FAMILY FARMING IN BELMONT: a 400 year old tradition
WORDS BY JANE SHERWIN + PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Something about farming seems to call for family engagement of one kind or another. Farm families come together to work the land, which seasonally calls for everyone’s help. The sense of responsibility to the land draws people together. And of course in our country’s early history, yeoman farmers, supported by their families, we considered essential to our democracy.
Last December, Belmont’s Board of Selectmen held a party in honor of the Sergi family, who since 1946 have worked what is now the town’s last remaining farm. Along with the carrot cake and cider, Rep. Will Brownsberger, later to be elected a state senator, read aloud the congratulations of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Numerous Sergi family members were there, along with Lydia Ogilby, whose family has owned the farm since 1634. These days yet another family has joined the cast: Michael Chase, along with his wife, daughter and sister-in-law.
The Ogilby family’s 10-acre parcel, hidden away between Concord Avenue and Blanchard Road, near Fresh Pond, was vastly larger when King Charles I gave Englishman Abraham Hill a charter for land stretching all the way to Charlestown from what is now called Belmont Hill. Like any colonial landowner, Abraham parceled out the land to his descendants.
Farms were established by many other settlers as well, and the area now known as Belmont became sprinkled with productive market gardens. Many of these were held by the same family for three or more generations, right up until the mid-20th century when housing became the economic engine of suburbia.
Like their fellow landowners, the Ogilbys also developed whole neighborhoods of suburban housing. Lydia Ogilby described her mother as a very skilled developer. But Lydia was always aware that the land was vulnerable. Her grandfather, Jay Richardson, was a dedicated market gardener who sold his produce at Quincy Market, using his large horse-drawn cart for transport.
“My grandfather grew the best beets around,” said Lydia in an oral history interview, “and he grew asparagus and he grew cucumbers and all of the summer crops: spinach, lettuce.” There were two large greenhouses and a boiler house to heat them.
But Richardson was badly injured when his produce cart turned over in 1921. His daughter, Grace Phippen, moved her family back to Belmont from Brooklyn in order to help run the farm.
Mrs. Phippen first hired farm managers, and then in 1946 rented the land to Joseph Sergi of Watertown. Joseph had 10 sons, and when he died his son Angelo ran the farm, with the assistance of his brother Peter. Then Angelo became ill and two more brothers joined in: Sal and Victor. People in Belmont grew up buying fresh produce from the Sergis, who had a handshake agreement with the Ogilbys. They farmed land in several places, including Watertown and Waltham.
But pressure on the land continued. By the 1990s, if not sooner, Lydia was receiving a steady stream of offers. “It was suggested we turn the area into a train station and rent out parking spaces.” At the same time, the Sergi brothers were aging and their children had interests that lay elsewhere. As a family, the Ogilbys decided to place the land under an Agricultural Preservation Restriction held by the Belmont Land Trust (supported by the American Farmland Trust).
Lydia said it was a very hard decision for her family to give up development rights to so valuable a property, but she believes that love of the land made it possible. “It’s part of my children’s life. They’ve all lived in cities, every one of them has, but I think loving the land is in their DNA.”
The Ogilby family’s involvement continues to this day. Henry Ogilby, one of Lydia’s sons, still lives on the property with his wife, not far from Lydia’s home—which in turn is not far from the house where Grace Phippen lived. This lovely swell of land has a new barn in the center, built by the Ogilbys, and is sprinkled with century-old pear trees, which Henry is working to nurture.
The newest farm family is the Chases, Mike and his Iranian wife Hermik, their 6-year-old daughter and Hermik’s sister-in-law. Mike did quite a bit of work with the Sergis. “Sal Sergi, especially, took me on, and one year he asked me to select plant varieties for growing. I was like a family member—we would walk the rows together.” Mike Chase and the Ogilbys have signed a contract covering Mike’s role as farmer on what is now called Belmont Acres Farm. Mike lives within walking distance of the property. And while he has a day job with the Harvard School of Public Health, technology makes it possible for him to be a farmer as well.
Chase grows what you would expect: tomatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, but he also offers the unexpected: tomatillos, Treviso radicchio and artichokes, intended to please the sophisticated tastes of his community-supported agriculture shareholders. When you visit on a Saturday afternoon you can meet his family, chat about recipes and rabbits, pick up your farm share or request a specially picked bunch or two of spinach. During his first year under contract the Ogilbys rented an acre to him. This year he’s rented the whole farm, about six acres of which are tillable.
While a farm family may consist of siblings and cousins and grandparents, the family may also expand to include volunteers, part-timers and advisors. Last year Chase had volunteers and supporters, and he continues to build a volunteer program in which people engage fully in the farm work.
“We’re slowly adding volunteers. Our interest is in people, including high school students, who want to get something out of it as a learning experience, and develop a steady engagement with the land. We are also working with neighbors who are speech therapists, making the land available for their clients to practice their communication skills as they work.
“And we have our new employee, Abby Harper, a recent Belmont High School graduate and friend of our family, who grew up volunteering on the farm. Like a family member, with Abby we are taking on a known commodity: She has integrity, reliability and a love for the farm.”
Another volunteer and advisor is Joan Teebagy, a Belmont resident, who, with Lydia, keeps bees at the farm. The Chases and Joan co-own a flock of goats, who roam under the pear trees. Chase said, “The farm becomes like family, a 24/7 job. It’s a labor of love. Food is a really visceral component of our family, and how it’s grown and how we eat it makes a very big difference to us.”
While he’s no longer involved with the Ogilby property, Victor Sergi still does a lot of big gardening on a half acre in his back yard. He said the grandchildren helped out last year and it would have been terrible without them. “It’s hard to let go of farming,” he said. “It gets in your blood.”
Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont. She has written about the farm previously in the Belmont Citizens Forum and Roots and Sprouts, the newsletter of the Belmont Food Collaborative. You can reach her atjane@WordDriveCommunications.com.