BILLERICA — With the exception of the four years William “Billy” Griggs lived at UMass Amherst while earning his horticulture degree, he’s spent every day of his nearly 75 years living on the farm that bears his name from family.
The iconic farmhouse at 599 Boston Road is under threat due to tax problem, threatening the place Griggs calls home. He says he doesn’t know what the future holds or his story 25 acre farmand 30 adjacent acres which he leases for additional farming.
“The city basically said they wanted $32,000 a year in taxes,” Griggs said Tuesday as he strolled through his fields that were still wet from much-needed rain the previous night. “Someone up there at City Hall says it’s all commercial land, not farmland. They’ve been coming for me for five years. They want $300,000.
Nearly half of this amount is made up of accrued interest.
Farmland can be taxed at a much lower rate than land assessed for residential or commercial purposes. Appraisers use a “use value appraisal” to help preserve farmland and encourage local food production. This method of taxation allows land to be valued based on its use in agriculture rather than its full market value, and can reduce property taxes on farmland.
It is unclear if Griggs Farm is already taxed by the city by this metric. Numerous attempts to reach city leaders to determine what tax base was applied to the property failed. Calls to the assessors office were directed to city treasurer John Clark, who were directed to the select committee office, who were directed to city manager John Curran, who did not return the messages left for him.
At his farm on Tuesday, Griggs bent down to fix a chewed-up irrigation line leading to the chrysanthemums that he said was caused by the coyotes that live near the pond on his land. Muddy paw prints marked the path of their nocturnal vandalism. Griggs pulled a knife from the front pocket of his worn jeans, cut the casing, attached a new tube, then reinserted the spout into the pot. Irrigation lines snaked through the vast mother field, each branching off to a plant.
Griggs grew up on the farm, born a few years after his father, Gilbert, bought it in 1943. Like many farmers, Billy Griggs can make or fix just about anything on the spot. His work can be seen throughout the property, from the 14 large, distinctive greenhouses that dot the property to the farm stand that greets patrons arriving from the parking lot.
The woods are home to wildlife including deer, hawks, coyotes, turkeys and small land animals. It is an oasis of biodiversity on the outskirts of a city trying to balance planned growth against urban sprawl.
As early as 2006, Griggs Land was the last active vegetable farm in the city. Merrimack Valley Apiary, owned by the third generation Card family, operates their 55 acre bee farm on Dudley Road. In 2016, the apiary was the source of complaints from neighbors about bee droppings.
In summer, the greenhouses host products for sale: vegetables and herbs from the farm. In winter, they incubate winter crops until the spring planting season. The farm is open every day, all year round and offers seasonal farm products.
Despite the sweltering heat of the day, the temperature under the plastic-covered greenhouses was comfortable.
“It’s infrared plastic. The rays of the sun that come in as infrared are reflected from above. Also in winter, the inner layer of this greenhouse,” Griggs said, pointing to an adjacent structure, “is infrared and will reflect heat back into the greenhouse to keep the seedlings warm.
He worked side by side with his father, who died in 2006 at age 88. Griggs also worked closely with Bob Tobey, who had lived on a farm on the property since 1981. Tobey died in April; Griggs and his team are still mourning his passing.
According to Select Board documents, the tax payable on the farm is over $288,000, with accrued interest of $88 per day. Select Board Secretary Kim Conway said at the July 18 meeting that Griggs Farm “was no longer a farm. They bring plants to sell.
Board member Michael Rosa said he hopes the city will still work with Griggs, saying “there’s a lot of history on the farm.”
Natalie Kelsey of Billerica is one of eight employees working on the farm. She said Conway’s comments were both confusing and hurtful.
“I found those comments really offensive,” Kelsey said, crossing her arms. She has worked on the farm for eight years. Her children, Aidan, 19, and Bee, 21, also work on the farm between their school commitments.
“They said we weren’t a farm because we brought our plants from somewhere else. We don’t grow our own Christmas trees, and we sell them,” Kelsey said, noting that it’s the only product imported from elsewhere. “It’s a farm. It was a farm long before the Griggs owned it. It’s been a farm for at least that long, and it’s never stopped being a farm.
Kelsey demonstrated what she called a “seed sucker” machine set up in another greenhouse. She flicked a switch and the machines came to life, shaking violently from side to side.
“Billy is spending all of December here,” Kelsey said. “This machine has vacuum suction, so it sucks up all the seeds and spits them out into each individual cup of each tray. This tray holds 144 plants. The eight of us who work here have planted thousands and thousands of plants on the farm this year. It’s a farm.”
Griggs Farm grows tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, garlic, rhubarb, apples, and annual and perennial flowers. Billy Griggs also plants numerous milkweed plants throughout the property for monarch butterfly migration and conservation. Kelsey said the farm is also a valuable source of plants for various communities in the area.
“We have tulsi, or holy basil, for our Indian and Cambodian customers, lemongrass and bok choy for Asian cuisine,” Kelsey said. “We can get seeds for some highly sought-after Asian vegetables. We have an abundance of beautiful fig trees that customers say they can’t find anywhere else.
Kelsey added that “Billy’s knowledge of plants, plant diseases and planting practices is an invaluable resource to the community that he freely shares with anyone who asks about his garden or yard.”
On Tuesday, a reporter took a guided tour with Griggs of his grounds, including the ‘mums patch’ where nearly 10,000 mums lined the landscape behind the greenhouses, laid out in perfectly straight rows on a black polypropylene woven groundcover . The cover traps weeds but lets moisture through. The thousands of pots contained naturally growing mothers of rooted cuttings that had all been planted by hand.
The drought hurt Griggs’ corn crop, but he said he was happy with the progress of his mother’s plants.
Boots, a 7-year-old black and white farm cat, trailed behind Griggs. He keeps the tuxedo cat indoors at night, away from coyotes, who he says would “stick” him.
“Mums are basically mid-September through October,” Griggs explained. He emphasized the voluminous branching of each plant. “They will grow very fast in the next few weeks – 12 to 18 inches tall.”
A resident of Billerica came to the farm stand to inquire about moms. She seemed surprised that she couldn’t have moms on the farm, because “Market Basket already has them”.
“The ones you buy from the chain stores have been tricked into thinking it’s fall,” Griggs patiently explained to her. “Natural flowering mums are not shady to arrive early. Shading means that you put a black cloth over the plant that excludes light for about five weeks until there is color in the bud. It’s a horrible year to do this with the heat because they’re going to dry up. I don’t overshadow my mothers so that they don’t arrive early.
The woman wondered when the naturally flowering mums would be ready. Griggs told him that the sale starts on Monday, August 29.
Loyalty to the idea of a local farm is deeply rooted in the region if the Griggs Farm Friends The Facebook page followed by more than 600 people is any guide. Decades ago, in an effort led by Gilbert Griggs, residents rallied to preserve the undeveloped land adjacent to the Griggs farm that was leased by the family.
In a classic David vs. Goliath contest, Wal-Mart tried to buy those 30 acres along Boston Road. Working with city officials, Griggs won a land court decision that allowed Griggs and the city, with the help of the Trust for public lands, to preserve the property. Griggs invested $1 million to buy the property and preserve the land for farming. Billerica residents supported the cause by voting to spend $720,000 of city money to help with the purchase.
Today, a sign on Boston Road commemorates this cooperative effort.
It all seems so long ago, with the city indicating that it will remove the suspended status for Griggs Farm properties and continue the process of seizing tax title.
Asked about the tax issue, Griggs, a man of few words if the conversation isn’t about farming or plants, says little.
Without her corn crop, Griggs depends on moms to sell. “I’ll see what next year brings,” he said, as he bent down to fix another chewed-up irrigation line.