In the spring, the Chace farm on Birchswamp Road comes alive with peepers so deafening that some nights you can scarcely hear anything else. Days grow longer and summer brings hay, fireflies and corn. Autumn is marked with family hayrides and bonfires. And during this winter season that two weeks ago saw the close of Bob “Buster” Chace’s life, the land is stark, white and cold — but still beautiful.
“You come here, and instantly your problems go away,” Bob’s son Matt said. “Even feeling the breeze is enough. I want my kid’s kids to see this place, how special it is. We’re going to try.”
Mr. Chace, 68, died in early January after a short fight with liver cancer, though he’d had health problems for some time. A lifelong farmer who grew up on the family farm, the land was etched into every part of him. It showed in his mannerisms and habits and clothes, and sometimes he said the deep wrinkles in his face came from squinting against the glare coming off his old white tractor.
Along with family and friends, the farm’s 130 acres were everything to Mr. Chace and he never stopped working them, even after he sold off his dairy herd in the 1990s and concentrated on haying and other income generators. But his longtime partner, Joetta Kirk, said he always worried that the third generation of Chaces would be the one to lose it.
Now, Joetta and his children Matt, Bob, Thomas and Jessica, are trying to prevent that from happening. They’re brainstorming new ways to bring income into the farm, and have established a fund-raising page for the restoration of the property’s old, yet vital buildings.
The farm is enormous, one of the largest tracts of privately-owned farmland left in the East Bay. It’s been in the Chace family since 1946, and they are only the second to run it — the original family, the Masons, laid out the farm after getting a charter from the King of England in the late 1600s.
Not much has changed since then. There are woods, ponds, trails and plenty of history — somewhere in the woods there’s an old plaque on the spot where Roger Williams once camped.
Still, it hasn’t been fully functional for some time. Though the family leases out space on the property to Windswept Farm, an equestrian center, rents several fields for vegetable farmers and sells hay, they need more to sustain the place into the future. Several of the property’s key buildings are in need of repair, and the work won’t be cheap.
The main issues are taxes and deed restrictions. Though the land is farmed, Warren is not a part of the state program that provides tax breaks for farmers who work their land; because of that, the farm pays about $200 per week just in taxes, Joetta said. There are also restrictions on what the land can and can’t be used for, as the state purchased development rights to the property back in 1985.
Making enough to keep the property in the black, while respecting Mr. Chace’s life and the farm’s unique nature, is the aim.
They are not yet at the point where they’re ready to make concrete plans, but Joetta and the children decided soon after Mr. Chace’s death that they would do what they can to save the place while opening it up to people who have never known what it’s like to spend the days roaming the fields. It’s magic, they say.
Though they’ll continue to lease space to Windswept farm and its owner, their long-time friend Michaela Scanlon, Ms. Kirk said the idea is also to try to use other parts of the property for other activities — like weddings, memorial services, private functions, retreats, gatherings and hiking.
“If we want to keep the farm in the Chace family, we have to have a new direction,” Joetta said.
“Making lots of money is not our goal. None of us are farmers; I am, but I am beyond the point where I want to be out on the tractor 12 hours a day. Sure, I’d love to be involved in the haying; that’s freedom personified. But I can’t, so what I want to do with our brains and our brawn is make the farm into a place where people are welcome.”
Key to that is rehabbing the buildings, most crucially the hay barn, to protect the farm’s income and also provide a place for functions, gatherings and other outside activities.
Though Mr. Chace was an expert at patching the old barn here and propping there, it’s time for an overhaul. Its roof is failing and needs to be replaced, and the sides need shingling and structural work. Getting that building shored up as soon as possible is crucial, Matt said, because without it the farm’s hay is worthless.
Matt lives in Brooklyn, Conn., where he moved years ago with his wife, and commutes to his Harley Davidson motorcycle shop in Auburn, Mass. daily. But he comes to the farm as often as possible and sees that increasing.
“You pull into the drive and suddenly you’re at ease.”
He’s not ready to leave Brooklyn yet, but hopes to start helping out around the farm part time come spring and summer. If haying is going to continue he’s going to need to be there, he said.
Finding help won’t be a problem. Growing up a Chace meant that people were always around:
Area farmers were invited for coffee every day at 3:30 p.m. An entire family from down the street moved in for a few months after their home burned down. And a Northern Ireland girl, a total stranger to the family, ended up there for a summer in the 1980s after Mr. Chace heard about the troubles there and decided to do something.
The family’s openness has stayed with all of them, even through Mr. Chace’s sickness and passing. As word spread of his death earlier this month, a steady stream of friends, whom Matt calls “surrogate” family members, filled the house for days, laughing and crying, telling stories and remembering a man with a sharp but kind wit who loved animals and made friends easily.
Though it has been tough, the family is now trying to put itself in position to honor both the farm and Mr. Chace’s memory, Joetta said.
“When I think about it the future is very scary, but we’re not … none of us thinks in terms of money. It isn’t our first purpose in life. What I’m hoping for is that this farm can sustain itself. People who come here are blown away by the serenity and the peace and the love here. I just want to share that. It’s hard for people in today’s life to feel anything but pressure, but when you step foot on this farm, it’s gone.”
Bob Chace’s family plans to hold a celebration of his life some time during the summer, when the hay will be high.