Along Route 110 in the tiny village of Still River, Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston, sits a small building where passers-by stock up on produce—corn, tomatoes and flowers in the summer; vegetable plants in the spring; and pumpkins, gourds and squash in the fall. If they’re lucky, they’ll meet brothers Paul and Wendell Willard as the two farmers lay out that day’s harvest.
After 350 years and many generations, however, the farm’s future is in doubt. Photographer Ellen Harasimowicz has been documenting what she refers to as the “long, slow ending of the farm” in her ongoing project, Living Like Grass, that will be on exhibit in Concord, Massachusetts, in May. Their story is far from unique; in Massachusetts, family or individually owned farms represent nearly 80 percent of the commonwealth’s stock, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture (2017).
The Willard family has lived and farmed in Still River since 1676; to say that they have built a community is both literally and figuratively true. According to Harasimowicz, the Willards have grown a loyal following, selling their produce only at the farm stand and using an honor system. “People appreciate the neighborly feel this service provides,” she writes. “You weigh your tomatoes, do the math, and leave the money—the big bills go in a slot in the safe—or you can make change in the wooden box with smaller bills. Sometimes people leave an IOU. I always round up. I think many people do.”
Alas, Paul, 80, and Wendell, 74, are growing closer to retirement, and they say dependable help is difficult to find. Their 65-year-old farmhand died in January, and a young man Paul was training left for another job. Operating expenses are rising, weather extremes are causing erratic crop yields, and it’s unlikely any next-generation Willards will be taking up the family business.
“Today, the cost of producing anything is way out of line,” Paul tells Harasimowicz. “A dollar gets spent almost before you earn it because of the cost of pesticides, diesel fuel, labor, insurance—everything has gone up. You can only get so much for a tomato.”
There’s a great beauty and a quiet sadness reflected in Harasimowicz’s project. For the past three years, she has documented the Willards and their farm, one she’s been returning to for more than 25 years to buy her produce. It’s important to her to visualize Americans’ personal connections to the land and to food, which are rapidly dissolving. In all probability, the 17-acre Willard Farm will not continue; at the very least, Paul and Wendell will likely be the last Willards to farm this land.
Photographs from Living Like Grass will be on display in an exhibition at the Three Stones Gallery in Concord starting May 10. Harasimowicz spoke with Smithsonian about her project via email below.
What initially drew you to the Willard family?
I have been buying produce at the Willard’s farm stand since moving to Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1991. I often saw Paul unloading his baskets of corn on the table or buffing gourds with a soft cloth. He enjoys spending time at the roadside stand talking with his customers. We became friends.
What’s your favorite thing to get at Willard Farm?
Oh, the corn. Their corn is so sweet. And they have multiple kinds.
What drew you to farms as a photographic subject?
I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts and didn’t have a connection to farming, but when I was young, my mother used to stop at a local farmstead to buy corn on our way home from the beach.
What were their initial reactions when you asked to photograph them?
The first time I asked to photograph them was 20 years ago. The farm is a visual gold mine. When I asked again three years ago, they said, “Of course.”
What was the most challenging thing about photographing this project?
Finding new things to photograph, because there’s a lot of repetition at the farm. They do the same tasks daily, monthly, yearly. That’s also a benefit at the same time, because I could go there, see them performing a task, and say, “I want to come back when it’s cloudy or when there’s brighter light.” It was also: How do I really show the hard work, the overwhelmingness of farm work?
What is the biggest difference between the farm 20 years ago and today?
I wasn’t paying close attention to how much land was farmed back then, but there’s been a big change in the last three years. In 2020, Paul farmed two fields on his property and three more on leased land once owned by the Willard family. By 2021, he no longer farmed one of the two corn fields on leased land, and last year he planted fewer pumpkins on the remaining leased land. Usually by this time, the old plastic that keeps down weeds was removed to get the fields ready for tilling, Paul’s favorite farm chore. But the old plastic is still there.
You didn’t just make current-day images, but you also did a deep dive researching the Willards’ history, their family tree, the history of the land. What was that process?
At first, when I went to the farm I was making more conceptual images. But then, when Paul told me the history of the farm and how far back it went, I was really intrigued by that. When he said, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” I decided the direction I needed to go: I need to honor this family. This is coming to an end soon.
I went over to the historical society, which is literally across the street and over a house or two—that used to be on Willard land—and started doing some research into the farm. They have this huge genealogy book. The very first Willard to own this land was Simon Willard. He’s known all over Massachusetts. The show I’m having is in Concord, and Simon was one of the founders of the town. He was also on the Board of Overseers at Harvard College, and two of his heirs became Harvard College presidents, and that’s how this town got its name, Harvard. It seemed to be such a rich history that once this farm ends, I felt it should be honored for everything that it was and still is.
What’s been the most surprising thing you discovered during this project?
I’ve been surprised to see just how damaging the wild fluctuations in weather have impacted the crops. One summer, we experienced a lot of rain and cloudy skies. For weeks, we rarely saw the sun. Paul said that the rain was manageable, but crops don’t grow without sunlight. They had a very light yield that summer. The following year was bone dry. The tomatoes and smaller produce grow in irrigated fields, but the corn does not. There was hardly any corn last year and no giant pumpkins.
Does Eleanor, the only member of the next generation of the Willards, have any desire to stay on the farm?
The question of what will become of the farm is a very complicated and painful one for Eleanor. They are an academic and a writer, and their family wants them to pursue their passions. Eleanor has no interest in farming themself, but they don’t want to see the farm disappear. They now live in New York State and miss home all the time. The family wants to hold on to the property, if at all possible, so they can live out their days here and leave it for Eleanor to do with it as they wish.
What do you hope viewers come to understand when they look at these images?
I hope viewers will have compassion for how difficult things are for small family farmers. In addition to dealing with changing weather patterns, they have the challenge of finding young people to help in the fields. I want people to consider where their food comes from and support local growers. And I want people to think of what it means to be deeply rooted in a place like many of our ancestors were.
What’s your next project?
I am continuing to make images at the farm. Things have definitely slowed down, but work is still going on. I’m in it for the duration.
I am also part of a newly formed international group of artists, scientists, students and other experts focusing on how to better see, connect and amplify the “transformation” systems of the Casco Bay Bioregion in Maine. We’re looking specifically at the seagrass ecosystems. Eelgrass meadows are home to a staggering number of fish and invertebrates. Seagrass can take up nitrogen from the water and sequester carbon by burying it in the sediments. These meadows also serve like a lawn in the estuary, reducing the effects of storms, waves and the erosion they can create.