Farming for generations: What it’s like living through a farm transition

  • Bill and Will McKinstry talk about where the crew should pick corn in a field the family owns in Granby. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nicole McKinstry at McKinstry Market Garden in Chicopee. She owns the farm with her husband, Bill, and is in the process of handing it down to their two sons, Will and Warren. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill McKinstry waits to load a customers truck with freshly-picked corn in a family-owned field in Granby. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Will McKinstry loads bags of freshly-picked corn with his dog, Scout, on a Friday morning in early September. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Warren McKinstry unloads bins of corn just dropped at the market by Will and Bill McKinstry. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Will McKinstry takes a bag of freshly-picked corn from employee, Nicky Stennett, while his father, Bill McKinstry, waits for the trucks to be loaded on a recent Friday morning at their farm in Granby. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Will McKinstry, 22, left, and Warren McKinstry, 21, at McKinstry Market Garden in Chicopee after Will dropped off the day’s fresh-picked corn. The brothers are beginning the process of taking over the farm from parents Bill and Nicole. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill McKinstry in a field the family owns in Granby. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Will McKinstry carries a bag of freshly picked corn towards the truck with his dog Scout one early morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Will McKinstry carries a bag of freshly picked corn towards his father, Bill McKinstry early Friday morning.

  • Will and Warren McKinstry stand in the market in Chicopee Tuesday morning after Will had just dropped off that days freshly picked corn.

For the Gazette
Published: 9/17/2021 1:57:31 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about farm succession in the Pioneer Valley through the lens of McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee. The first part appeared last Saturday, Sept. 11.

Farms are made by people. And when a farmer retires, the question of who farms next can be a heavy one to answer.

Last week’s Valley Bounty explored the repercussions of transferring a farm from one generation or owner to another, which is what’s currently happening with McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee. Farm succession, as it’s called, dictates the future of a farm, while throughout the Valley it impacts our whole region’s landscape, local economy and cultural identity grounded in growing food.

But what does it feel like to live through a farm transition? Here, Bill McKinstry, who currently owns McKinstry’s Market Garden with his wife, Nicole, shares his viewpoint, and so do his sons, Warren and Will McKinstry, from their side of the story.

True to their roots, most of what the McKinstrys are thinking about at the height of the growing season is corn — and the rest of the vegetables they grow on almost 200 acres spread across Chicopee, Granby and Hadley. But corn is what they’re most known for, and what brings many people to the renovated farm store on Montgomery Street in Chicopee.

“We pick our corn fresh every single morning, rain or shine,” says Will, the older brother at 22. He would know, having recently taken over lead management of their farming operation from his father.

Warren, a year younger, adds, “I think this year we grew 28 varieties, and everyone has their favorites.” Warren continues to have a larger role in running the retail store where the farm sells most of what they grow, alongside his mother, Nicole.

The children are ready

Both Will and Warren benefited from many opportunities to prepare for their roles through both formal and practical education, and mentors along the way.

“Will has always worked at the farm,” Bill says. “As soon as he was potty-trained, he’d go with my father up to the fields in Hadley and be with him all day.”

As part of his degree in agricultural sciences at Cornell University, Will shares, “I also did an internship at Plainville Farm in Hadley, with Wally Czajkowski. That was a great experience. I learned so much from him, and from a lot of other farmers in the Valley.”

At the store, Warren says, “My mom really taught me the ropes. I started on cash register, and I’ve been working my way up for a long time now, getting a lot of experience hands-on.”

As they enter management roles, the business itself is also changing. Last year the old farm store was demolished, and a new one double the size with heat and air conditioning was built in its place. This allows them to sell more, and they hope to be open until Christmas this year, when in previous years cold weather forced them to close in October.

Meanwhile, Will has even bigger ideas for what the future might hold.

“We’re not just growing the retail side of the business, we’re also growing on more acreage than ever. And I know I want to do more with agritourism in the future, like pick-your-own strawberries and blueberries, and look into opening retail stores in other locations. It’s always been my dream to continue to expand the farm, and I think that’s a challenge I’m ready for.”

Their father agrees the farm will need to evolve, and that they’re ready to guide it. But Bill also offers caution. “Will especially likes to go big,” he says. “But I try to remind them what I learned from my father — you have to pay attention to the details, or the farm will suffer.”

The privileged position Will and Warren are in, being taken on board a bus that’s already built, so to speak, is not lost on them. And they readily acknowledge the support they’re received along the way. “We’re especially grateful to our parents,” Warren says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without everything they taught us and did for us.”

Will adds that taking over has never felt like an obligation. “Our parents were good about encouraging us to go to school, learn, see other things, and never pressuring us to work on the farm,” he says. “It’s always been a choice.”

A parent’s perspective

From Bill and Nicole’s vantage point, watching their kids shoulder the mantle of the family business evokes complex emotions.

“It’s bittersweet,” Bill says. “I’m very proud of them, but it’s a tough life, farming. You try to instill in them that it’s not just work-work-work. You’ve got to enjoy life, too. Take time to go out, get away from the farm sometimes. And that’s the hardest thing, because even when you get away, your mind is still there.”

“I hope that they find a happy medium,” he says, “and that they get along. They’ve already risen to it and are doing a fantastic job so far — no regrets there.”

For their part, it’s clear that Will and Warren are eager to carry on the family tradition. Will expresses this most strongly, saying, “This is all I ever wanted to do. I never imagined anything else.”

And in large part, their motivation draws from the same source as many Valley farmers — they want to keep providing the community with good food.

“To me,” Will says, “it’s important that people know where their food comes from. If it can come right from our farm to their table, it makes me feel like I’m making a difference in someone else’s life.”

In a way, every resident of the Valley influences the future of local farms, none more so than during moments of farm succession. After they weed their last row, shake on their last sale at a farmers market, or hand the tractor keys over to someone new, many farmers would like to see their work continue — as would many who depend on their work and want to see farming prosper in the Valley.

So long as the demand for locally grown food is strong and farm businesses are supported, there’s a great chance for local farms to keep farming.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more and get involved with local farms in your neighborhood, visit buylocalfood.org.


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