Concord's Marshall Farms stays in the family

Early Monday afternoon, Richard Marshall bent down and, for what he figures was the millionth time, plucked a weed from the ground.

It’s been a farmer’s life for Richard, who started out picking berries for 5 cents a basket, then worked for 50 cents an hour, then partnered with a neighbor and then, in 1970, established Marshall Farms in West Concord with his late wife, Diane.

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“It’s a good life, and I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said. “The work is too hard, too sweaty, too dirty to do if you don’t enjoy it. It’s just rewarding. To plant a seed and see the end result, it makes you feel good.”

Located on Harrington Avenue in West Concord, Marshall Farms has about 21 acres and nine greenhouses, including the farmstand. The family-run farm specializes in annuals, perennials and vegetables.

“Last week, there were four of us out there farming the strawberries, me, my son, my grandson and my great-grandson,” said Richard. “Four generations of us.”

In a given week, Richard, 69, still works more hours than his age, but he’s inching toward retirement and slowly ceding control of the operation to his son, Rick, who has worked for his dad since youth.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to relinquish the control,” Richard said.

Hard as it is, it would have been all but impossible if the town wasn’t willing to buy his land, his farmstand, and his home.

Last month, Town Meeting authorized the Board of Selectmen to acquire the remainder of the Marshall Farms property, including about 2 acres of land, two dwellings, the farmstand and greenhouses, on Harrington Avenue for $725,000. The two sides had been talking about it for years, and Marshall thought now was the time to pull the trigger.

“It was a good deal for me and a good deal for the town,” Richard said of the transaction, which has not been finalized. “The last couple of years, the economy has been bad for all kinds of businesses. This gives us a second chance to stay and farm the land.”

 

Supporting agriculture

The Marshall family has been down this road before, and so has the town.

Marshall already leases from the town the farmland on either side of the parcel he just sold: The 15-acre parcel his neighbor used to farm and also a smaller parcel, which Marshall sold the town about 20 years back.

The town has purchased and placed agricultural restrictions on other land throughout Concord, and leases about 30 parcels to farmers, but the buildings make this one different, according to Town Manager Chris Whelan.

“We have a decent number of individual farm parcels of different sizes, but nowhere else does the town own the farmland, and the house and the greenhouse,” Whelan said. “This keeps the farm going, and if the Marshall family decides to leave the business, there would be an opportunity for another family to come in. In a town like Concord, it’s important to provide the family the whole farm package, so they can really make a go out of it.”

Under the expected terms of the agreement, the Marshall family will have the first right to lease the property — the land and the farmhouse — so long as they use it for farming purposes. The Marshalls won’t pay property taxes, but they will pay rent, which will go to the town’s general fund.

These kind of transactions are a way for the town to recognize the high cost of housing and land in Concord, and they hit on several town values, Whelan said, such as supporting open space and agriculture, and helping local families find affordable housing.

Addressing the affordable housing goal is often a challenge when the town looks to buy a family farm, but the Marshall Farms acquisition wasn’t an issue because of the farmhouse and bungalow, according to Whelan, who said the dwellings could count toward the town’s affordable housing stock if officials are successful petitioning that the town is subsidizing the rent.

“It’s a pretty good fit,” he said. “And we hope Rick keeps farming until he’s Richie’s age.”

 

‘All in the family’

Not every farm is so lucky to have the next generation ready and willing to take over. Communities like Concord fight to hang onto their agricultural heritage as builders dangle top dollar in front of cash-strapped, aging farmers.

One of the tools available to towns is land acquisitions like Marshall Farms. In Concord, the Agricultural Committee is lending a hand with its new “Plant a Farmer” program, which would subsidize rent for young farmers looking to lease land in town.

“Concord was a farming community when it started — the statue at the bridge is a farmer — and I think it’s gone out of its way to remain that way when others haven’t,” said Richard Marshall, who “definitely would have sold” to a builder if not for the town and his son. “Land value is so expensive in Concord it’s easy for farmers to sell off to builders if they have a larger parcel for house lots. But I think Concord has done very well by the farmers. They’ve done a lot to make sure the farms do well so they’re not sold off for housing.”

With a new lease on life and a new Marshall taking over, Marshall Farms will stay pretty much the same.

They’re going to improve the retail area and further develop the farm’s growing Web presence, but they’re sticking to what they know: flowers in one field, veggies on the other and berries and rhubarb out back.

“It’s all in the family, and we want to keep it like that,” said Rick, who is 48. “Our customers are like family, and we try to greet them like family instead of like customers.”

Rick said his family was humbled by the folks who stood up and spoke for their farm at Town Meeting, as they were humbled last year, when his mother was sick and the neighborhood women kept them fed and cleaned Diane’s flowerbeds.

“It’s the old farms that are sticking around, and the people want to support the people who actually get out there and do the work,” Rick said. “I’ve been here my whole life. … I love it here, my wife loves it here, and it’s important to keep it going.”

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