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Arena Farms closing its doors

Century of farming coming to an end

Email|Print| Text size + By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007

After nearly a century of farming and direct sales to customers from near and far, a Route 2 landmark will be no more.

There are no Christmas trees or wreaths for sale outside Arena Farms this holiday season. Instead, there's only a sign announcing final sales on inventory.

"They will finally close the door forever and for good sometime this month," said Dan Greenberg, an Arena family attorney. "It's sad. America doesn't make people like these anymore, and it's America's loss."

Owners Josephine and John Arena Sr. sold the 12-acre property to Concord Academy for $3.6 million in August, after enduring a string of poor growing seasons and other difficulties. The family kept the right to continue operating the farm stand until the end of the year and retained the house and about an acre along Route 2.

Greenberg said the family closed the daily retail operations after Halloween. Buoyed by pumpkin sales, Halloween was the farm's biggest revenue-producing period, he said. Since then, the family has been selling inventory, such as potting soil, on weekends.

"They are not happy," Greenberg said. "They are very emotional about it."

The financially troubled farm was set to be auctioned in July until Concord Academy came forward to buy the property. The town had an opportunity to purchase the land but declined, citing the high price.

Rick Wheeler, whose family operated a farm on the property before selling it to the Arenas, said he has mixed feelings about its demise. The original Wheeler property comprised more than 100 acres, he said, and has been chopped up over the years. The former Wheeler farmland includes what is now Arena Farms, a section of Route 2, and houses.

But the town also owns a portion of the land, which has a conservation restriction and continues to be used for agriculture, Wheeler said.

"It's a sadness in many ways," he said. "The Arenas have been great custodians of the land. It's a wonderful family, and they did a great service to the community. But I do recognize that farming is not the principal occupation of Concordians as it was in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries."

Wheeler said he hopes that Concord Academy will be a good caretaker of the property. The school has filed a notice of intent with the town that states its plans to use the land for recreational fields, educational programs, and possibly faculty housing.

Gail Friedman, the school's associate director of communications, said the planning process is just getting underway.

The academy's board of trustees established an initial planning committee that is expected to recommend a planning process next month. She said it is likely to be six to 12 months before a comprehensive master plan is developed.

Margaret Briggs, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the town hopes to work with the school as the planning moves forward.

"We look forward to engaging in a conversation with them about some shared uses and mutual benefits," Briggs said.

One potential shared use is playing fields, for example.

Briggs said she is sad to see the farm close but is happy it was sold to a local institution.

"I'm pleased it's not going to be overdeveloped. It's going to a friend of the community."

Before the farm was hit by a fire several years ago, Briggs said, she visited the salad bar there every day.

"It's been a town landmark. We've been working to protect farmland in town, and it's hard to see one go in this direction."

Greenberg said there were several factors that contributed to the business's demise, starting with the fire in the greenhouses. Since then, he said, there have been poor growing seasons and fewer people buying fresh produce from the farm stand.

Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, said it is not unusual to see a farm go out of business given the risky nature of the industry.

One of the biggest reasons local farms struggle is that customers can often buy cheaper produce in grocery stores without making an extra stop at the farm stand, he said.

"It's very, very difficult to make a profit in agriculture. It takes a lot of stars being aligned to do it well. It's a very high-risk industry, and we will have folks who are forced out of the business."

In general, Cole said, the farming business in Massachusetts is fairly stable right now.

While the Arena closing is indicative of the risks associated with farming, it does not reflect a trend, he said.

"Overall, there is a lot of attention to buying local, so farms are doing reasonably well right now," Cole said.

"For farms, that means barely scraping by. That's an unfortunate fact in agriculture."

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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