Tradition and Transformation: Century Farms in the Pioneer Valley

By Sarah Platanitis

The Pioneer Valley is home to nearly 40 Century Farms, farms that have remained in the same family and been in continuous operation for 100 years or more. This honor is bestowed by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and is well-earned considering how much of the bountiful Connecticut River corridor has been lost to large-scale building projects and the burdens of time. There are many stories to tell and here are three of them. 

 

WHEEL-VIEW FARM

Carolyn Gowdy Wheeler and her husband, John, of Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, purchased their property from her parents in 1979. “We bought the farm from my parents and, in a way, that’s unusual because many people inherit the family farm. Farmers don’t have any retirement accounts so that paid for their retirement,” said Carolyn. Wheel-View Farm, which sits upon the land of a homestead dating back to the mid-1700s, was originally purchased in 1896 by Carolyn’s grandparents, William Charles Reynolds and Mary Barrett Wilson. It was passed down to their son, Stanley, in 1916 before being inherited by his daughter, Betty Reynolds Gowdy, and her husband, Harry. “Even though it was in my mother’s family, my father worked it. My parents sold half the dairy farm for development. We purchased the rest and rented pastures until we couldn’t find anyone to take them anymore,” said Carolyn. “We decided to get some beef cattle to keep the land open. It never was the plan to raise grass-fed beef but people wanted it and it’s really become a business now.”

The Wheelers started with three Scottish Highland cows in 2002 and welcomed 41 calves this past spring to bump their total cattle count to over 180. With the farm and sales growing more over the past dozen years than expected, they’ve added a store with 10 box freezers to meet customer demand. 

“We send six animals on a regular basis to Athol to be processed. We don’t have a cattle trailer or freezer truck but we team up with those who do. There’s a certain amount of competition with other farms but it’s really a cooperation to do things together,” said Carolyn. John, who grew up on another dairy farm two miles away, went to school nights on GI Bill to get a degree in business management. He farmed part-time during his 20-year tenure at Mohawk High School teaching business and computer technology. The Wheelers were early adopters of computers and admit that life on the farm would be very different without them.

“When John first said he was going to get a domain name, I thought whoever is going to find us? It was so new at that point. Now, if we didn’t have the webpage, we probably wouldn’t be in business,” said Carolyn, sharing that first-page Google searches and webpage advertising leads locals to their driveway and that being tech-savvy has made daily schedules, marketing, accounting, and keeping in touch with clients as easy as picking up their smart phones. The internet has also helped get word out about the farm’s apple orchard and maple syrup production, part of their efforts to diversify the bounty coming from the 320-acre mix of pasture lands and woods.  

 

SZAWLOWSKI POTATO FARM

Swaz Brothers SEP 76 Color copy

Frank Szawlowski and his brothers, John, Chet, and Stanley, continue the family tradition of growing potatoes at Szawlowski Potato Farm. The farm started in Northampton in 1910 under the supervision of their “gentleman farmer” grandfather, John R., and steadily expanded to include acreage in Hatfield under the direction of their father, Chester. The family homestead and business headquarters moved permanently in 1972 after eminent domain claimed their Northampton land for the city’s industrial park.

EPV Swaz Potato copy

“My grandfather knew how to do business and he started the contract with the A&P. He came over from Poland at 16, raised carrots and potatoes, then worked in the mill all night,” said Frank. “My father was a farmer in overalls; he joked that he ‘made’ his help. The four of us boys did the work of 10. We didn’t play, we worked.”
Frank recalled how his high school football coach would send the team to help finish the day’s work so the boys could play during the fall potato harvest season.

The brothers are all equal participants in the business, but each has a specialty. When he was 18, Frank started going to the Springfield Market for his father and the daily trips acquainted him with buying and bidding. John focused on farming and pest management; mechanically inclined Chet helped with machinery, while Stanley concentrated on trucking and packing. Now, their children and grandchildren, fourth and fifth generations, are assisting them with the daily operations of the bustling company.

“All of us had careers but we came back to the farm,” said Diane Szawlowski-Mullins, marketing and public relations manager and daughter of Frank. “Everyone is different and we all have a role. We bring our skill sets to the plate and it all comes together to keep making it all work.”

Szawlowski currently handles over 3,500 acres between their own land and local grower partnerships. It is rare these days to see local farms centering on a single crop, and diversifying came about as a successful venture into the packing and processing of other growers’ potatoes from around the country. This ensures the freshest product for their brand and private label customers.

“It’s a big business and it’s getting more expensive to operate. Farm land is so scarce but we recently purchased protected land in Hadley-Sunderland to help with rotation,” said Frank. “We bid our potatoes in June for the August harvest. You got to sit back, figure it out and hope you’re right. The weather is more unpredictable than ever. It’s surely a lot of stress but it’s a good life.” 

 

McKINSTRY MARKET GARDEN

McKinstry Market Garden, a multi-crop farm in Chicopee, earned its Century Farm status in 1985.
“Farming goes back many generations in my family,” said 86-year-old Alfred McKinstry. “My great-grandmother was a Chapin and they were the first settlers in Chicopee. My grandfather took over this farm in the 1880s and my father started the vegetable business in 1908 with a horse and wagon.”
McKinstry’s hallmark farm stand was built in 1950. Alfred recalled how his father had scolded him because it was built too far away from the road. Today, it’s on the edge of the widened and formerly busy Montgomery Street that connected Chicopee and Holyoke before Interstate 391 was constructed.

“Railroad tracks used to run up to Westover, too. They’re gone now but they cut our farm right in half. It was an awkward thing to do,” said Alfred. “My father had another farm for asparagus in Chicopee that was taken for Westover. We were fortunate we were able to come here because he had lost most of his land to the government.”

Alfred purchased the 30-acre farm from his father in 1959. A 1951 graduate of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, he has seen harvests become increasingly more mechanized and diverse.

“Years ago there wasn’t as much refrigeration available so you had to move your crops almost the same day. We grow all kinds of vegetables: sweet corn, a lot of tomatoes, all kinds of beans, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. It’d be a lot easier if we just grew one or two crops but today you have to do a little bit of everything.”
Bill McKinstry, Alfred’s son and 1983 Stockbridge alum, and his wife, Nicole, have taken over the charge of the farm along with a second inherited farm in Granby. The farm stand shutters in October to start planning for the next year and to tend their largest and most laborious wholesale crop: squash. He credits a loyal line of customers for the long life of their stand and is proud of the family that pitches in to work.
“We couldn’t do it without each other. This farm wouldn’t be what it is without my dad and we’re lucky my father is still working as he is,” said Bill. “When someone’s missing, it’s a little harder for everyone. When my mom passed, I picked up some of her jobs and so has my wife. My three sisters have their own careers but they still help with the things they used to do with mom.”

Alfred’s grandsons are interested to continue the business that began so many years before they were born.
“I want to go into farming. I’ve always helped and want to keep doing it,” said 15-year-old Will McKinstry, a sophomore at Chicopee Comprehensive High School who plans to attend Cornell to study crop production and management. “My brother is a year younger and very good with customers. We want to make it better in the future but we’ll keep the way we grow our corn the same.” 

Read the stories of farms across the Commonwealth that have withstood time in Massachusetts Century Farms, a book by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Women’s Committee and published in cooperation with the Massachusetts State Grange. To learn more about Century Farms, visit mfbf.net/MACenturyFarms.

Wheel-View Farm
212 Reynolds Rd.
Shelburne, MA
413-625-2900
WheelViewFarm.com 

Szawlowski Potato Farms
103 Main St.
Hatfield, MA
413-247-9240
SwazPotato.com

McKinstry Market Garden Inc.
753 Montgomery St.
Chicopee, MA
413-536-2043
Find them on Facebook here

 

Sarah Platanitis is a food & lifestyle journalist from Feeding Hills, Massachusetts.  She is the curator of the Women & Food Project and authors the cooking blog, Sarah in the Kitchen.  To learn more about Sarah, visit sarahplatanitis.com.