Published in CISA’s July 2012 Enewsletter.
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Bill Gillen laughs when I ask him why he got into farming: “I don’t know, much to the disdain of my wife – something just drives me to do it!” It’s clear, though, that there’s a strong satisfaction both Bill and his wife Connie Gillen get from their farm – albeit one not easily put into words. They have been growing vegetables, flowers, fruit and chestnuts at Sunset Farm in Amherst for almost 30 years now – first growing in small gardens, then over time expanding into the better portion of their 10-acre plot.
Bill is amiable and confident – he speaks his mind without wasting time on diplomacy, and he enjoys conversation. Hardly a block away from UMass campus, farming at Sunset Farm is a far cry from the solitary stereotype of the profession. Here, having a farm ensures a steady supply of visitors. This explains, at least in large part, why Bill and Connie are farming there. “I love the idea of having a beautiful place for the neighbors to come down to,” Bill says.
Sunset Farm was among the first vendors at the Saturday Amherst farmers’ market when it started in 1975. That market drove what they planted, and led them to slowly expand their acreage. Connie continues to sell at this market each week and, like Bill, enjoys the social aspect of farmers’ markets. She has achieved town-wide renown as the ‘popsicle lady,’ making and selling 10,000 all-fruit popsicles each year.
“We do this to keep our sanity,” says Bill, who spends a great deal of his time on non-farming activities – he is an architect by trade and owns several office buildings in the area. Connie is a psychotherapist and she sings, together with Bill, in several local choruses. The two of them welcome neighbors to the farm to walk their dogs, pick farm produce, and bunch flowers and chat on Friday evenings before market. Nearly all of their fields are open to pick-your-own – offering a wide range of vegetables as well as small quantities of more common pick-your-own crops like strawberries and peas. A self-serve stand welcomes visitors and directs them to the location of each type of produce – ranging from lettuce to scallions to radishes.
In farming, like architecture, the potential for creativity appeals. “I like all the constant unknowns,” Bill explains, referring to the vagaries of weather, crops, pests, markets and people that affect the farm. He gravitates toward the unpredictable so much that he even enjoys adding to it. Each time he does market setup, he sets the tables up differently just to keep things interesting.
For Connie and Bill, who both have careers off the farm, their farm is a way of life more than a livelihood. It is a reflection of their personality and a canvas with which to present themselves to the community. “I get great pleasure over seeing it look good, but I’m not a perfectionist,” says Bill, as he bemoans the patches of weeds starting to sprout at the field edges. “I like the unpretentious; I like things that are low key.” This holds true both for his architecture and farming, he says: “My architecture is invisible architecture – it blends in.”
Connie and Bill like to engage those who come to buy produce – whether in picking, bunching, or conversation. Farming, above all, is an excuse to connect with neighbors. “It’s a nice social thing,” says Bill. “People come down and we meet them because we have this.”