WILSON FAMILY FARM
Family Business Quarterly
Northeastern University Center for Family Business
Interview with Jim and Don Wilson
By David E. Gumpert
Gumpert Communications, Inc.
In our fast-paced online and wireless world, we can easily forget that there was a simpler time in the early and middle twentieth century when Lexington, MA and the surrounding towns were family farm communities. Those farms were mostly unable to cope with the emergence of suburbia and have disappeared, their lands turned into suburban homes. Except for Wilson Farms. In its early days a nondescript member of the community of small farms, Wilson Farms is today planning for involvement of the fifth generation of Wilsons. It is at once an agrarian artifact and a retailing powerhouse. In an average week, 16,000 customers seek out its fresh produce, flowers, and prepared foods. In this interview with Family Business Quarterly editorial advisor David E. Gumpert, two generations of the Wilson Farms family, Don, (72) and his son, Jim (49), ponder the richness of the farm’s history and the challenges associated with preserving that history for future generations of the family.
DG: Tell us something about the history of the family.
Don: My grandfather, James Alexander Wilson, and two of his brothers came from Ireland. Their uncle sponsored them. They worked on his farm for five or six years to pay for their passage over here. At that point, they rented this farm from a family in Lexington. It was an old Yankee family. The only one I can remember, just vaguely, is a Mrs. Fiske. She was last of the generation that had rented the farm. Even though we started it in 1884, I don’t think my family finished buying it until 1910 or somewhere in there.
DG: This was a kind of rental with option to buy?
Don: No, it was the kind of rental to see if you were the kind of person they wanted to sell to. You had to prove yourself before you could buy it. I don’t think there was any formal agreement. You rent it and if we like what we see, we’ll sell it.
DG: This is your grandfather and one brother?
Don: When they finally bought it, a brother-in-law came in on the business. Eventually the brother-in-law sold out and the other brother went to Lowell and went into a textile business. They dyed fabrics and were very successful for a number of years. My grandfather ran the farm alone with his family for a number of years.
DG: What do you remember about your grandfather?
Don: I remember my grandfather when he was in retirement but still somewhat active on the farm. At that time my father and my uncle, my father’s brother, were running the farm. That would have been the 1920s and forward.
DG: What can you tell me about the development of the business side in the late 1800s and early 1900s? I assume it was a farm among many farms.
Don: Arlington and Lexington and Belmont were all farms. It was totally agricultural. Most of the farms had small dairy sections. They all had pigs. That was one of the prerequisites for farming it seemed, to be a pig farmer. At that time, some were starting to build greenhouses. We didn’t build greenhouses, but we had a lot of hotbeds and sash, which provided a jump on the season. They were heated by putting horse manure under the soil and you could operate those from mid-February with just the heat from horse manure. It was cheaper than oil, but a lot more work. Eventually they had product year round.
DG: What was the production like?
Don: They had these earthen pits-earth and walls with a temporary wooden roof to support soft hay that was put over them. It was amazing-they could run those pits at 33 or 35 degrees no matter how cold it got outside, just by ventilating the pits or putting more hay over them. Out of the pits they had store celery, cabbage, turnips. If you look back into the old records, they were taking product to market every week of the year without mechanical refrigeration or modern storage facilities.
DG: It’s amazing.
Don: Farmers from real small farms would bring their product here, and my grandfather would sell for other farmers in the area. He probably had four or five small producers in the area that he sold product for. There was also a fellow who lived on an estate across the street, the only black person in the area, who was kind of a caretaker, and he grew vegetables and brought them over for sale.
DG: That was really the beginning of the business as you know it today, it would seem, with Wilson Farms venturing beyond farming into wholesaling. You knew about this from your father and grandfather?
Don: Yes. I have a copy of my grandfather’s daily records. He kept daily records in a simple book-expenses on the left-hand page and income on the right-hand page. Everything was in there, no matter what they bought or sold. Some of the old English spelling is in there. Poor was “poore” and potato had an “e” at the end.
DG: Just like Dan Quayle spelled it. Jim, was this one of the bigger farms in the area?
Jim: No, this was just one of many farms. When I started to take notice of things, it was just as all the other farms in town were disappearing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember the Cataloo farm, the Busa, the Idylwilde, and one by one they just disappeared.
DG: Developers were buying them up?
DG: There must have been offers made for this land.
Don: There were a lot of offers. We just didn’t want to sell.
DG: There must have been some attractive offers, since all these other farmers were selling out. Why did you resist?
Jim: As long as we could make a living here, there was no point in selling. I don’t know if it was smart luck or just happened. The beauty of it was that the market developed around us. As the farms sold off, the new residents became our customers.
DG: So all those farms being sold cleared the market for you.
Jim: All those new households became consumers.
DG: Did you envision that happening?
Jim: I was too young.
Don: We didn’t realize what was happening until it happened.
DG: When did you actually make the transition to retail?
Don: Officially in 1950. In the late 1940s we sold poultry and eggs, a pretty extensive egg business. It was the end of the war, so people were glad to have a place to buy food.
DG: What was behind the decision to go retail? Not too many farms become retail establishments.
Don: Financially we had to. Markets were drying up. That was one of the reasons these other farms sold out. You couldn’t make a living with the traditional marketing.
DG: Explain that.
Don: The prices weren’t high enough to support the land or the labor to work the land. As wages started to rise, you couldn’t be still offering 35 cents an hour to employees, with no benefits. The prices received at wholesale didn’t even cover the costs of production.
DG: So going retail was a means of survival.
Don: It was forced on us.
DG: What was keeping other farmers from doing this? Was there competition?
Don: In those days, your major chains were A&P, First National, and Economy. There was a trend away from fresh fruit and vegetables. Their big thing was meats, poultry, and dry groceries. Stores were judged by their meat departments. Vegetables were a poor second cousin. They treated the farmers as such, as poor second cousins. Today it is all different. For the major chains today, produce is their flagship, their banner. Think about their advertising today on the radio. It’s all fresh produce, fresh fruit. I don’t think I’ve heard meat advertised for the last two or three years, except maybe meat for barbecue on sale.
DG: Jim, I am curious as to how the family’s unique history has affected your view of the business.
Jim: I have more of an appreciation of how things came about, of how much hard work went into it. When I was growing up my mom worked full-time as cashier. My dad worked full time. We would come down and work or hang around the farm as kids. That’s just the way we grew up.
DG: You have how many brothers and sisters?
Jim: I have one brother, who is also in the business.
DG: Has it been assumed that you would go into the business?
Jim: Yes, it really was. It’s pretty much the only job I’ve had. The same with my brother, Calvin, and my cousin, Scott.
Don: All of us met our wives working on the farm, except Alan. Myself, Jim, Calvin, and Scott. The girls came to work in the store or on the farm. DG: So it seems as if you, Don, were expected to work in the business, and the same with your two sons.
Don: Yes, we just went along. That’s the way it was in farm families.
DG: Don, you’re the third generation and Jim, you’re the fourth generation of Wilsons running the business. How has the family been able to avoid sub-dividing the land to satisfy all the family members?
Don: Well, you have to remember that there haven’t been that many family members until Jim’s generation running the business. There were two members of my grandfather’s generation and two members of my generation. Now with cousins and wives there are a lot more. But I think there’s been a real focus over the years on the big picture, on one-for-all rather than all-for-one.
DG: How important has knowing this history been to you, Jim?
Jim: It’s been unique. Most people don’t have as rich a history in their families. It certainly has made me feel good about moving into the business.
DG: Does it come up in civic affairs or in how you interact with local residents?
Jim: It’s a pretty good calling card when you are talking to someone and you can mention your family has been in town for 140 years.
DG: Are you involved in politics or civic affairs?
Jim: I’ve been a town meeting member for 22 years. My dad, uncle, cousin, aunt, have all held town offices of one level or another. Dad was in the housing authority for more than twenty years. In Lexington, we have a special award that’s given to the citizen of the year, the White Tricon Hat, and it’s awarded on Patriots Day. It’s quite prestigious. Both my dad and aunt have been winners. To my knowledge, this is the only family that has won twice. Dad won in 2002, and my aunt, Lynn, won in 1992.
DG: You seem very proud, rightfully so. Do you take pride in the land as much as the family?
Jim: Yes, I’m proud to be the fourth generation to farm this land. The farmer in this country is moving toward extinction, so I feel as if we’re bucking the trends and preserving an important part of this country’s heritage.
DG: Jim, do you have children?
Jim: Yes, I have three children, my brother has three children, and my cousin has three children. They range in age from eight to seventeen.
DG: Do you expect they’ll all go into the business?
Jim: It’s a little early, but the oldest ones are working summers. My nephew Timmy is working on the farm this summer. My daughter Jen is working in the office. Last year on the day before Thanksgiving, which is one of our busiest days; all the kids were here working, down to the eight-year-old.
Don: That’s pretty good, when you’re busy you can put on nine extra workers to cover the business.
DG: It’s a different world today. It’s probably not as much a given that all the children will go into the business. Do you think they’ll all want to and, if so, will there be room for all of them?
Jim: One thing we’re real proud of is that we now have 600 acres in New Hampshire, between Nashua and Manchester. We started accumulating it in the 1960s when we couldn’t afford it here in Lexington any longer. Last November we purchased 200 acres from a farm adjacent to ours up there. That land ensures that if the kids are all interested in the business, which is probably unlikely, that there now will be room for as many of them as want to come into the business.
DG: How does that ensure that there will be room in the business?
Jim: You’ve got to figure that the New Hampshire market will be very similar to this one in twenty years time, which is when most of them will mature. A highway project is already under way up there. It’s going to happen. You’re still only 40 miles from downtown Boston. The towns have been very supportive of us up there. It was a farm to farm sale. The other farms up there are selling out for houses. They’re doing up there exactly what happened here forty years ago.
Don: We have purchased 13 farms up there over the years, all contiguous to ours. The farmers have said we can sell to you or for houses. And some have sold for houses and we’ve seen houses sprouting up there all over the place.
Don: A lot of big upscale homes are being built in southern New Hampshire. The houses up there are being sold as soon as they have foundations. Massachusetts folks want to buy just over the line so they still have access to Boston, in what they see as tax-free New Hampshire.
DG: Do you have a retail operation up there?
Jim: Very small. But I expect it will be expanding in coming years.
DG: So this is kind of your insurance that the family business continues.
Don: If we didn’t do it now, we couldn’t do it in twenty years. It will be gone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. We have to buy for the future.
DG: Are you saying the future is really in New Hampshire?
Jim: No, we are constantly upgrading here as well. We have state-of-the-art greenhouses and growing facilities here.
DG: So you’re optimistic, even as the big chain grocery stores become larger?
Jim: There’s a future here. We have to capitalize on things that the competitors can’t do. We can be a lot more mobile than the chains can be. They have buying power over us, but we can do a lot of things production and marketing-wise they can’t touch us on.
Don: There are 32 acres on this farm. But we have 75 acres of crops every year. This is a method we have developed over the years of double and triple cropping. We plant a spring, summer, and fall crop on the same land. It took years to be able to figure that out, to make the numbers work. Right now, even though it’s mid-July, a lot of our first crops have been harvested and our next crops are planted on the same piece of ground.
Jim: When I say we’re more mobile than the chains, I mean we do things immediately. Immediately to us is if we harvest a given crop at 9 a.m., normally by three in the afternoon we have a new crop in the ground. Not 24 or 48 hours later.
DG: Sounds like just-in-time farming.
Don: That accomplishes a lot that people don’t even think about. It cuts down tremendously on weeds because the weeds don’t have a chance to go to seed. It also cuts down on pests, because pests have no weeds to provide cover where they can hatch and develop. This requires a minimum of pesticides.
DG: Jim how else do the family values help you maintain a sense of tradition?
Jim: The fact that the whole family is involved, the kids are involved, and everyone is down on the farm, makes a big difference. If a child is sick, the school nurse calls the farm. They know they’re going to find us. All of us go home for lunch just about every day. We see our kids. We work a lot of hours but we’re still part of the family and the farm all the time. It’s all one thing. We all live very close to the farm.
DG: You’re something of an anomaly. A farm family in an urban environment.
Jim: I went to Bentley Business School. All my friends are accountants and they’ll come down and see me covered with dirt and wonder why I can’t get a real job. They’ll tease me about working on a farm.
DG: Give me some sense of the scale of the business.
Jim: Today we employ 200 people. Half full-time and half part-time. A lot of part-time cashiers. In a normal week, we’ll see 16,000 retail customers. A lot of our employees have been with us 25 or 30 years.
DG: Which parts of the business do best?
Jim: The fastest growing is prepared foods. The biggest is fruits & vegetables. Other big areas are cut flowers, bakery, poultry, eggs.
DG: And who runs what?
Jim: We aren’t big on titles, but my uncle does wholesale and is CEO. My brother runs the seasonal business, my cousin runs the store. I run everything from the store back, the whole farm. My dad is between here and the New Hampshire farm each day.
DG: Is anyone not in the business?
Jim: In this generation, only my cousin Leslie is not in the business. She’s a schoolteacher.
DG: With so many family members now involved, how do you keep open the lines of communication?
Jim: We have business and family meetings. Every evening at 5 all the managers, family and non-family, meet to make sure everyone is on the same page before the next day. Once a week, about five of us get together in a smaller group. Sometimes we discuss competitive issues or internal problems. We pinch problems so they aren’t allowed to fester.
Don: We had a problem with strawberries. We were doing a mediocre job on pick-your-own strawberries and retailing strawberries. So we did away with pick your- own. We graded our strawberries and put only the top strawberries out for sale here, and held to $6 a quart. The competition had strawberries for $4, but we kept selling them and couldn’t keep them in stock, and they couldn’t sell everything. All the B-grade berries were put into value-added products-sauce, bakery products, even strawberry soup. All at increased margins. We’re doubling our crop next year.