At one point in our history, agriculture was the life-blood of the American economy.
Farming, in some way or another, was how a large portion of the population earned their living, and it stayed that way for hundreds of years. Even as recent as the 1940's, the number of farmers in parts of the United States was still growing. Eventually, breakthroughs in farming technology made the industry more efficient and, along with our urge to urbanize, that thriving community began to decline. Farmers in the Northeast cashed in on development dollars as the housing expansion made its way outside of the big cities and their once vast numbers dwindled. The majority of farmers in the region was almost decimated.
Now, it may be tough to imagine Massachusetts as a hub for agriculture, but the bustling Market District in Boston during the 19th and 20th centuries is certain evidence of it. Also, think about any time you've been walking in the middle of the woods in New England and stumbled onto a stone wall seemingly out of place. Those walls, originally erected to separate acreages, are now basically the fossils of the New England farmer. A once vital industry for the Commonwealth has now been reduced to a group a fraction of its original size.
Luckily for all of us, some of the tougher crop producers fought back and survived the storm of the modern era. Volante Farms, in Needham, Massachusetts, is one of them.
Celebrating its 100th year in business, the grounds of Volante have lived through more cultural change than most of us could experience in two lifetimes. But how did this local farm outlive and outlast so much transition and stay successful for an entire century?
First, Volante Farms has been continuously family owned and operated for all of the one hundred years its been around. There's lots to be said about the shared passion and sense of tradition that family units instinctively hold onto, and this farm is proof of that. Four generations of Volante's deep, the current proprietors are three siblings (Dave, Teri, and Steve), the great-grandchildren of the farm's founder, and they are just as enthusiastic and dedicated to Volante's success as their earlier ancestors were.
Second, Volante has adapted. Not just in our time, in this new millennium, but always. There have been additions of road-side stands, new crop opportunities and expansions, and these types of modernizations have occurred regularly from the farm's opening in the 1900's to the present day.
Volante has never stood by and waited while the tide changed - they moved with it.
The family business was started by Peter Volante, an immigrant from Atina, Italy, who first arrived in Boston in 1900. After finding work in different fields for many years, Peter was hired as a farm hand in 1915 on the Stone Family Farm in the Oak Hill village of Newton, Massachusetts. Two years later, when the younger generation Stones decided they weren't interested in taking over the business, Peter was given the opportunity to start something of his own. He put together every cent he had saved since emigrating to the States and realized he had enough to buy the Stone property for himself. And so he did.
Then, Volante Farms was born.
During these initial years, the Volante operation was mostly a "truck farm" which meant Peter would drive into Boston and sell his yield at the city's legendary markets. He and his wife, Caterina, were quickly successful too, and their family, which by now included seven children, were growing. Business did so well that Peter was able to afford sending his equipment, tractors and all, by train down to Florida during the New England frost. This off season for most Yankee farmers turned into a profit-making season for the Volantes.
It's that type of business intuition that would lead the way for future achievements by Peter and Caterina. They were always hopeful that the children would take over the farm as adults, but Peter was insistent that his kids attend good colleges no matter what career path they chose. Hard work and a father's insistence paid off. Not only did Peter's children attend college, his boys went off to prestigious schools like MIT and Boston College, while the girls split between Wellesley and Regis College.
The real triumph, though, came when the second generation Volante's did indeed show interest in joining the family trade.
After the war, Peter's daughter Margaret began to notice a shift in consumer trends. Using the same marketing instincts her father had, she opened a revolutionary roadside produce stand to accommodate the new invasion of passing vehicles. It was an effort to make their brand more accessible, and Margaret undoubtedly succeeded.
When Peter Volante died in 1953, the family found itself in need of a new farm manager for the first time in 40 years. His other daughter Anne would eventually step up to take the helm with the help of her husband, Ferdinand. The new CFO (that's Chief Farming Operator) was immediately faced with a tough reality that would make or break the business she just inherited. The land development that forced Peter Volante's fellow harvesters out of their parcels years before was now encroaching on his territory.
Anne and Ferdinand knew that a farm in Newton was becoming increasingly out of place. But instead of shuttering the operation, they set out on a search for a possible new location. Finally, in 1962, a plot of land (fifteen acres to be exact) in the suburb of Needham became available and the succeeding Volantes jumped on it.There, Anne and Ferdinand, along with their two children, Helen and Al (father of the current owners), would write the new chapter in Volante Farm's history.
Today, Volante Farms thrives despite our culture's reliance on the convenience of big business. They push forward, offering locals a wide range of homegrown fruits and vegetables that include New England favorites like beets, squash and parsnip. Their partnership with over one hundred small businesses in the region stocks their shelves with an even more diverse, locally-driven inventory.
The other notable transformation that Volante Farms has gone through in its modern age is a physical one. Since the farm moved to its current Needham location it has added a craft beer and wine shop, a selection of locally butchered meat, event space and, most importantly, a deli. Run by a unique culinary mind, Chef Todd Heberlein creates farm-to-table cuisine for the lunch counter in the form of daily sandwich and soup specials. He and his kitchen staff are also creating prepared, packaged meals for “heating and eating at home.” It's the perfect way to bring Volante Farms into the current cultural trend of eating quick, while providing delicious, healthier and less processed options.
For us, modern farms have become more than just a place to buy your food. Today, they are places that inspire and influence, and Volante has played into that role very well. If you've ever visited their farm you'll know exactly what we mean. But if you haven't, they've done something to celebrate their centennial that is sure to inspire everyone in and out of their reach: they wrote a cookbook.
The Volante Farms Cookbook: A Century of Growing is a beautiful guide to cooking modern, New England-style cuisine with New England-grown ingredients, along with heirloom recipes from the Volante's rich, generational experience in the region.
The book tells the story of the four generations that have run the farm and separates its culinary sections based on season – an aspect key to New England cooking. Recipes include seasonal dishes like Early Fall Vegetable Curry and Southwestern Corn & Bacon Chowder to Roasted Beet Hummus and Grilled Cod with Radish Salad. Also incorporated are plenty of dessert and jam recipes, ranging from Rhubard & Thyme Jam to sweets like Concord Grape Tarts. There's even one artfully crafted cocktail recipe for each season of the cookbook; check out the ridiculous (in a good way) Hot Pepper Daiquiri recipe they've developed for the fall.
It's not surprising that Volante Farms has been so successful for so long. They've done what a farm does best and done it well - they grew. The land was sown to grow crops that New Englanders wanted and as a result their business grew too. The farm transformed itself into being something that locals would be excited to support for years to come. That is why we're celebrating them today.
We were lucky enough to stumble onto the Volante Farms cookbook through a small, independent book publisher, Union Park Press, based in Boston. Now that we've become familiar with the Volante brand, we're thrilled to introduce more people to what they have to offer.
We are even more excited to be partnering with Volante Farms, along with Winepress Brookline, for a tasting event at our Coolidge Corner shop this Thursday, November 9th from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The farm chef, Todd Heberlein, will be on hand providing snacks made with recipes from the farm's cookbook. There will also be some adult beverages, mixed with a parsnip syrup and a beet shrub, created using the homegrown produce from Volante Farms.
Come by to meet the Volante team and enjoy some treats!
Make sure to get your own copy of The Volante Farms Cookbook: A Century of Growing. The book is available to purchase in our online store and hard copies are in stock at both our Coolidge Corner and Dedham locations.
- The Boston General Store Team
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