In today’s global economy, many small, family farms are struggling to make ends meet. That’s the case for the Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. The couple living there are trying to keep their family’s tradition alive.
The Olsen Farm in Lanesborough is still in the family, for now.
“This is where I grew up,” Chris Wheeler says. “It had been my great grandparents’ farm. The land has been fallow for about 50 years or so. And I guess I started when I saw one blueberry bush and started clearing around it and this urge to kind of work the land, I felt it.”
Chris Wheeler and his wife Kristen Tool are the latest operators of the farm that’s been in their family for almost 80 years.
“When we first moved back in with Chris’ dad about two years ago, we had just planned to make this a homestead: to kind of be self-sufficient, to be growing our own food, to be raising our own meat and eggs for us to eat,” Tool says. “I teach during the day, but I am absolutely farm hand 100 percent of the time, so taking care of the chickens and taking care of the bees. Starting… that’s mostly Chris’ job but it’s good to have my hands in it, too,” Tool says.
But, in January 2017, Wheeler’s father, Tommy, died unexpectedly. He left the couple 30 acres. Over the years, most of the farm was sold off to balance the books
Chris Wheeler and Tool also took on roughly $100,000 in debt against the estate – more than Tool’s teaching salary and their crops can cover.
“We’ve had to rethink how we are going to hold onto the pieces that we think are important, about living on this land. But then also, how to make a profit out of it,” Tool says.
In 1923, Wheeler’s great-grandfather Thomas Olsen and his wife, Randi, emigrated from Norway to New York City, but realized city life wasn’t for them. They bought 95 acres and the original farm house, built in the 1790s, for $1,200.
“This house used to be like a carriage stop because this road used to go way over the mountain into Hancock and people would spend the night here,” Tool says.
The Olsen’s fixed up the farm house, but the years haven’t been gentle, and it’s fallen into disrepair. The couple now lives in a house Tommy built, set further back on the property.
They tend the land and sell produce at farmers markets – doing what they can to save their home.
“We keep the lawn very tall because the bees love this wild thyme – the purple— And they, whole lawn is wild thyme, so it’s like perfect pollen for them to make honey. It looks like a mess from the road but it’s for the bees,” Tool says. “There is probably a little patch in the front up here where there are just like a thousand bees all covering and you can hear them buzzing.”
Meanwhile, Wheeler tends to a whole hive. He’s smoking the bees out to make them docile, so it’s safe to retrieve honey.
Tool works the garden.
“Corn and beans and squash,” Tool says.
The chickens they raise, also bound for market, cluck nearby.
“And these two pear trees, my dad brought us these at Chris’ dad’s service, and we planted them, like memorial trees. We can soon expect Susan and Tommy Pears in three to five years,” Tool says.
When it comes to saving the property, the couple says their options are limited. They don’t want to sell any farm land to pay off the debt, Wheeler says, because that is what they have worked so hard to save.
Tool says they don’t qualify for many of the state and federal grant programs designed to help struggling farms because they can’t completely own the property until the debt is settled.
They have received some support over the last six months from individual donations. Coupled with proceeds from tag sales, Wheeler says the debt is down to $80,000.
“It’s been tough. I lost my mom 10 years ago or so, and then dad. And so, this is where I grew up. My brother and sister and I’s heights are notched on the door, you know. This is home. My mom planted the flower gardens around, my dad build the house,” Wheeler says. “I am really tied to them through this.”
If nothing changes, Wheeler and Tool say they’ll lose their home by the end of October. The couple can try to buy back the land at auction … but right now they don’t have a dollar to spend.