Valley Bounty: Four Rex Farm
Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 16, 2021
“Some people think it’s a myth,” says Ray Rex, owner of Four Rex Farm in Hadley. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But on a hot, steamy day in a cornfield that’s growing well, if you listen close you can hear the crackling of the leaves unfurling as it grows.”
If anyone is that attuned to the ways of corn, it would be Rex. He and his wife, Diane, started growing sweet corn on family land in 1984, and now cultivate around 150 acres of it.
For the Rex family, Hadley is a nexus of great soil, their family’s history, and a strong farming community — all key ingredients in their own success.
“My great-grandparents came over from Poland in the early 1900s and bought the house that I live in now,” Rex says. That house and the accompanying barn have been in the family ever since.
“My uncle worked this land before me,” he continues. “Then in 1984, a big flood washed out crops on a lot of farmland in town. My uncle was about ready to retire, and when that happened, he said, ‘I’m all done. If you want to take over and get these fields back into condition, you can start farming them.’ So we did, and brought 11 acres of sweet corn to market that year.”
They officially bought that family land in 1992 and have been adding to it through purchase and rental agreements ever since, now farming close to 225 acres. Rex expects most of that land to stay in the family and in production for at least one more generation.
“My youngest son Joseph works full-time on the farm, and he’ll take it over when I retire,” Rex says. “Bringing him into the equation has been a godsend. He’s not just a helping hand, he went to college for ag business and came back to the farm full of ideas.”
As for the rest of the enterprise, “my oldest son Raymond helps us pack corn most mornings,” he says, “and my wife helps out too, then they both work other jobs.” Those four Rexes give the farm its name, and 10-20 seasonal employees join them to keep the farm running in the busy season.
Hadley being what it is, the land that makes up Four Rex Farm is scattered about town. Besides the land directly behind their house on West Street, they also have large plots on Honey Pot Road, Aqua Vitae Road, and wherever else it can be found.
“There’s not a lot of big parcels of land in town, to be honest with you,” Rex says. As he sees it, this harkens back to how land was initially divided by the first European settlers in the area, with each family allotted a few different tracts of land for different purposes, such as farming and logging. Land use patterns have been further complicated by development and the changing needs of farms and the growth of the community over the years.
Besides sweet corn, Four Rex Farm also grows a handful of other summer crops, including tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, and more recently, sweet potatoes. Much of this is sold wholesale to stores throughout the region, including the North Hadley Market and Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery.
“We sell a lot through the Pioneer Valley Growers Association too,” Rex says, “which distributes our produce to places like Whole Foods and Stop and Shop.”
They also have a seasonal farm stand on Bay Road in Hadley, open seven days a week with fresh produce added every morning. “We grow everything we sell,” he says. “Right now, that’s corn, tomatoes, zucchini, greens and pickling cucumbers.”
Out in the fields, the work of picking corn begins early. “We start at 5 a.m.,” Rex explains. “These days it’s light out then, but later in the season we bring lights. Then we might go pick tomatoes or cantaloupes in the middle of the day, and in the later afternoon we do our tractor work. It works out pretty well that way.”
At farms on the Connecticut River floodplain, corn and other veggies tend to be early risers too, in that they ripen quicker in these locations. This is partly because temperatures in the river valley stay warmer than in the surrounding hills, but Rex offers that Hadley’s coveted soil might play a role too.
“We have some of the best soil in the world here, called Hadley silt-loam, which is why there’s so much interest in preserving farmland in town,” Rex explains. “Being a lighter soil, I think it warms up sooner in the spring. Things grow a couple of days to a week quicker because of it.”
First-rate soil is one reason farming in Hadley is special for Rex. Its farming culture is another.
“The thing I love about Hadley is it’s a tight-knit community of farms,” he says. “If we ever get a vehicle stuck in the field, we can always call another farmer to come pull us out. We might be competitors, but we talk to each other, too. About our problems, what varieties are growing better, and whatnot.”
Rex’s appreciation of this landscape and these people comes off as deep and genuine. Especially when he talks about the magic of the summer growing season.
“I love the mornings, you know? They’re generally in the 60s. We get out before sunrise, the birds are chirping. I’m driving down by the river and there might be a bit of steam coming off the river,” he says.
“I’m never going to leave. There’s just something special about the land in the Valley here that just grabs you and holds on.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To find local farms and farm stands offering more of the Valley’s summer bounty, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.