By Darrell Halen
MethuenLife Writer

 

“As a kid, I liked being on the farm. I loved
being on a tractor and doing different things.”
Angelo Bonanno, 94, on his lifetime spent working the family farm’s land

 

Speaking at a gathering of Essex County farmers, Heather Bonanno-Baker shared the story of her retired paternal grandparents and the extraordinary work ethic they displayed while working for many years on their family farm.

She made her remarks last October when the couple, Angelo and Rose Bonanno, was named the 2023 Essex County Farm Bureau’s Farmers of the Year. The award recognizes their outstanding commitment and loyal service to agriculture. They were nominated by Newburyport farmer Lisa Colby of Newburyport.

“Everyone in their family, on the farm, and (in the) community has nothing but respect and love for them,” said Heather, who manages the farm, Pleasant Valley Gardens, on Merrimack Street.
Started by Clementi Bonanno in 1910 on 100 acres along the Merrimack River, the Bonanno family farm has been involved in dairy, swine, flower and vegetable production, according to the farm’s website.

“I did it all my life,” said Angelo, 94, during a recent interview with Rose at their home. “As a kid, I liked being on the farm. I loved being on a tractor and doing different things.”

When he was 20, Angelo was drafted into the Army and served approximately 15 months in Korea.

“Then I came back to the farm and I stuck with it,” he said.

Today the farm, with greenhouses and a farm stand, offers produce, plants, flowering annuals, vegetable transplants, hanging baskets, giant tomato plants, Christmas trees, potted tulips, fall mums and more.

The farm, which does business retail and whole sale, also runs a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which shareholders receive a portion of the weekly harvest from mid-June through October.

Angelo, who grew up on the farm and is the youngest of five, and Rose, 87, have three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. They married in 1956.

Their daughter, Cynthia, was a special needs teacher and school administrator. Richard, Heather’s father, helps run the farm with his wife, LuAnne, and is one of the top leaders at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. Another son, David, pursued acting and is a massage therapist.

“I think I was 8 years old when my dad told me that summer vacations were over and it was time to start farming,” Heather, a fifth-generation farmer, recalled with a laugh. “My friends loved coming down to the farm and helping out in the barn when we had sleepovers.”

After high school, she spent a year at college for civil engineering.

“Hated every single second of it and realized the farm was where I wanted to be,” she recalled.

She earned an associate’s degree in sustainable food and farming at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMASS-Amherst in 2013.

There have been changes and challenges at the farm over the years. The farm used to have a piggery and before World War II more than 4,000 pigs lived on the property. Local help was sometimes hard to find. Farmers face the risk that a crop might fail due to conditions beyond their control. There was no time off during farming season.

“You have to really like farming in order to farm,” Rose said. “Growing up and with the three kids, you know things were hard in the ’50s and ’60s. They really were, and farms have no benefits. You don’t get vacation time. You don’t get sick days if you’re sick.”

When she was 41, Rose, who previously had a small office job before starting a family, went back to work. She took a full-time job in national advertising at The Eagle-Tribune, a position that provided health insurance.

“The farms don’t have health insurance. We had no vacation time – really we had no time off,” she said.

She continued to help on the farm while working at the paper and took vacations from the paper before Memorial Day so she could take orders at the farm for cemetery flowers.

Over the years, Jamaicans have worked on the farm through the federal H-2A visa program, which helps farmers fill employment gaps by hiring workers from other countries. And interns – mainly young women – have come from Africa, Europe, Central America and South America to work on the farm, too.

“My grandparents still keep in touch with most of (the interns),” Heather said. “They e-mail back and forth with my grandmother. They call my grandparents on their birthdays.”

It’s symbolic of the relationships that Angelo and Rose developed with others.

“There’s a lot of respect for my grandparents,” Heather added. “They treated everyone like family. It’s a big family business. Everyone that comes in is family and they will leave as family.”

At the Farm Bureau event, Heather told the audience that “Angelo was the person you would see delivering produce to many small grocery stores in downtown Lawrence, Haymarket, The New England Produce Center, Star Market and Market Basket. He was also the person most likely to be picking up feed for their pig operation as well as feeding and watering the pigs.

“Once the pig operation ended, he would switch his focus to watering the greenhouse operation. Up till 2021, he could be found watering the 1-acre greenhouse operation by himself and that’s where he was happiest.”

According to Heather, Rose worked in the first farm stand for 10 years, selling corn for 99 cents a dozen. She returned to the farm in 2001, after retiring from The Tribune, to work the garden center register.

“She would amaze the customers,” Heather told the Farm Bureau audience, “with her stories, friendliness and smiles.”

Heather’s grandparents, she shared with them, delivered nearly 30,000 mums during the season to stores, and store managers “still ask about them to this day.”

“They may not be on the farm every day anymore but you can still find Angelo popping up here and there to lend a helping hand,” said Heather who credits her grandparents for “holding down the fort” so she and her father could be active in Farm Bureau at the county, state and national levels.

To Heather, her grandparents are inspirational and she said they have positively touched many people. Her grandmother is the reason her own house is clean and things at home are done right.

And her always helpful grandfather is her best friend – on the farm and off.