PEPPERELL — Growing the state’s largest tomato is just one of the ways that Kimball’s Fruit Farm remains visible to its customers. Hard work is required to make a success of the family farm.
Booths at 12 farmers markets in the Boston area, the colorful farm stand, and sales to the region’s top restaurants mean that third-generation owner Carl Hills is busy.
“You’ve got to live it when you’re in-season,” Hills said. “If you don’t, you’re in trouble.”
Every night he drives to Boston, delivering the farm-fresh produce to farmers markets. Then, it’s back to the farm in time to get the seasonal employees into the fields. In all, Hills works between 90 and 100 hours each week.
“So, it becomes your life. It can be a lucrative life, if you do it right,” he said.
That means plowing profits back into the land.
A tractor-drawn trailer was purchased after a particularly good apple year. It’s used to bring pick-your-own visitors to the crops.
The irrigation system, with a mile of underground piping, allowed healthy crops during this summer of drought. It was a joint project. Hills provided the labor. The materials came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“In some ways, the government’s good,” he said to folks from Post 390 in Boston’s Back Bay. They rode through the fields with Hills as he explained the produce he grows and they prepare and serve.
Diversification is key, he said. Tomatoes of all colors, orchards of heirloom apples. Green beans, flat beans, yellow bean, purple beans. Three colors of seedless grapes.
And, what could have been three $33,333.33 peaches.
Hills expected a $100,000 peach crop, but a mid-February freeze killed the crop. They picked three peaches.
The farm didn’t really lose all that money, he said. He had insurance that covered part of the loss. He beefed up some other crops to cover losses.
“I love to try different crops,” Hills said.
Hills experiments. When he decided to go into hydroponically-grown tomatoes, the local universities had no help to offer. So, he researched online.
The first two years, the vines were plagued with mold, but the farmer figured it out. Now, a computerized system keeps the moisture level just right for the 20-foot tall plants.
Chris Himmel, owner of Post 390 and other restaurants in the Boston area, is a frequent visitor to the farm that supplies some of his restaurants’ needs. Over the years, he and Hills have become quite friendly, he said. Whitney Hills, Carl’s daughter did an externship and now works in Himmel’s restaurant.
Hills is not in the business alone. In addition to family members, he employs three people during the winter. They take care of all the winter operations.
“You’ve got to be surrounded by good help,” Hills said.
During the season, 38 full-time workers labor long days in the sun. Many are Jamaicans on a temporary agricultural visa. That means maintaining living quarters for the workers who have been coming to the farm on the Pepperell/Hollis N.H. line since 1985.
The personal connections that Hills and his wife Marie make with their workers mean they are not treated like typical tourists when they decamp for 11 weeks in Jamaica during the winter, Hills said.
But, until then, his 90-hour work week is routine.
“In a nutshell, it’s not a job. It’s your life,” Hills said.
Kimball’s Fruit Farm is located at 184 Hollis St., Pepperell on the New Hampshire state line. The farm offers pick-your-own pumpkins and apples and an array of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables.
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