A Farmer’s Life
Michael Smolak is a steward of a multigenerational farm in North Andover.
By Alexandra Pecci
Michael Smolak has a memory of bedtime as a child on his family farm in North Andover, where he grew up with his parents, grandparents, and siblings all in one house. The family would call out to each other before going to sleep as they lay in bed at night, their bedroom doors flung open in the 300-year-old homestead. “It was like the Waltons,” he says. “We would say goodnight to each other, but it was in Polish.”
Memories are everywhere on the farm, from the Native American arrowheads found on the property that date back thousands of years to the “For Sale” sign in the attic that was taken down when his grandparents—Polish immigrants Martin and Magdalenna Smolak—bought the farm in 1927. Memories are in the farm’s pine grove, where couples have exchanged their wedding vows; in its antique apple orchard; and carried within families who mark the seasons year after year by picking their own berries, apples, pumpkins, and Christmas trees.
So many of those memories are woven into Michael Smolak’s life and the land itself. But he’s still making memories, and working as hard as ever to make the farm profitable and continue his family’s legacy of farming the land. “People say, ‘You’ve lived here your whole life,’” he says. “And I smile and say, ‘Not yet.’”
Smolak understood decades ago that “in eastern Massachusetts…growing fruits and vegetables and berries really isn’t profitable.” Instead, it’s the “ancillary things” that make money. And Smolak Farms has become really good at those ancillary things. “I’m good at some things and I’m bad at other things,” he says. “I’m not good at figures and employee management. I do it, but only because I have to.” But he is good at innovating and marketing, and it shows.
The Smolaks built a farm stand with a bakery in 1985. They host kids’ birthday parties and welcome hundreds of schoolkids who visit on field trips to take hayrides, pick apples, and learn where their food comes from. There’s a playground and an animal area with alpacas, llamas, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, rabbits, and deer. There are always special events, like doll tea parties; fall festivals every autumn weekend, and trick-or-treat hayrides; weekly story and craft times during the summer; and gingerbread workshops, visits with Santa, and Christmas tree lighting to celebrate the holidays. There’s also a CSA, as well as a sister farm in Boxford called Small Ox Farm, a play on a common mispronunciation of Smolak Farms.
Smolak Farms also provides a venue for bigger events like weddings and the Whim Dinner Series, an elegant summertime farm-to-table dinner series that enlists renowned local chefs to create multicourse meals using the farm’s produce. “If I sound a little groggy, it’s because I was up hosting it until about ten,” Smolak says the day after the last Whim Dinner of the season, featuring Turner’s Seafood executive chef Yale Woodson.
Smolak even talks about venturing into the world of TV. “I want to do a farm reality TV show,” he says, and it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s joking. “I want to give the Kardashians a little bit of competition.”
Yet Smolak is not only investing in his own life’s work; he’s also deeply concerned with history and legacy. He’s dedicated to preserving the memory of those who came before him and securing the future for those who’ll come after him.
Carol Majahad, executive director of the North Andover Historical Society, has known Smolak for 30 years and worked with him on an ambitious project to interview North Andover farm families about their memories. Now the historical society is home to a treasure trove of recorded interviews, rare documents, and photographs. The archive reveals stories about the farms and what life was like for those who lived on them. For example, the interviewees remember getting electricity for the first time in the 1930s, and learning that the government was keeping tabs on Italian-Americans during WWII because the United States was at war with Italy.
“We’re forever grateful to Michael that he came up with this idea and was able to push it through,” Majahad says. “The thing about Michael is that he has a real sense of community and wanting to save it.”
Smolak was eager to capture the stories of farmers who came before him. History, he says, is an important teacher, but it “disappears really quickly.” “Here are these stories from these farmers that really would like to be told,” he adds. “And maybe a part of me wants to be remembered for what I did here. Three generations from now, no one will remember my name or me.”
Clearly, Smolak is also looking toward the future. He is a board member of Land For Good, a nonprofit farmland access organization, and is a presidential appointee for the Farm Service Agency State Committee in Massachusetts. Much of his own farm’s land has been preserved as part of a Massachusetts program that will ensure it will always be open land.
Jim Hafner, executive director of Land For Good, says Smolak—who runs a profitable and successful multigenerational family farm and a has wide circle of influence in his community—has been a valuable voice and representative for the organization, including furthering its work helping farmers with succession planning and farmland preservation.
The issue is a critical one. Land For Good’s data shows that 90 percent of these retiring farmers don’t have a young farmer lined up to take over, but want their land to stay in farming. “He’s always willing to open doors and make connections for us and our work,” Hafner says. “We know he will always be in our corner as an organization.”
As for Smolak, he’s thinking about his own succession planning. He has no children of his own, but a niece and nephew have expressed interest in taking up the reins. He says he’d be thrilled if somebody in the family took over. “I’m 66 years old. I should be thinking about retiring. What does retiring really mean?” he asks.
For Smolak, it will mean securing the farm’s future and enjoying life, friends, traveling, and dining. “I love history, I love art, I love theatre.… I’ve never been bored one day in my life, and I don’t expect to be, ever,” he says. “I just don’t know how I’m going to fit everything I want to do in this life in the time that I have, but I’ll make a good run at it.” smolakfarms.com