Boston’s Last Working Farm
by Ilene Bezahler
I lived in Boston for over a decade when a friend asked me whether I’d ever visited Allandale Farm. I recall wondering why I had never heard about this place. Could there really be a farm in Boston? I realized, during my first visit, that I had discovered Boston’s best kept secret. Several years later when I had the pleasure of working at Allandale, my feelings about how very special a place Allandale is were confirmed.
Allandale Farm, located seven miles from downtown Boston, straddles the Boston and Brookline town lines and is nestled between houses, a private school, and a hospital. The property has streams, hills, woodlands, greenhouses, residences, and the original stables. Considered large for a New England family farm, it is approximately 130 acres,
and like most New England farms the land is not flat. It has shallowto- bedrock soil, making only thirty or so acres useful for growing crops.
William FletcherWeld purchased the property in the mid 1800s, and since then five generations of his family have lived on it. Since then and well into the mid-1950s the land was farmed and maintained to sustain the family and staff who lived there. Food was grown, harvested, and stored for year-round consumption. Chickens were raised for their
eggs and pigs for their meat. Orchards provided many varieties of apples, pears, and plums. Ponds were dug to produce ice for the icehouses. Stables were filled with horses, and workhorses plowed the fields. For a short period a small timber mill recycled the trees that fell on the property.
The property remained in the same family for over 200 years and was a well-run, relatively self-sufficient family estate. To this day it is one of the oldest privately held family farms in the United States.
Then, in the mid-1960s economic realities changed: Property taxes were rising rapidly, and the price of heating oil was skyrocketing. The family realized that in order to keep their property the land needed to generate income. It could no longer remain a gentleman’s farm. The next generation, James,Martina (Lee), Edward, and Robert, who were all in their twenties, stepped in and took control. Although none of them were trained in or planned for a future in farming they had both the desire and determination to keep the land in the family.
When they started out, they learned a lot by trial and error. Corn was one of the first crops grown for the commercial venture. Edward Lawrence tells stories of coming home from work and heading to the fields to harvest the corn that would be sold the next day. They set up a stand by the roadside, and in the morning the corn would be laid out for sale. Business was conducted under the honor system—customers would leave money in a tin can. Corn proved to be the most successful and lucrative crop grown and sold up through the 1990s.
Other farming endeavors followed, none as successful as the corn. For example, a plan to grow Christmas trees failed when they found themselves replanting the small trees, not having realized that you needed to space them out at the outset. For many years land was leased out for farming, barely producing enough income to cover the expenses of the
In 1973 Massachusetts tax laws changed and Chapter 61A went into effect. Chapter 61A: ASSESSMENT AND TAXATION OF AGRICULTURAL AND HORTICULTURAL LAND enabled small farms to be taxed at a lower rate than the residential rates they had been paying. This change in the tax law enabled Allandale and many other small
family farms to remain intact rather than being forced to sell their land to developers.
With the family’s realization that they could afford to keep the land, the farm was formally established and named Allandale Farm. As I learned only recently, the name does not have any familial significance. Its source is the name of the road where it is located.Making the legal commitment to maintain the land as a commercial farm meant that it
was time to get serious about the use of the land. Coming home from work and picking corn for sale the next day would not longer suffice for running the farm; it was time to hire a full-time farmer.
Hiring a farmer to manage one’s land is like dating to find a spouse. The farmer at Allandale needed to be a good grower and competent at managing a retail business as well as maintaining the balance of land use that had existed for generations. Over a period of ten years farmers came and went.The retail business expanded from a roadside stand
to a small store that still works on the honor system.
During the 1970s, changes in the family’s structure threatened to adversely affect the farm but fortunately didn’t. The property was no longer the primary residence for the entire family. Two siblings moved away from Boston, leaving Edward and Lee to oversee the day-to-day operations. Despite not living on the site, they all agreed that they
wanted the property to remain intact and, most important, agreed that they would not draw any personal income from the farm. As long as the farm was able to support itself, it would remain as is.
In the mid-1980s, Allandale Farm ended the “dating” process when the owners found a farmer who would ultimately prove to be the perfect match. John Lee had run the Codman Community Farm and owned his own farm in Lincoln. He was well respected in the local farming community. Raised in a farming family in Vermont, he was representative of the farmers of his generation, well educated, with more than an agricultural degree. When John heard about the job at
Allandale, he jumped on it, only to learn that Edward had already been checking him out. As it turned out, John discovered he was also a distant relative of the family. From the very beginning, the relationship worked. Although a one-year contract was drawn up, twenty-four years later, John still manages the farm.
One of the first tasks undertaken was to develop a business plan for the farm incorporating new business ventures such as apple cider production, which John, from his prior experience, knew would be successful. A cider mill was built, and Allandale’s fresh cider was an immediate success. Cider continued to be a main commodity until 1998 when the laws changed, mandating that all commercially sold cider be pasteurized. The cost of buying the necessary equipment to meet these new regulations was prohibitive, so cider production ceased.
Expanding the farm stand was another project that John tackled early on. The building that exists today was built by connecting and rebuilding greenhouses that were dilapidated and in disrepair. Prior to his employment, the farm stand would close down after Halloween and open again for Christmas tree sales in December.With the new building,
John expanded the season, opening in April with bedding plants and continuing straight through until Christmas, when the last tree was sold.
Through the mid-1990s the farm continued to grow slowly. All salaries, maintenance, improvements, and equipment purchases were paid for by the income generated from the land. The owners continued with their original agreement, not to take any income from the farm. The farm needed to be self-sufficient, and it was.
Over the years, John slowly continued to make changes in the methods of farming and the operations of the farm. He looked at what crops were the most productive as well as what his customers wanted. At the same time, he and his field crew considered ways to optimize the use of the land and what were best practices in order to sustain the land.
Organic farming practices were emerging, and Allandale embraced the movement. They wanted to ensure that the farm would remain a viable, sustainable entity to be passed on to future generations, much as it was given to them. Ultimately it was decided not to pursue organic certification but to continue practicing organic farming methods.
The change to organic farming had an impact on the types of crops that could be grown. Corn, a guaranteed, money-in-the-bank crop, could no longer be grown. Most customers desire that their corn be pristine, without worms, and in order to achieve this the crop must be sprayed, which goes against organic practices. John began buying corn from another local farm, along with apples and other fruits no longer grown on the farm. Over time, the self-serve farm stand was expanded to a full-service store; the varieties of crops increased and the farm developed a loyal customer base.Many of the farms loyal customers were the parents of students at the Apple Orchard School, founded on the
property in 1972 by Lee Albright.
The Apple Orchard School is for children ages three to six years. Their Web site summarizes their philosophy: “We use the environment extensively for learning and development. The wild animals (geese, ducks, rabbits, hawks etc.) and domestic animals (chickens, a goat, a donkey and a miniature horse) along with the growing and harvesting
of crops play a large role in our teaching. The children are encouraged to learn and grow in a farm environment, rich with opportunities for exploration and discovery. The teachers are able to expand upon the natural curiosity and excitement of "teachable moments" ever present in such a unique learning atmosphere.”
Exploring the land and knowing one’s environment had always been important to John and something he believed needed to be re-instituted into a child’s education. In 1995, with the farm running smoothly, Allandale started a Summer Program offering the experiences of the Apple Orchard to a greater number of children. Every summer, children aged four to ten may be seen exploring the woods, wading in ponds, and weeding the camp garden.
So what makes Allandale Farm such a special place? For me it is the amazement I feel every time I drive up Newton Street and see acres of green crops growing where there might be row houses or the pleasure I get when tomatoes are in to season and I find thirty or more varieties arrayed on the tables waiting to be purchased.
As James, Edward, Lee, Robert, and John grow older, one might worry about the ability and the will for Allandale Farm to remain. Have they instilled in the next generation, twelve individuals versus four, the same love and respect for the land? Fortunately for Boston, the answer is yes.
Ilene Bezahler is the Publisher/ Editor of Edible Boston. Before publishing this magazine, she had the pleasure of working at Allandale Farm and good fortune to spend days in such a special place.