BILLERICA — William “Billy” Griggs has lived on the farm that bears his surname for almost 75 years, not including four years where he lived at UMass Amherst while earning a degree in Horticulture.
The landmark mansion at 599 Boston Road is in jeopardy due to tax issues threatening the place Griggs calls home. He says he doesn’t know what the future holds for him, his storied 25-acre farm, and his adjacent 30-acre he leases for additional farming.
“The town basically said it needed $32,000 a year in taxes,” Griggs said Tuesday as he walked through his fields, still wet from the coveted rains of the previous night. They say this is all business, not farmland.They have been coming for me for the last five years.They want $300,000.”
About half of that is accrued interest.
Agricultural land may be taxed at a much lower rate than land assessed for residential or commercial use. Appraisers use “use value assessments” to protect agricultural land and promote local food production. This method of taxation allows land to be valued according to its agricultural use rather than the total market value of the land, reducing property taxes on agricultural land.
According to this indicator, it’s not clear if Griggs Farm is already taxed by the town. Numerous attempts to contact town leaders to determine what tax base applies to the property were unsuccessful. A call to the Assessor’s Office was directed to Town Treasurer John Clarke, which was directed to the Select Board’s office, which was directed to Town Manager John Curran, who had a message left for him. I didn’t return it.
At his farm on Tuesday, Griggs bent down to fix a gnawed irrigation line leading to chrysanthemums that he said was caused by a coyote that lives by a pond on his property. , showing traces of their nocturnal vandalism. Griggs took a jackknife from his pocket on the front of his worn-out jeans, trimmed the casing, installed a new tube, and put the spout back into the pot. Irrigation channels meandered across vast fields of mum, each branching out into vegetation.
Griggs grew up on the farm where he was born a few years after his father Gilbert bought the farm in 1943. His handiwork can be seen everywhere, such as the 14 unique large vinyl greenhouses scattered around the premises and the direct sales shop that welcomes visitors from the parking lot.
The forest is home to wildlife such as deer, hawks, coyotes, turkeys and small ground animals. It is an oasis of biodiversity on the edge of town trying to balance planned growth with urban sprawl.
As far back as 2006, the Griggs land was already the last working vegetable farm in town. Merrimack Valley Apiary, owned by the third generation Card family, operates a 55-acre apiary on Dudley Road. In 2016, the apiary caused complaints from neighbors about bee droppings.
In summer, the greenhouses sell products such as vegetables and herbs grown on the farm. In winter, hatch the winter crops until the spring planting season. The farm is open year-round and offers seasonal produce.
Despite the hot and humid day, it was a comfortable temperature under the greenhouse.
“This is infrared plastic. We put the heat back into the greenhouse to keep it,” Griggs said.
He worked with his father, who died in 2006 at the age of 88. Griggs also worked closely with Bob He Toby, who had lived on the property’s farmhouse since 1981. Toby he died in April. Griggs and his staff still mourn his death.
According to Select Board documents, the farm paid more than $288,000 in taxes and accrued interest at $88 per day. Special Committee Secretary Kim Conway said at the July 18 meeting that Griggs Farm “is no longer a farm. They are bringing in plants to sell.”
“There’s a lot of history on the farm,” said task force member Michael Rosa, who said he hopes the town will work with Griggs.
Billerica’s Natalie Kelsey is one of eight employees working on the farm. She said Conway’s comments were puzzling and hurtful.
“I found those comments really offensive,” said Kelsey, folding her arms. Her children, 19-year-old Aidan and her 21-year-old Bea, also work on the farm between school appointments.
“They said we weren’t a farm because we brought in plants from other places. We don’t grow our own Christmas trees, we sell them,” Kelsey said, adding that was the only product brought in from elsewhere. It is not.”
Kelsey demonstrated what she called a “seed sucker” housed in another greenhouse. When she hit the switch, her machine roared and shook violently from side to side.
“Billy will be here all December,” said Kelsey. “The machine is a vacuum suction so it sucks all the seeds and spit them out into individual cups in each tray. This tray holds 144 plants. I have planted a thousand plants.This is a farm.”
Griggs Farm grows tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, garlic, rhubarb, apples, and annual and perennial flowers. Billy Griggs has also planted numerous milkweeds on the property for the migration and protection of monarch butterflies. Kelsey said the farm is also a valuable source of plants for the region’s diverse communities.
“For our Indian and Cambodian customers, we serve tulsi or holy basil, and for Asian dishes, we serve lemongrass and bok choy,” says Kelsey. “We have the seeds of certain Asian vegetables that are very popular.
Kelsey added, “Billy’s knowledge of plants, plant diseases and how to grow them is an invaluable resource for the community and is freely shared with anyone who asks questions about the garden or garden.”
A reporter joined Mr. Griggs for a guided tour of his estate on Tuesday. These included “mum patches,” where nearly 10,000 mothers line the landscape behind perfectly aligned greenhouses on black polypropylene woven groundcovers. The cover keeps weeds under control but allows moisture to pass through. Thousands of pots had natural growth matrices of rooted cuttings, all planted by hand.
The drought took a toll on Griggs’ corn crop, but he said he was pleased with the progress his mother’s plant was making.
Boots, a 7-year-old black and white farm cat, chased after Griggs.
“Mothers are basically mid-September through October,” Griggs explained. “In the next few weeks, they’ll grow very fast. They’re 12 to 18 inches tall.”
A resident of Billerica came to the farm stand to inquire about his mother. She seemed surprised she couldn’t get her mother on the farm because “the market basket already has a mother.”
“Whatever you buy at a chain store, you’re tricked into thinking it’s fall,” Griggs patiently explained to her. , which means putting a black cloth over the plants that blocks the light for about five weeks until the buds take on color.They dry out, so it’s a scary time of year to do that in the heat. I don’t put awnings on it so it doesn’t.”
The woman wondered when the natural flower mom would be ready.
A loyalty to local farm ideas runs deep in the area, according to the Friends of Griggs Farm Facebook page, which is followed by more than 600 people. Decades ago, an initiative led by Gilbert Griggs rallied residents to protect the undeveloped land adjacent to Griggs Farm, which his family had leased.
In a classic David vs. Goliath contest, Walmart tried to buy 30 acres of land along Boston Road. Working with town officials, Griggs, with the help of the Public Land Trust, won a land court decision allowing Griggs and the town to protect property. Griggs put out his $1 million to buy the land and save it for farming. A resident of Billerica supported the cause by voting to spend his $720,000 of the town’s money to support the purchase.
Today, the Boston Road sign commemorates that collaborative effort.
It all seems like a long time ago, as the town indicates it will remove the pending status of the Griggs Farm property and move forward with the tax foreclosure process.
When asked about tax matters, Griggs says very little if the conversation isn’t about agriculture or plants.
Without a corn harvest, Griggs relies on moms to sell out. “We’ll see what happens next year,” he said, bending down to fix another gnawed irrigation line.