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Essex County farmers adapt to survive

Mario Marini and his son Michael farm 200 acres in Ipswich. Mario Marini and his son Michael farm 200 acres in Ipswich. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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IPSWICH - Mario Marini has tilled the rich soil at his farm for nearly all of his 75 years. Sweet corn, plump tomatoes, leafy greens, and other vegetable crops grow on 50 acres that dip and rise along Linebrook Road.

The white-haired farmer, with strong hands and an easy smile, learned to plant and plow from his Italian immigrant father, one of four men who started the farm in 1928. “I love the growing,’’ Marini said, stooping in a field to look at still-green tomatoes. “I love the challenge of making a crop grow. . . . If it’s dry, what can I do to water it?

What can I do to color it up?’’

Farmers in Essex County tomorrow will bring their top crops to Topsfield Fair. A blue ribbon goes to the best or biggest fruit or vegetable. But even those bragging rights can’t soothe the harsh economic reality facing Bay State farmers.

Topsfield County Fair schedule, Page 7

Since 2008, when recession hit, agriculture sales, including vegetable and livestock items, have been on a bit of a rollercoaster. In 2008, Massachusetts farm revenues dropped from $558 million to $463 million in 2009, before modestly improving to nearly $469 million in 2010, according to New England agricultural statistics compiled by the US Department of Agriculture.

Horticulture, the largest sector of the state’s agriculture industry, suffered among the largest losses, with sales dropping by $10.2 million over the three-year period, data show.

“I think that reflects the downturn in the housing market,’’ said Gary Keough, director of the statistics service, based in Concord, N.H. “It would be nice if the economy would turn around, just so that sector alone could rebound.’’

The poor economy isn’t the only factor eating into farm revenues. Competing out-of-state growers, which supply supermarket chains year-round, and high costs for energy and labor are constant challenges, particularly for small farms.

“For farmers to survive here, they have to look for new opportunities,’’ Keough said. “The closer you are to a major center of population, the greater the opportunity you will have for sales.’’

Marini said local community support is critical to the well-being of farmers everywhere.

“People have to support their local farms,’’ said Marini. “There is beautiful land everywhere. . . . It’s very hard to make money from it.’’

To remain successful, some farms have mixed old-fashioned ingenuity with new technology. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube postings now alert customers to the freshest crop pickings.

“Last year, at the end of the season, I still had half a field of broccoli,’’ said Michael Marini, 32, who runs the farm with his father, Mario. “I posted it on Facebook, and I sold out that day. The farm stand wasn’t even open. It’s such a powerful tool for a small business.’’

Corn mazes have become a popular rite of fall, as farmers seek to cash in on foliage tourism. Community Supported Agriculture programs, which allow registered participants to make weekly bulk purchases of produce, are also becoming more common.

The state’s 98 farmers’ markets allow growers to hawk crops on city lots and town squares. A new law allowing for the sale of wine has added a higher-value item. The Salem market will stay open this year until December, while Newburyport, Marblehead, and Somerville markets will close in November, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources.

“The markets give more people access to locally grown food,’’ said Anna Waclawiczek, a state spokeswoman. “They’re a good [venue] for farms to reach new customers.’’

At Marini Farm, special attractions are a key part of business. Bright pumpkins and hay bales welcome visitors to a corn maze that will be open until Halloween.

A Community Supported Agriculture program started in the summer has a waiting list for next year. Dinner on the farm drew 120 people on a hot July night, to sample tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables. Pork provided by another local farm was also served.

“Today, to be viable, you have to do everything you can to bring customers here,’’ said Michael Marini, who concentrates on the marketing and sales end of the business. “I try to focus on that. . . . I’m lucky I have my father in the fields.’’

His father is grateful to have the help of his son, the youngest of his four children. “Michael is very fussy about quality,’’ Mario Marini said. “This was my father’s farm . . . I’d love to see it go on forever.’’

Mario has a degree in agribusiness from the University of Massachusetts. Michael earned the same degree from the University of Delaware in 2001.

“I’ve done this my whole life,’’ said Michael, the father of two small children. “I love it. My father worked way too hard in his life for me not to try to continue this farm.’’

The farm plants on a total of 200 acres. The family owns 50 acres on Linebrook Road, and leases the rest in Ipswich, Essex, Hamilton, and Middleton. About 100 acres is devoted to corn, which the farm wholesales to Shaw’s and Stop & Shop supermarkets, and other farmstands in the region.

Tomatoes and corn are the largest and most valuable crops produced, Mario Marini said.

“That’s my big, big money,’’ he said, looking at the tall corn stalks. “Those two [crops] bring in the big money.’’

He hopes to extend the fall harvest until late next month. Strawberries that do not require as much daylight as usual are sprouting. Tomatoes may be picked until the first frost. After that, they’ll take root in one of 10 greenhouses.

“You try to get as much out of the season as you can,’’ he said.

The farm employs 15 people, including eight field workers from Guatemala and El Salvador. Area high school students will be hired for October to help run the corn maze.

After November, Michael Marini will sell Christmas trees brought from Canada. In winter, father and son will travel to agriculture conferences and trade shows. “You have to keep up with what’s happening everywhere,’’ Mario Marini said.

The farm is slowly going green, a buzzword in the industry. To conserve water, new machinery purchased last year chisels deep into the ground, where seeds can be planted in moist soil.

Two corn stoves purchased last year with the help of a $6,000 state grant burn bushels dried from the maze.

The stoves have generated enough heat for two greenhouses. Oil costs have dropped 10 percent.

“You have to watch every cost,’’ Mario said, holding corn left over from last year. “A farmer takes every darn penny he makes and puts it in the soil. Then he prays to God he makes it back.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.