Usually, farmers are strangers to the limelight. They are dedicated to a less-than-anomalous lifestyle that attracts little, if any, media attention. But Harold has established a legacy in Chili, and his legacy has spilled into the community spotlight in several occasions. On March thirtieth of 2010, Harold was featured on the front page of the Democrat and Chronicle’s ‘Our Towns’ insert; his featured write-up included a portrait (drinking coffee at Wendy’s), along with his reflections of farming in Chili. I found inspiration in this article, for it exuded an aura of genuineness, a down-to-earth credibility that seemed to be too large to be contained in a few, terse paragraphs. That is why I sought the source.
Harold Ford was the first interviewee I visited during the course of my exploration, and his remarks were the most unforgettable. At the age of 96 (at the time of our conversation), he was also one of, if not the oldest, individuals I have collected wisdom and stories from. And when your tenure on earth approaches a century, I can imagine that the world you knew as a youth would be foreign to the present debacle. Thankfully, Harold has an acute perception of times changed, for the farm he once fostered is atypical to the farms we observe today.
“I had a farm on Paul road…the Ford Farm Market,” Harold described. “I raised mostly vegetables…a lot of tomatoes; strawberries, I had a lot of strawberries…used to have strawberries for U-Pick; pumpkins…; I raised squash, watermelons, eggplant; cabbage, one year I had ten acres of cabbage; and peppers, sweet corn…”
Harold’s farm still venerably stands on Paul road (near the 490 overpass), and the current landowner, Tom Swain, has maintained the name ‘Ford Farm Market’ due to its wide familiarity within the town. Albeit, Harold no longer husbands the land, his legacy is indelible.
“I had twenty acres…North of the [expressway], one ten acre parcel by the railroad…there was another ten acre parcel just North of the [Expressway]. [In total], I had thirty acres on the South side of Paul Road, and ten acres on the North Side, where the buildings were…and I used to raise most of the stuff there, on the North side….This has been farmed for maybe…two hundred years.”
As I noted earlier, Harold has lived in Chili for nearly a hundred years, and in that time, farming has evolved dramatically. When Harold was born in 1914, the landscape and demographics were incomparable to the communal fabric of our present township.
“Back in the twenties and thirties, everybody lived on a small farm…and they were self sufficient,” Harold emphasized. “They’d have a few apple trees, a few grape vines, a few peach trees; they had a team of horses, and a couple cows; raised some pigs and chickens….They preserved a lot of stuff for the winter time. They did not have to go to the store. They’d get a hundred pounds of sugar, and that would last them all winter or maybe longer. If they had a bag of sugar, and a bag of flour, they thought they were pretty well off.”
Harold also took a few moments to describe his (now antiquated) methods of farming. Compared to our current standards of mechanization and efficiency, his style is almost unimaginable.
“It used to be [that] a farm would have a team of horses…there was a lot of hand labor to farming. Very few insecticides…no weed killers, everything had to be done by hand…to keep the potatoes clean, the weeds out. Farmers used to raise a lot of hay….Everything ran on horse power. Everybody had a horse or two, and they had to have hay….everything ran on horses…all the fire departments, all the delivery trucks…the big department stores had horses and wagons to deliver stuff….The horse was an important part to the progress of the County.”
Over the past century, the Town has ‘progressed’ dramatically, and with the growth of population and infrastructure, Places that Harold grew up with became relics – buried beneath asphalt and cinder blocks. As Harold pointed out, Chili’s population was only 3000 in 1940. “[There] is a lot of development….You see, they built that shopping center in Chili Center — that was all farm land. K-mart…that was a big farm. Of course, where Wegmans is, that was a farm…the old Henderson farm. I picked sweet corn where Wegmans is.”
And with all of this growth and development Harold has witnessed, I wondered how he viewed the waning open Places in Chili. “Open space is very important,” Harold stated. “[Without it], it gets too congested, too crowded. People get in each another’s way….there isn’t room for them all….the Town should protect the open land….they ought to have more study on it.”
“Of course, the natural tendency for me or anyone else…they don’t want to change anything. They’re reluctant to change, yet you gotta change to keep up with the times, to make progress. We hate to see anything change. We hate to see a piece of woodland all torn out and cleaned out [for] a building.”
However, Harold continues to resist the change in some ways. As we conversed in his screened porch, I noticed a flat of young tomatoes, peppers, and other miscellaneous vegetables stretching their young shoots into the sunlight. Although Harold’s has left his farm and inhabits a modest ranch a mile or two down the road, I could sense that the spirit of his Place was inextricably rooted to his identity; the years he had toiled in the sod conceived a habitual inclination to plant, to care for, to steward. Even at ninety six, there was still fresh soil trapped beneath Harold’s finger nails. And I later discovered that his fledgling vegetables were not his only planting efforts.
When I biked into Harold’s driveway before the interview, I observed a small garden behind the house. After our interview concluded, I asked if we could visit the patch of vegetables behind his house, mainly as an effort to observe Harold in his natural element. Due to the physical realities of his age, Harold needed a cane to complete the traverse to the garden, a quaint bed of vigorous greens and snarled vines his neighbors usually tended to. As I crouched down to admire a neat row young beans, Harold parked himself between two rows of rhubarb, and, with a slight frown and knit eyebrows, muttered a few words to the weeds that invaded his rhubarb. Suddenly, with a surprising surge of spryness, Harold bent over, and began to engage in a serious match of tug-o-war with his weedy fiend. As soon as the plant relinquished its grip, Harold initiated a new battle, until all the weeds within an arms radius of his cane were extricated. Apparently, communion with the land can restore youthful spirit to an aged figure. We may never find the fountain, but working with the land renders a body limber and sprite for a lifetime.
What progress do we seek? Change is simply movement from the present onward, one of infinite rays from one point. In essence, is progress strictly synonymous to ‘development’, or does it embody values in different realms? For Harold it appears, progress could mean protection of our open places.
“They can’t use up all the farm land ‘cause the gotta raise something for people to eat….I would like to see more farm land….More vegetables growing, more fruit trees…this is great country for apple trees.”
And whether it is apple trees or other crop, I sincerely hope Chili will continue to boast bountiful harvests into the next century. Without the stretching, young necks of seedlings, without the dirty fingernails and weed wars, I doubt Chili will have a praiseworthy identity.