To be a farmer you have to be tough to weather the storms of changing prices – and the weather doled out by Mother Nature. You also, deep down, have to love the land. It helps if you have someone to teach you how to look at the land and see its promise of growing living things that will sustain generations.
For fourth generation farmer David Harper, it was his grandfather David Harper who taught him about farming. His grandfather ran a dairy in Lancaster, MA, from the 1930s to the ‘80s.
Thinking ahead, his grandfather bought land that was better for growing vegetables that encompassed the rich river soil along the Nashua River. He sold the dairy herd in 1980 and farmed vegetables full-time. He taught David all he knew.
Meanwhile, David grew up, attended college, obtaining degrees in landscape construction and industry. He started his own landscape business.
His grandfather died in 1994 and left him the farm. David returned and took over Harper’s Farm and Garden, farming full-time, honoring and carrying on his grandfather’s legacy. His own father, Ray, farmed part-time, dabbling in selling sweet corn and produce. But the deep love of the land had skipped a generation.
David enjoys growing produce from start to finish, starting from seed and ending up with a ready crop. His wife Paula learned about farming when they married. His daughter Sydney is the fifth generation.
It was David’s great-grandfather, William Harper, who started Harper Farm. He had emigrated from Scotland. In the 1950s, William was given notice that the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, better known as the U.S. Interstate Highway System, was starting to build a highway (what is now Route 2) across his land.
“They gave him 30 days’ notice – essentially all you had in those days to move all you have before they brought a bulldozer and mowed it under,” said David. His great-grandfather packed up and moved across the street, along the river.
David currently farms 100 acres, owning 30 acres and leasing the remaining 70. He considers himself lucky to have the great working crew that he does. On a humid summer afternoon, a line is four deep buying produce at the Harper’s Farm and Garden Farm Store. He hires seasonal help, about 15 people, mostly college and high school students and friends who serve customers with a very upbeat attitude. He also has a loyal crew of Jamaicans that he hires through the H-2A Temporary Ag Workers program. Some have lived on the farm from April through October for the last 20 years. There are usually five of these farmworkers in the fields.
This year, Mother Nature brought flooding in July. “It was close to 18 inches of rain. It was that bad storm where it rained four inches in one night, gathering all the water along the way with it down the river. By the time it got down to Lancaster, it brought a flood,” said David.
He had 40 acres that flooded. Usually he yields 220 bushels/acre of corn. He lost 15 acres of corn, 15 acres of winter squash and pumpkin and 10 acres of beans and broccoli. “I don’t like to think of the mathematics of it,” he said.
He does a lot of wholesale in addition to the farm store and area farmers markets. “We had to eliminate the wholesale market for the year. We ran out of sweet corn entirely. We never run out of sweet corn,” he said.
Luckily, they had planted on eight different fields and were able to get crops from those that didn’t flood. They have two greenhouses by the farm store that are farther from the river, and three high tunnels to grow vegetables through winter. They came through high and dry.
“The weather is the weather. You can’t predict what it’s going to do,” David said. “Sometimes the river is my friend, like last year, and sometimes it’s not.”
In 2022, during the drought, the river provided the water he used to irrigate his fields.
This is a year he’s started wondering about the gift his grandfather gave him. Philosophically, he said, “They had the flooding in 1938, from the worst hurricane ever to hit New England. Farmers lost everything.” The 85th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane was Sept. 21. In 1938, waves were reaching 50 feet off the Gloucester coast.
“Everyone has to live through the weather,” David said – spoken just like a farmer.
For more information, access harpersfarm.com.
by Laura Rodley