As a teenager, Matthew Kozazcki loved the land so much that he rode his bike to Marini Farm in Ipswich to work in the fields and learn the ins and outs of farming. As an adult, he abandoned a good job in construction on moral grounds. “I never liked [construction] because I couldn’t stand seeing land, especially good farmland, being used for housing,” says Kozazcki. “So when they were ripping it up, I just couldn’t take it.”
Today, we have Kozazcki and his love of the land to thank for the orchards and pastures that open up outside the close quarters of Newburyport. Kozazcki owns Tendercrop Farm, a popular farm stand he started in Newbury 30 years ago on 30 acres, realizing a childhood dream. These days, Kozazcki farms some 800 acres—some of which he owns, some he leases—growing vegetables, flowers, and fruit, as well as raising cattle, pigs, and chickens.
The beloved stand in Newbury is now the middle sibling, size-wise, in Kozazcki’s collection of three area farms: Last fall, he leased a popular farm stand and 15 acres from the Petronzio family to form Tendercrop Farm at Canaan in Wenham, and two years ago, he purchased one of America’s longest continually operated farms, founded in 1632—the 500-acre Tendercrop Farm at the Red Barn in Dover. “I know how hard it is to clear land and turn it into a good piece of property for farming,” says Kozazcki, in reference to his recent buying binge. “It takes a huge amount of effort.”
What Kozazcki learned as a teenager sowing seeds in Ipswich continues to serve him today. His farming practices haven’t changed much through the years, he says, though decades of experience have allowed him to cut back dramatically on the amount of pesticides Tendercrop uses.
“There are a lot of crops now that I don’t have to spray at all,” Kozazcki says. He’s also invented ways to provide reasonably priced, locally grown greens well beyond the strictures of New England weather, using specially designed greenhouses that use less energy while extending the growing season. Kozazcki’s greenhouses have a ceiling that can be lowered, thereby diminishing the amount of heat required to keep them warm and enabling him to offer fresh lettuce and spinach to customers well into winter and very early in the spring. And he soon plans to use a greenhouse at the Dover Tendercrop facility to start growing tomatoes year-round.
Tendercrop already sells a bounty of produce, the percentage grown by Kozazcki’s team changes with the seasons. Gorgeous displays of dried flowers—98 percent of which are grown at Tendercrop—hang from the rafters and pack the second-floor gift loft of the Newbury location. Mark Kozazcki, Matthew’s twin brother who has worked at the farm stand since its inception, manages the flower seeds and much of the other planting at the facility. In early spring, he was preparing to turn over a greenhouse—normally used to grow spinach—to 12,000 sunflower seedlings, planted by hand one seed at a time.
The twins aren’t the only family members involved in the operation. Their sister Heidi, after selling her share in the original operation to Matthew a few years ago, rejoined the business to handle the books after Matthew acquired the Dover property, which more than doubled their operation. Matthew’s son, Garret, is involved in just about every aspect of the farm, and Matthew’s stepdaughter, Andrea Stella helps manage all the stores. Her brother, Zach Stella, also works full-time in the operation.
Even employees who are not blood relatives are treated like family, notes Danielle Baker, who is in charge of the bakery and prepared foods line. “Matt is a good person to work for,” she says, noting that when employees run into hardships, from fires to illness, Kozazcki and the rest of the staff always pitch in to make sure everyone is taken care of.
Despite being only 22 years old, Baker has logged nearly two decades at Tendercrop—she stood on a milk crate helping to make donuts when she was just two years old, working alongside her mother, who now manages the bakery in Dover, and can talk confidently about the store’s quickly growing array of prepared foods, from pies and banana bread to pasta and sauerkraut, all made in-house.
The involvement of the next generation clearly brings joy to Kozazcki—and hope that the farmland he tills will be preserved. “I’m trying to encourage young people that they shouldn’t be afraid to try [to make a living from farming]. Once the farms are gone, they won’t be coming back,” he says. “You don’t see houses getting ripped down to plant beans.”