Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

July 11, 2013

Out to pasture

End of an era for Strawberry Hill Farm

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@andovertownsman.com

---- — Every day, Peter Loosigian drives to Andover from his home in Pelham, N.H., to walk around the farm he grew up on.

The fields are now filled with wildflowers. A single row of rhubarb, growing where his father planted the perennial several years ago, has sprouted up through the fertile soil.

The Strawberry Hill Farm stand at 254 Lowell St., once bustling with activity, is now closed. An assortment of plows, pulled by old tractors or Loosigian’s even older late father, are collecting dust inside several buildings scattered across the 10 acres of softly rolling land.

Over the winter, Loosigian’s father — longtime farmer and namesake Peter Ohan Loosigian — passed away after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 91.

His son, 58, inherited the property and is now wrestling with its future.

“I’m still here, walking around,” Loosigian said on a recent, sunny day. “I was going to mow the fields, but my wife said, ‘Don’t mow them. There are wildflowers and milkweed and the bees and butterflies need something to eat.’ ”

For nearly a century, a Loosigian has tilled, seeded and harvested the Lowell Street land, which is sandwiched between two churches and backs up to a subdivision.

The elder Peter Loosigian worked the farm for most of his 91 years. His mother and father worked it before that.

The younger Peter Loosigian toyed with the idea of carrying on the family tradition, but says it’s just not his thing.

“The way I look at it, it wouldn’t be much of a farm without a farmer,” he said. “My father was Strawberry Hill. My mother ran the farm stand for years. After she passed away, we did what we could without her.

“Now that he has passed away ... I’m just not a farmer. You can’t be a farmer unless it’s in your blood. You can try, but it just wouldn’t work.”

The time has come for the latest generation of Loosigians to consider selling.

“I feel like I’m doing something wrong,” Peter Loosigian said. “I spent years taking care of this stuff.”

A family’s legacy

Standing in one of the sheds, Peter Loosigian looked around at the agricultural implements, some hanging from big beams, others neatly stowed on the floor.

Many of the items could be housed in a museum.

There’s a weed-remover known as a scuffle hoe from Planet Junior. “Commercial farmers stopped using them 40 to 50 years ago,” he said. “My father kept using them.”

The so-called “new tractor” in the barn was purchased in 1959 from Boston Children’s Hospital, where it had been used as a snow plow.

And then there’s the red and white Ford truck, from 1967, with the rebuilt motor.

Plus, there are countless stories that go with the land and the man who worked it.

Loosigian and his sister Lisa, 64, recalled the time their father and grandmother got into a huge argument over the apple trees that once stood on the land.

Their grandmother, “Andover Annie,” as she was known, was a fiercely independent and strong-willed woman who from the back of a horse-drawn wagon sold produce from the farm to merchants in Andover in the 1920s and ’30s.

As their grandmother grew older, their father took over the farming and began making some decisions himself. One day, he decided it was too difficult to plow around the apple trees, which his mother had nurtured over the years, so he cut them down.

“I just remember a lot of yelling that day,” Lisa Loosigian said. “My grandmother let him have it.”

Then there was the time a neighbor’s dog got into the chicken coop and killed all the chickens.

The next night, their father waited in the chicken coop for the dog to reappear.

“He got rid of him,” Lisa Loosigian said. Then he demolished the chicken coop.

“His main interest was in the fields,” Peter Loosigian said.

They recalled the time some neighborhood kids were growing marijuana in one corner of the farm. And they recounted the story of their grandmother selling homemade moonshine during Prohibition.

“She’d hide it in the bushes and the guys from Sid White’s dairy farm would come down, leave money and take the moonshine,” Lisa Loosigian said.

But what Lisa, Peter and their brother, Jon, 60, remember more than anything is the work. They all started pitching in at the farm at a young age.

“We were all farmhands,” said Lisa Loosigian, who now lives in North Andover and runs the Dover Press printing company with her husband. “We worked whether we felt like it or not.”

She added, “It was all about the work.”

Her father even inspected his children’s little fingers at the end of a day in the fields, looking for red stains on their fingertips, a sure sign that they were squeezing the raspberries too hard as they plucked them from the thorny bushes.

Their mother, Alice, also got into the act.

A fixture at the farmstand for many years, the former Alice Arozian was an “attractive and vivacious art school graduate from Watertown,” Lisa Loosigian wrote in a remembrance to her father that was published in The Townsman earlier this year.

Instead of heading off to New York City to pursue her passion, she poured her heart and soul into the farm.

“People who didn’t know her figured she was a farm stand lady,” Peter Loosigian said. “She was a very talented artist, but she couldn’t pursue that.”

Despite the hard work and sacrifice, the Loosigians have fond memories of their days growing up on the farm.

“At the end of the day, he’d throw us in the truck and we’d go get ice cream or go play baseball,” Lisa Loosigian said of her father.

The next chapter

Peter Ohan Loosigian’s death hit his family hard.

“I thought he was going to live to 100,” his daughter said. “It was a total shock he died.”

Indeed, the elder Loosigian seemed like an indomitable presence on the farm and in his family’s lives.

After the children grew up and moved away, the elder Loosigian tilled the land himself. Townspeople recall him working the land as recently as last season.

“My father did more work than any five men I ever saw,” Peter Loosigian said.

A photograph that ran in the Andover Townsman in 2005 showed Loosigian, then in his 80s, marking corn rows by hauling a wooden, sled-like apparatus behind him — by hand.

Despite the memories, or perhaps because of them, Peter Loosigian can no longer fathom working the land that has been passed down three generations.

“I’m not interested in farming,” he said. “It has to be in your blood. I helped my father farm. I’m not a farmer. My heart’s not in it.”

He admits he’s having a hard time letting go.

“This is where I grew up,” he said. “It’s where my father grew up and where my grandparents came to escape the Muslim Turks.

“People who don’t know my situation go by and see it’s closed and think poorly of me. They think I’m in it for the money. I’m just trying to do the best thing for me and my family. It’s always possible that I end up living here. I don’t know.”

NEXT WEEK: A look at the last working farm in Andover.