Tom Swain and Ford Farm Market
You will not find a pumpkin patch more sincere than the thirty acres Tom Swain cultivates (with apologies to Charles Schultz). However, his farm, known as the Ford Farm Market, is generally inconspicuous throughout the summer months. If you were to observe his neatly cultivated rows during the balmy days of July, you probably wouldn’t see anything spectacularly interesting. During the majority of the growing season, Tom’s sixty-eight different varieties of pumpkins and gourds look the same: feet of sinewy vines sprouting green, serrated elephant ears with a few yellow, bee-laden flowers tucked in between. The field is remarkably monotonous.
Come back in a few more months. The tradition will be visibly resurrected. Not only are Tom’s acres replete with sunny-colored gourds, it is enshrined in heritage — a legacy supported by its own popularity in Chili. Why the attention? Some of these pumpkins are not the typical pumpkin you can buy at a store. For instance, Tom’s giant pumpkins average around 800 pounds; his largest topped the scales at 1,119 pounds. And when these pumpkins are dragged out of the field, Tom’s wife, Sharon, uses each behemoth as carving medium to display original designs she creates for the occasion.
“We get people coming every year, and every year they expect better, and better, and better,” Tom described to me. “They are all her own designs, usually with a theme — a Disney theme, or could be movies that have been out that year. It takes her probably an hour and a half, two hours to design them…than she has to carve them. She says it takes her four to five hours to do each one, it’s probably closer to eight hours.”
There are many reasons why the Swains devote their time and patience into this tradition. One of the biggest, from what I understood, is the community support they receive. They enjoy creating memories for denizens of all ages. “People really enjoy them,” Tom emphasized. “Channel 9 was here two years ago, and that’s what one of the kids said. He said ‘I’ve been coming here for years and years and years,’ and now he had his fiancée with him….I always tell people that they are here for you to enjoy, so come up and take a look at them. That’s what we are known for.”
The Swains are well-known for what they do. But, surprisingly, Tom has only been a ‘full-time’ farmer for the past two years. For the thirty-seven years prior, Tom taught science at the Gates-Chili High School, and farmed part-time since 1980. Even with demanding careers as teachers, Tom and Sharon maintained the legacy of Ford Farm Market, now serving Chili for 117 years.
For Tom, there is little mystery in his dedication. “I just enjoy being outside. I have always loved things with four wheels; I enjoy working, not so much on the tractor, but with the tractor…the cultivating and the planting. I just got it in my blood I guess.” It is apparent. I visited Tom early one morning as he navigated his blue ford between row and row of young pumpkin plants. He took a break for a moment to demonstrate how to cross-pollinate pumpkin plants by picking a certain ‘male’ flower and dumping the contents into a respected ‘female’ receptacle. I could have witnessed the making of the world’s largest pumpkin for all I knew. This is one of many benefits for the Tom. “You’re taking land, land that is not growing into houses, so it’s not that heavily populated. We make some money with the pumpkins….I enjoy seeing the crops grow. For us, it’s been family.”
For the Swain’s, their Place is family. When you embrace the land as a member of your family, you hope for a bright and productive future, just like you would for a child. “I hope it will look exactly the same….Hopefully it will stay farmland. I really do not want a housing development on it,” Tom asserted. When you’re part of a 117 year legacy, it is hard to imagine anything else.
“It might be [exploitable] if it wasn’t in the family, but since it has been in the family so long, I’m just carrying on the family namesake and the family heritage. When I’m out there on the tractor, I can see my relatives…with a plow and a horse in front of them, plowing the land,” Tom illustrated.
“That’s the reason I really love it…it’s for carrying on the family.”