A Potato Farm Goes Barren

For years, the town of Worthington could set its calendar by what was going on at Albert Farms. In the spring, after the snow melted, when the ground was warm and dry enough, men from the farm planted seed potatoes in its fields. The plants sprouted, grew, and blossomed. In summer the farm workers cultivated the fields and later in the season, sprayed a chemical to kill the vines that left a stink in the air.

Then, in September, harvesters, large and ship-like, crisscrossed the fields for weeks. Women keeping mother’s hours, teenagers after school and men putting in full-time hours did the dirty work separating rocks and potatoes aboard the shaking machines.

Migrant workers brought up from the South used to do the work; until the harvest got mechanized, they dug potatoes by hand. The workers lived in a camp on Prentice Road, near the farm’s highest field called the old Smith Farm, where the remnants of two barracks remain.

Living conditions were notoriously bad. One man died of pneumonia and dysentery from the unsanitary conditions, and the state closed the camp after a fire destroyed the quarters where the women and children lived. Health officials said the farm would have to put in flush toilets and make other improvements. Instead it began hiring local people.

When we moved here, Ben Albert, the second generation, ran the farm although several family members, including some of his children, worked beside him. His father, Alberie Albert founded it in the twenties. After the state, Ben was the town’s biggest landowner. He also owned acreage elsewhere. That status carries a certain weight in a small town. I once heard an old-timer say at a hearing she trusted Ben to do what’s best for his land. We newcomers who had seen the places we once lived damaged by that sort of thinking were skeptical. Anyway that kind of influence was waning in the eighties. So was Ben Albert’s business.

A couple of years after we moved here, Ben’s massive warehouse burned in an early morning blaze, so out of control by time the volunteer firefighters arrived the flames could be seen in the next town. The state fire marshal had a hard time determining a cause since the fire was so big and the local department had taken a day to call him. Faulty wiring was likely to blame, the marshal said. Still the blaze’s timing made people wonder. The damages amounted to about a half-million, including the loss of seed potatoes for that spring’s planting and farm equipment. Worse, the water used by firefighters to douse the flaming mess released nearly a ton of pesticide, Temik, from its barrels. The chemical flowed downhill, contaminating the wells of several homes, but the state bailed out Ben and the town by paying to extend a town water line.

Ben tried making money off his land in another way. He wanted to put in a subdivision of luxury homes clustered in one of the farm’s prettiest fields, across the road from the warehouse, which he never rebuilt. People in town joked Ben should call it Temik Acres. But the town told him no. I think the sentiment was that Ben wouldn’t see such a project through to the end, that he’d cut corners.

He also tried, twice, to build homes near the old airstrip, the one he used to launch planes for crop-dusting. Each house would have a hangar and the road would double as a runway. The people living nearby weren’t crazy about small planes flying in and out of their neighborhood. The town said no, twice, to that idea, too.

One morning in 1990, around 6, I got a call from Ben. He didn’t identify himself, but I recognized his raspy voice. He wanted me to know about his case in federal court against Frito-Lay. I was a reporter then, covering a bunch of small towns for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, working out of my home, which I called the Hilltown bureau. Ben was always the source I couldn’t get on the phone. “Sorry, don’t know when he’ll be back,” the woman who answered the office phone would say although I suspected he was sitting in the same room. Once, to get his comment for a story, about Temik Acres, incidentally, I drove around town in the rain until I spotted him in a field, and he was surprised when I walked, notebook in hand, toward him.

But Ben wanted to talk now. He had done business for 20 years with Frito-Lay, but he said the chip giant reneged on a shipment of seed potatoes, 17,700-hundredweight bags, for the 1985 growing season and a contract to buy part of his harvest. By that time, it was too late for him to find other seed to plant. It was a blow to the farm, and Ben had to sell pieces of land to pay his creditors.

I went to the federal courthouse in Springfield a couple of times. Frito-Lay’s take was that it didn’t have to give Ben the seed or buy his potatoes. Lawyers said the farm had already been losing money. Ben sued for $1.1 million, and after a month of tedious testimony about potato farming, the jury awarded him $248,000.

Also that year, the state bought the development rights to the Jones Lot, the largest of the farm’s fields, 286 acres in the Four Corners section. It meant the parcel would be preserved as farmland. He got a half-million from the state, but that wasn’t enough money to fix his problems.

Six years later, Ben filed for bankruptcy after racking up over four million in debt, about half of that owed to the federal government. Albert Farms owed the town more back taxes than anyone.

A bitter Ben Albert told me he would never plant potatoes again. “Let it all go to weeds,” he said, but he did try growing soybeans and sunflowers.

The following year, he lost the field on Prentice Road, the old Smith Farm, to a fertilizer company he owed a half-million. That company sold it to a cattle farmer.

It’s been many years since Albert Farms planted potatoes in Worthington. The roof on the potato storage barn caved in and the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw a cleanup of pesticides and asbestos found at the farm. A third generation will not be taking over.

Ben and his wife, Frances, lost their grand home with the tall columns. He died last year. She died before him.

The last year we lived in Worthington someone grew squash at the Jones Lot and in September a team of migrant workers picked most of the crop by hand. The rest was left to rot on the ground along with the plants.

Another piece for Redneck’s Revenge and Other True Stories.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *