For retirees, farming offers second career
By GRACE BIRD
For the Recorder
Before he bought a farm in Heath, Sonny Nartowicz wondered how he’d fill his days when he retired. Having worked at the Strathmore paper mill for 18 years and now Judd Wire for 26 years and counting, he’d scarcely had a day off in nearly half a century.
Nartowicz’s worries were allayed last September when he and his wife purchased Burnt Hill Farm. These days, he is itching to retire and spend his days on the land.
“I’d much rather be outside,” Nartowicz said. “I love the farm work, but it’s difficult to enjoy when you have to do it at the end of an eight-hour day or a 40 hour week.”
While the farm’s sole crop is blueberries, requiring a few months of work, Nartowicz said there is never a shortage of jobs to do around Burnt Hill.
“Every day I walk out of the house, I just think to myself, ‘OK, what am I going to do today?’” Nartowicz said. “There’s always something to do. I suppose I have to have a priority list.”
The Nartowiczes are among local farmers who choose this path for their retirement.
Ervin Meluleni knew he wanted to be a farmer after doing part-time farm work as a teenager. However, he took some time to get there.
He and his wife spent much of their lives in Boston, working and raising their son. Ervin toiled in a Harvard histology lab for 25 years, while Gloria was a medical researcher, spending much of her career searching for a cure for pneumonia in cystic fibrosis patients.
While Ervin said he “always wanted to be a farmer,” he delayed this aspiration for financial reasons, explaining that they had a son to raise. After securing an early retirement agreement, the couple relocated to Bernardston while in their 50s and started Coyote Hill Farm.
As for the pension, Ervin said, “It wasn’t that much, but it was just enough to make living easy.”
The first year working on the farm, the pair planted a smattering of vegetables and earned about $4,000, he said. Since, the couple have continued to expand their repertoire. These days, the farm has a notably diverse array of vegetables and fruits, including 25 kinds of apple trees.
The couple sells produce at farmers markets and to members of its cooperative. They also make wine and cider. Needless to say, their days are filled up with farm chores. They say they like their lives, and are grateful to have a purpose that doesn’t involve an office.
“It’s better to work,” Gloria said. “We’ll go as long as our bodies hold up. We just like what we’re doing. It’s a great life, it’s a really good life.”
Gloria added that the pair have met people in town while working at local farmers markets.
“Otherwise we probably w o u l d n’t know very many people,” Gloria said. “The farm is where we work and where we live. But because we do the farmers market,
we meet people in town. And that’s a good thing.”
Preserving health and land
Larry and Susan Flaccus of Shelburne, both in their 70s, retired from their fulltime careers about 15 years ago. But instead of taking some well-earned time off, the pair opted for a second career in farming.
The couple planted blueberry bushes and Christmas trees on Susan’s family’s property in Shelburne, about three-quarters of a mile from the Greenfield town line. The two crops keep Larry busy year-round, he said, as one is harvested in summer, the other in winter. Meanwhile, Susan ran a bed-and-breakfast, which saw its final guest last year.
While the B& B has closed, the couple have no plans to shut their farm. The only sign of an end is its Christmas trees, which Larry has stopped planting because they take eight to 10 years to come to fruition.
“I’ll be in my 80s,” he said.
The farm does not earn the couple any money — some years they barely break even. The reason they continue growing crops, they said, is that it preserves the land, and keeps them busy and healthy.
“It keeps you active, it keeps you outdoors,” Larry said.
And while Susan mostly stays away from hard labor these days, she says there is “always something to do” on the farm.
“There’s always maintenance,” Larry said. “Every day.”
The pair hire four or five young people to work parttime on the farm each year, helping to pick blueberries in the summertime or haul Christmas trees to shoppers’ cars in the winter.
While the couple said they are happy with their decision to start a farm instead of going into retirement, they admitted it was only possible to do so because Susan already owned land.
Over in Ashfield, Ted and Caroline Murray have also chosen to trade a relaxing retirement for farm work, spending a couple of days a week helping out at their son’s farm, Red Gate.
The Murrays moved to the area to retire in 2005 from Boston, having lived there most of their working lives. Ted said he was immediately struck by the warmth that Ashfield residents exuded, a marked difference from Boston.
“I learned that it is very pleasant to sit down and have a conversation with somebody,” Ted said. “I gradually learned, I think to be a bit of receptive to nice conversations and genuine talking to one another.”
Ted assists at the farm in different ways. At 78, he has “tapered back” his contribution now, though he still spends a couple of days there tending to bees and helping with the farm’s finances. Also, because Red Gate Farm offers educational programs and summer camps, he teaches students about farming practices and helps them become more comfortable around animals. After spending most of his life in an urban setting, purchasing produce from the supermarket and hiring workers to do labor around the house, the learning curve has been steep but illuminating.
“I’ve picked up a lot of insight and understanding about agricultural activities that I never knew much about before,” Ted said.