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By Bethany Sales
| May 10, 2017
They aren’t usually in the center of town, but if you’ve ever been to your local community farm on a sunny Saturday in May, you know that’s just about geography. Because the community farm, with a greenhouse full of flowers and plants, rows of just-picked rhubarb and tomatoes, and stacks of fresh muffins and breads, is always the heart and soul of its town, where friends mingle, the owners walk the aisles, and the employees are also your neighbors.
This sense of community and the loyalty it inspires can span generations, and it’s why 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. are still family owned. Volante Farms in Needham, celebrating 100 years of business this year with a cookbook filled with recipes going back generations, has been family-owned and operated since 1917, when Italian immigrants Peter and Caterina Volante saved enough money to purchase farmland. Back then they functioned mostly as a truck farm, delivering fresh produce from their original farm in Newton to repeat customers at Boston Produce Market, which was located in downtown Boston at Faneuil Hall.
The family eventually moved the farm to Needham, where it’s been since 1962. And today its parking lot is often filled with green-thumbed customers wheeling plant-filled wagons or food-filled carts across to SUVs that they pack to the brim. With farmhands that have worked Volante’s 32 acres for upwards of 20 years and customers that know them by name, the farm is still very much grounded in the tradition of the great-grandparents who opened it a century ago.
“Every generation worked with the generation before them, so you remember your roots every single day. We still get our hands dirty,” says Teri Volante Boardman, who now owns Volante Farms with her brothers, Dave and Steve Volante, and can often be seen in the greenhouse dishing out advice on what plants need the most water and light.
Fourth generation owners, Dave, Teri, and Steve have done their part to serve the community, creating the kinds of relationships that help them serve their customers better than any focus group ever could. When they couldn’t source a particular green bean they had been growing for years, they planted five new varieties and asked their customers to tell them which was their favorite. And after launching a series of evening dinners in the field, the events sold out in minutes as if they were Red Sox playoff tickets.
In 2012, the Volante siblings opened a new two-story, open post and beam farmstand to become the community’s resource for all things local. Built with locally sourced wooden hemlock beams, it’s become the neighborhood’s “one stop shop,” complete with a top-of-the-line deli, a kitchen that prepares ready-made meals from homegrown produce, and shelves stocked with local wines and craft beers.
“Being a community farmer is very much about networking and working with as many other local people as we can,” says Teri. It’s the family’s loyalty to the community that inspired the siblings to connect with other growers and small businesses in the area. Now when locals visit Volante, they’re able to invest in their community twice over, supporting makers and growers by purchasing local produce and grocery items, from Jordan Brothers Seafood and John Dewar’s Meats to Berkshire Blue Cheese and Jack’s Abby beer.
Evan Foppema, who runs family-owned Foppema Farm in Northbridge, is grateful for the camaraderie among local farms because these relationships allow them to better serve their community. “The fresher they get, the better,” says Foppema. “When you get broccoli from the grocery store, it’s probably a week old and its nutritional value is gone. When you get broccoli from our farm or one of the farms we sell to, it was picked within 12 hours.”
This local network of community farms keeps them competitive with grocery chains. “We help their farm and they help us, and everybody wins,” says Foppema. Especially the community — and the local economy.
And in case you haven’t heard, shopping local, and farm-to-table dining, isn’t just a passing trend; it’s a sweeping movement, and it’s why 58 percent of all farm sales now come from community farms. “People want to know where their food is coming from,” says Teri. “And we’re able to say, ‘It comes from right out there; look out the window.’”
But customers don’t just come here for their week’s worth of produce; they think of it as a place to bring their family. Parents bring their kids to visit Volante’s greenhouse fairy garden in the spring, to get a cone of Sharon’s Crescent Ridge ice cream in the summer, and to pick out their Christmas tree for the holidays. “Even our employees’ kids work here,” says Teri. “It’s a generational, family destination.”