field in New Jersey will bring us 10 years of crops from our new plantings. The new variety is planted to a depth of 8 inches rather than 12 and in tests gives a 30-percent higher yield than standard plants."

John --
"We do all our seeding by machine and we employ five full-time workers and three family members. Until 1972 we sold our produce in Boston with the commission agent as the middle man. Then we tried the mobile farmers' markets in urban areas and in 1981 we decided to sell directly to supermarkets at a pre-arranged price for the season."

Nat --
"From our field to their warehouse custom picked. We now are selling to local restaurants. We won't grow a crop on speculation.

"Spraying is done very specifically and for short periods. Crops such as sweet corn require spraying. When chemicals are pulled off the market with no substitutes, it interferes with the ability to grow produce at a competitive price.

"I see fewer members of my generation entering farming. More land is sold each year for development. There are so very few farms inside the 495 belt. I hope 20 years from now that farms around here won't be like dinosaurs."

Stephen Verrill, born 1935,
415 Plainfield Road,
Nine Acre Corner,
(Concord's lone dairy farmer)

"I have been farming for 30 years. My father was a dairy farmer before me and I can remember many farmers with cows in this section of town. William Mattison, Fred Jones, Henry and Harvey Derby, Frank Maguire, Mike Burke, Leslie Anderson and Roland and Russell Eldridge come to my mind.

"I have a herd of 140 mature cows and 130 young ones and they are all now Holstein instead of the mix with Guernsey cows that I once had. Consumer preference has changed away from the richer milk of the Guernsey cow. That preference is without educational validity. The fat content in milk (labeled) low fat and Guernsey cow milk differs only by 2 percent. Guernsey milk has a fat content of between 4.2 and 4.5 percent, regular milk a fat content of 3.35 percent, low fat milk 2 percent and skim milk less than 1 percent. Yet people don't seem to fuss over the higher fat content in a chunk of cheese.

"The federal government sets a minimum price for milk which turns out to be the maximum in a very competitive market where large quantities of a similar product is produced. The price changes monthly but averages about 28 cents a quart.

"My cows produce 2,500 quarts daily, picked up by trailer truck every other day, and distributed through the Agrimark Cooperative to the Hood company. After a 10 year milking period, the cows are sold for beef at the Farmers Live Animal Exchange in Littleton.

"Nine Acre Corner was an area where 'market garden' farmers raised basic produce. My farm on Wheeler Road was the former site of the Wheeler farm, the dominant farm family in the area. Anson, Alden and Raymond Roads are named for the Wheelers who farmed here and were three of the area's most active commercial growers.

"There were acres of celery and broccoli on the Andy Boy farm that is now the Nashawtuc Country Club.

"I farm 45 acres of land here that since 1983 have been under an agricultural preservation restriction and will remain in farming in perpetuity. Development threatened the 85 acres of land I rent in Sudbury. A state program provides for the agricultural preservation restriction whereby the state pays for 90 percent of the development rights and the town the other 10 percent. It enabled me to keep both parcels in farming.

"I also rent about 50 acres of land in Lincoln and 40 acres in Bedford. It is difficult to be efficient when farm sites are so scattered, but that is becoming the reality of today's farming pattern. The cost of renting land depends on what is being raised and the particular arrangement made with the owner.

"For example, rental can vary from a range of no payment to $20 per month per acre for hay, while most market garden vegetables are in the $15-$40-an-acre range.

"Since I have a ready supply of cow manure, I have increased my own marketing of garden vegetables and small fruits like strawberries and raspberries, for area consumers to come and pick their own.

"I consider myself an organic grower 99 percent of the time but I prefer to avoid categorization. I want to reserve the freedom to use a spray if needed.

"I employ one part time and two full time workers. There is difficulty in getting farm help. I have experienced a high turnover in the past decade.

"The farmer is part of a global economy. We are competing with the rest of the world in agricultural production and the labor market. The trend now in this country is to import more and more food and nobody thinks 'buy American' for that.

John Bemis, born 1946,
858 Monument Street,
(Shares ownership with his brother Gordon (born 1951) in the Hutchins Farm, the largest organic farm in Massachusetts.)

"We have a ready market in an organic-conscious Boston populous. But we don't want to think we are catering to a 'yuppie' trade. A number of our regular customers are older people of ethnic background.

"People especially come to buy greens which are offered in 15 different varieties. Among these are lettuce, chard, Chinese cabbage, celery, bok choy, mustard greens and beets. We only sell what we grow. And our buyers are tolerant if they find worms in some of their tomatoes or corn.

"I am a member of the New England Organic Farmers Association. I have gone through the state certification program which requires that the grower not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but follow instead certain soil-building methods, cultivation techniques and rotation of crops.

"At times insects have to be controlled by spraying, but this is done through an integrated pest management program. Spraying is done only when there is a problem and not to avoid a potential problem.

"An organic farmer has to compensate for losses by planting more. The large wholesaler can't do this with his dependency on using all he grows. Our vegetables and fruit are grown according to organic methods, except for the peaches and apples.

"My brother and I farm on 60 acres of land which was part of the Punkatasset Farm holdings of our grandfather Gordon Hutchins. The farm then had an extensive apple orchard, a dairy herd and the once-omnipresent asparagus. We also now lease 90 acres locally along Monument Street and Estabrook Road.

"We get frustrated at not finding adequate labor when at one time there had been a ready supply among the area's youth.

"My father's success in the business world has given my brother and I the luxury of farming in his front yard, but we also know the increased difficulty of a farming family trying to integrate socially in a community with far more affluent neighbors."

Eddie Nowalk, born 1930,
Maplewood Farm,
955 Lexington Road

"There are no more cows grazing across the road here; there used to be on the average 30 Grade Holstein cows in the herd. I sold them a year ago.

"Forty years ago my parents Aleck and Anna came from Poland and bought this 65 acre farm which already had a produce stand in operation. My wife Mary and I sell 10 different varieties of sweet corn, along with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, beets and carrots that we raise. On 15 acres of the land, hay is grown for sale for horses and mulching.

"In 1976 we sold the farm to the Minute Man National Historical Park. They're especially interested in acquiring land along the Battle Road, for preservation and historical interpretation of the April 19 battle. I am allowed to live on the farm for 25 years from the time of purchase and half of those years are now gone.

Frank Scimone, born 1938,
505 Old Bedford Road

"When we open the family's stand in May, plants and flowers will be included among the produce. Roadside stands used to carry seasonal items that a farmer raised. At the first frost the stand closed. People knew when strawberries and asparagus were in season and that's when they bought them. Now there is a greater demand for a wider range of products and a longer selling season.

"We're at a crossroads now wondering whether we should expand. On the one hand we know that if we want to continue in a competing world of roadside stands, we will have to remodel and open earlier. The demand is greater today, you have to carry a lot more, it is more of a one stop shop.

"But I'm 49 and the youngest family member among my brother and two sisters, and I have doubts about the timing. We have always been a family run stand, ever since my parents started it over 60 years ago, but we are all well into middle age now. And with help not the easiest, we thrash around not knowing what to do. I've had many offers to buy the stand and the adjoining 18 acre farm and I've also considered the prospect of renting it.

"But with all the memories, the prospect of giving up a way of life recedes. Before the early 1950's, the family raised extra produce for sale in Boston and rented land where houses are now along Black Duck and Mallard Drive. I remember packing 60 ears of corn to a square bushel basket following the rule 'silk in and heels out.' But when we began to get only $1.50 for a bushel, it didn't pay to go in town anymore.

"We plant the water trough now with flowers, but it is a reminder of the time when bunches of asparagus were placed inside. Two hundred fifty bunches would go fast over the Memorial Day weekend. One bunch would sell for 25 cents, two bunches for 35 cents. In the early 1960's, we began to phase out growing asparagus as other products became more profitable.

"Plus cutting asparagus meant 'bending the back.' It was often a task in farm families for children before and after school. April through June was the asparagus season and I would cut the spears at 5 a.m. before going to school and then again in the afternoon.

"At that time like many family farms we had a work horse and a milking cow. Coming from Italy, my family had goats because my mother Grace was used to goat's milk and never could drink the milk from a cow.

"We also had 2500 laying hens for the egg delivery business that my parents ran from 1945 till the late 1950's. My parents had an egg route that ran to Lexington, Arlington, Cambridge, Dorchester, Roxbury, East Boston and Orient Heights. From eleven in the morning till midnight, they went from house to house, door to door, from street level up to six flights of stairs delivering eggs all year around. The price then for a dozen large eggs was 50 cents and 60 cents for the extra large size.

"Through the 1950's and early 1960's, my family tried raising their own fruit planting 75 peach, pear and plum trees. The peach trees were the least hardy and the pear trees the strongest. It proved cheaper to bring the plums and peaches in and resell them than to take care of the trees. But we still have 20 pear trees of the Yellow Bartlett and Buerre Bosc varieties.

In the mid 1950's flowers became a popular sale item at the stand. From a small framed house where we grew about 50 to 60 geraniums, the greenhouses now grow about 3500 geranium, annual bedding and starter vegetable plants. While customers mainly stop at the stand for vegetables, they often manage to walk off happily with a plant or cut flowers.

"We've watched customers' buying habits. People will ask no questions when it comes to paying for a plant or flowers, but will hesitate when tomatoes go up 10 cents a pound."
Mounted 24th March 2012 rcwh.