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Four Town Farm: A Close-Knit Clan, a Diversity of Efforts and a Farm Continues

By Genie McPherson Trevor / Photography By Stephan Brigidi | March 01, 2012
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Four Town Farm
Fifth-generation farmer Chris Clegg can point to a pine tree at the edge of his backyard in Seekonk, Massachusetts, marking just where the East Providence town line crosses and continues through the abutting farm fields on which he, his father Steve, his uncle Tom Clegg and his aunt Jean Anderson have all spent their childhoods and adult lives.

Chris’s great-great-grandparents purchased the land that made up the original acreage of their family farm. In the 1940s Chris’s grandfather, Frank Clegg Jr., increased the size and spread of Four Town Farm when he purchased additional land that makes up the farm today.  Hedged in by suburban development and just a stone’s throw from busy Route 6, its mere survival is remarkable.

Aptly named Four Town Farm, the sowing, plowing and reaping takes place in Barrington and East Providence, Rhode Island, and Seekonk and Swansea, Massachusetts. Granite markers dot the property, denoting the borders, some smack in the middle of the lettuce and the rhubarb.

Aside from Frank Jr.’s three children (Chris’s aunt, uncle and father), Chris’s mother Lynne Clegg has been working on the farm since she married into the farming family. Other members of the extended family work the farm as well. They all take on different roles to ensure that the 200 acres, the busy roadside stand, the 18 greenhouses and all of the attending jobs are covered. Now in his 90s, Frank Clegg Jr. is not quite as actively involved but he’s still very much a part of this working farm.

During the peak season 14 additional field hands work the farm, some who’ve been there a decade or more. Cousins and Chris’s two siblings all grew up on the farm, learning to plant and pick vegetables.

“I can remember as a teenager being out in the hot sun picking those endless tomatoes while my friends were off on their bikes. Still, my parents taught us important lessons—like the value of the dollar and the benefit of hard work.” said Chris. “I honestly appreciate it now.”

Each member of the Clegg family brings a different skill set to the farm. “Everyone has their role: Aunt Jean running the farm stand; my Uncle Tom overseeing the large-acre crops [corn, squash and beans]; Mom and Dad in charge of the greenhouses; Mom handles school tours and bookwork too. I’m in charge of all the small-acreage crops,” Chris continued.

Managing the small-acreage crops (like asparagus, lettuce, cooking greens, eggplant, tomatoes, strawberries and—his favorite—the root crops) Chris also has to find time to answers phone calls from buyers; one day last summer he fielded 67 of them. With the cell phone ringing constantly, he’s in the field or on the tractor, guiding his crew, jug gling calls. By 9 pm, at the end of a day that started at 5 am, you might find him answering emails or updating the farm’s Facebook page about what’s being picked—frustrating but necessary computer age add-ons for a guy who is happiest when he’s growing food.

Chris left home for college at the University of New Hampshire and earned a bachelor’s of science degree in horticulture and agronomy.  He also met his future wife there. He came back to Four Town after graduation and has been working on the farm ever since.

“I never had a doubt that I wanted to continue working on the farm. I love it that each day is different and that what I’m doing makes a difference. It’s also in my blood,” he said. His two children, Ryan (8) and Alyssa (5) are growing up very much like their dad, grandfather and father before him: riding on the tractors, playing in the fields and hopefully someday carrying on the family occupation.

Recalling her own children’s early years, Lynne Clegg said, “The kids had to entertain themselves while we worked. They had the whole farm to explore—they played but they also had little jobs that grew into bigger ones as they grew. I remember as a boy Chris found a discarded piece of pipe and decided to make his own irrigation system.” She laughed and added, “I think we knew then he’d stay on the farm.”

While the Clegg family enjoys the slow time in winter with its shorter 40-hour workweeks, preparation for spring planting begins as early as February. “We like to get a jump start on Mother Nature so we can extend the season,” said Chris. Thousands of tiny seeds sprouting inside cozy, warm and well-lit germination chambers are key to the farmer’s ruse. From there seedlings go to the open greenhouse and, once the soil is warm enough, they can be planted in the soil.

It starts with leeks and onions. By mid-March, indoor seeding begins for lettuce, broccoli and cabbage followed by tomatoes. In April seeds for radishes and beets, among others, are planted directly outside.  “My uncle Tom and I have to be thinking about what’s going in the ground all the time. You don’t want to forget something. One week can make a big difference on the other end,” said Chris.

By mid-May the Cleggs will be harvesting early crops like lettuce, arugula and crispy colorful radishes for sale at Four Town’s roadside stand. One of the earliest is asparagus, the cook’s harbinger of spring, soon followed by rhubarb, both perennial crops that grow back year after year.

“Asparagus is an early crop, sometimes even coming up the first week in April after a warm winter,” said Lynne. The Cleggs devote seven acres to asparagus, the edge of those quiet fields affording beautiful views of the Barrington River.

Once the word is out, the daily harvest of asparagus can go quickly until the fleeting season is over. You can find Four Town asparagus on a few East Bay and Providence menus—a dedicated crop of local farm to-table chefs shop at the farm stand. Chris also sells some of Four Town’s vegetables through the Farm Fresh Rhode Island Market Mobile, though mainly in large quantity—rarely the asparagus unless it’s at its peak. He sells to wholesalers buying for Whole Foods and Shaw’s, among others. To add to the stand’s selection he buys apples from other local farmers who’ll buy his corn.

May is one of the busiest times of the year at Four Town with spring planting coinciding with spring plant sales. Lynne plants hundreds of varieties of vegetables, as well as perennial and annual flowers for home gardeners too.

She keeps detailed notes on everything she and Steve grow in the greenhouses. She tracks what sells and what’s falling out of favor. Their son Brad, who just returned to the farm full time, is helping his mother transfer all those handwritten records over to a computerized system.

“I’m not so sure I’m ready,” she said, “I’m much more ‘old school.’” Despite her hesitance, she acknowledges that, like her children, she’s got to continue looking forward, learning new ways of managing practices on the farm.

A lot has changed. The stand is busier than it was so many years ago when Steve, Jean and Tom’s mother sold vegetables from a wagon on George Street. Now a permanent structure with roll-up garage doors in classic roadside style, the family attests to an increase in the number of visitors to the stand looking for locally grown foods—plus, of course, the many families from nearby towns who have been stopping at the stand “for as long as we’ve known them.”

As May gives way to June, the strawberry season is a very busy time at the farm too, with visitors flocking to the pick-your-own patch. Baskets of ruby red, juicy strawberries are also available at the stand. They’re “absolutely nothing like those California strawberries. Those have no taste compared to the ones from the farm,” Chris attests.

Mother Nature rules the strawberry patch and a rainy spring can signal its demise, as happened in 2010—ironically, it was a great season for asparagus.

“It’s very important for us to be diversified so we aren’t hit hard if one thing [like the strawberries] fails.  We’ve got the greenhouse business, the retail end [the stand and pickyour-own], the wholesale business, plus school tours. Diversity is our best insurance policy,” said Chris.

Cultivating, harvesting and the myriad other tasks that go into raising such a quantity of crops, like running a stand while selling wholesale,

Four Town Farm is a family business that supports a large and dedicated clan. In a time where families are becoming increasingly disparate, the Cleggs are sharing generations of knowledge, living and working together in a manner that is decidedly, but admirably, old school. eR

Four Town Farm
90 George St., Seekonk, MA • 508.336.5587; www.4townfarm.com

Article from Edible Rhody at http://ediblerhody.ediblecommunities.com/shop/four-town-farm-close-knit-clan-diversity-efforts-and-farm-continues
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