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Newbury’s 4 Corners Farm Undertakes the Tricky Transfer Between Generations

  • At their home in Newbury, Vt., on July 3, 2018 Kim and Bob Gray along with their daughter Molly Gray toast Mariska De Keersmaecker during lunch with their homemade hard cider. A friend of Molly's, De Keersmaecker is from Belgium. Also at the table is Colter Bengston, who is at the farm with his mother working for the summer, they are from Montana. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • 4 Corners Farm owner Kim Gray spends much of her day transporting just-picked vegetables from the field and bringing them back to the farm stand. She washes carrots at the farm on July 3, 2018 in Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • 4 Corners Farm owner Bob Gray, right, drops a ladder he had modified for farm worker Nacho Melchor, of Mexico City, on July 3, 2018 in Newbury, Vt. Melchor has been working on the farm for years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Gray with children Pete, Molly, and Charlie circa 1991. (Family photograph)

  • Pete Gray maneuvers a cultivator in rows of broccoli at 4 Corners Farm in Newbury, Vt., on July 3, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Gray, left, stops in to see his son Travis Gray and deliver fuel on a section of land the Gray's are clearing of rocks and stumps on July 3, 2018 in Newbury, Vt. Travis is in Vermont to help for the summer, he lives in Montana. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marie Van Der Kar, plants sunflower seeds at 4 Corners Farm in Newbury, Vt., on July 3, 2018. Van Der Kar has taken on many responsibilities at the farm. She lives at the dairy farm with her boyfriend Peter Gray, whose parents own the farm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Passing on a narrow dirt road by 4 Corners Farm, Bob Gray chats with his son Charlie Gray on July 3, 2018 in Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • 4 Corners Farm owner Kim Gray at the Norwich Farmers Market circa 1980. (Family photograph)

  • On the last day of her visit Mariska De Keersmaecker hugs farmer Bob Gray at his home on July 3, 2018 in Newbury, Vt. De Keersmaecker is from Belgium and had shared an apartment in Geneva with Molly Gray, Bob's daughter. Gray had given her one of his homemade bottles of hard cider to take home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 06, 2018

Newbury, Vt. — Bob Gray sits behind the wheel of his old red Toyota pickup truck, starts the engine and rolls a few feet in his driveway before turning off the engine. He is about to give a tour of 4 Corners Farm in Newbury that he and his wife, Kim Gray, have owned and run for 40 years.

First, though, he wants to point out the six words on his baseball cap that sum up the farm’s ethos: “All We Sell is Our Own.”

Tucked into a hillside off Route 5, the farm has a commanding view of Mount Moosilauke, and Sugarloaf, Black and Tucker mountains in New Hampshire. On an early summer day, the air is cool and dry, the sun is brilliant and the mountains are etched sharply against a crystalline sky, leading Gray to proclaim, “And what is so rare as a day in June?” a line made immortal by the 19th century Bostonian poet James Russell Lowell.

Lowell’s paean to a New England summer’s “flush of life” seems apt when looking at the abundant cropland and pasture the Grays have carved out over four decades.

“I can’t believe it’s all ours,” Bob Gray said. “It’s been a dream come true.”

Kim and Bob Gray marked both the 40th anniversary of the farm and their 40th wedding anniversary last weekend. Offering a wide range of produce, 4 Corners is known particularly for its strawberry and tomato crops, and for its farm stand on the property. They also have a small dairy herd, raise pigs and cattle for meat, and keep bees for pollination.

The anniversary comes as the farm is in flux, with the Grays navigating how to eventually turn over the farm operation to their three adult children. As with other farm families who shift responsibility from the older to younger generations, it is a process in which everybody learns as they go.

Bob Gray, nearly 80, said it’s time for him to move on to a new phase of his life. “I need to step out,” he said. Kim Gray, who is 63, will continue to farm until it becomes too onerous.

Both raised in Vermont — Kim Gray grew up in Marlboro and Bob Gray in Putney — the Grays have been around farmers all their lives. “I knew since I was knee high to a grasshopper this is what I wanted to do,” said Kim Gray.

The Grays take pride in having made something lasting, particularly because they didn’t inherit the land and buildings, they bought them.

Both members of the U.S. Ski team in the 1970s — Bob was cross-country; Kim was alpine, and the first American woman to achieve a top 10 finish in the first World Cup — they began by farming on a piece of land owned by a man named Robert King in Four Corners in Hartland.

When King died they began searching for a property they could buy and farm on. A real estate agent pointed them to the land in Newbury. They began with a 120 acre parcel and over the years have acquired surrounding property until the farm reached its current size of 225 acres.

When it was time for the Gray’s three children to decide whether they wanted a career on the the farm, their mother gave them this advice: “Just go and if you want to come back, you’ll know.”

They took her at her word. They left Vermont — and they came back.

Not all children of farm families do. The labor is intensive, there are no real days off, the rewards aren’t necessarily financial and the examples of farms going out are numerous.

The question now is how to make the transition in leadership of 4 Corners Farm efficiently and gracefully from parents to children. Oldest son, Pete, middle daughter, Molly, and youngest son, Charlie, want to ensure that 4 Corners will stay within the family.

Pete Gray, 35, takes care of the equipment needed to cultivate and maintain the property. Charlie Gray, 29, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, is picking up the reins of the farming operation. Both brothers studied agriculture at Montana State University.

And Molly Gray, 33, who graduated from Vermont Law School in 2014, came back this year from Switzerland where she worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to help plan the legal transition. (They have a stepbrother and stepsister, children from Bob Gray’s first marriage, who have also helped on the farm.)

“Not many farms are 40 years old,” said Charlie Gray, alluding to just how challenging it is to not only keep a farm going but also to how difficult it is to make money at it.

He is sitting at a picnic table in front of the large white house, which dates to around 1800. The enormous brown barn with two matching cupolas was built around 1870. The farm stand is in the lower level of the barn.

The farm employs around 20 people, which includes family, local residents and Mexican guest workers here on H2A visas, which permit them to come into the country temporarily for agricultural work. Both sons live with their partners at the dairy farm up the road, which the Grays bought in 1992; for now, Molly Gray is living in the main house next to the barn.

“I love this farm and this is my home. When I go away I always come back,” said Molly Gray.

The Grays are somewhere in the beginning of the transition — not a takeover, Charlie Gray emphasizes.

“I’ve been trying to wrangle the beast for about nine months,” he said. Their desire is to stay true to their motto while also incorporating more locally-made or raised goods, such as maple syrup, which they do not produce.

“Everybody is still in the mix but more decisions are given to the young blood,” said Kim Gray.

When the Grays were starting out they collaborated on every aspect of farm life but in time they naturally developed their own responsibilities. She has taken care of the vegetables and flowers; he tends to the strawberries, which are one of the farm’s calling cards. They have extended the growing season, getting strawberries and tomatoes earlier in spring and later in fall.

The Mexican workers, most of whom return each spring and summer and are paid nearly $13 per hour, are considered family, Charlie Gray said. They’re not taking jobs away from local residents, Bob Gray said, pointing out that many Americans do not have the stamina to do the kind of farm labor that the Mexicans do. Of one of the workers, who is 69, Gray said he could pick more strawberries and vegetables than anybody decades younger.

One year Pete Gray went to Mexico to visit many of the men and their own families. “I saw how they used the wages they were paid from the farm, how they made decisions,” he said.

For Kim Gray, the relationship between the farm and its loyal customers is a large part of why she and her husband have kept at it for so many years. “That’s what it is for me,” she said.

“To be able to put something in the ground and take care of it” is the impetus for Charlie Gray to get up with the sun and to work until it sets, he said.

“They live the way they want to live,” said Molly Gray, who, in addition to working for the ICRC, worked as a scheduler for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., from 2006 to 2008.

“To keep the farm accessible for future generations and to keep it part of a community is not an easy thing to do. Vermont farmers struggle with that,” she said.

Because of her brothers’ and parents’ dedication to the farm, she added, she has been able to do what she wanted to do. It was time to repay them by coming back, she said, even though some people warned her that to step away from her work in international human rights would be “career suicide.”

4 Corners Farm, said Welch, has been a model for succeeding generations of farmers. Welch has known the Grays since he lived near them in Hartland.

“They’re really careful and attentive farmers from planning to harvesting. They understand that for their farm to succeed they know they have to have a farm-to-table economy. They’ve contributed significantly to healthy organic agriculture, and are good and active members of the community through their farming,” Welch said.

Welch recalled going out to their farm for an event for one of his early campaigns for Congress. As he neared the farm, he saw a long line of cars waiting to turn in to the road where the Grays live. Excited because he thought the people were there to support him, he then realized that the Grays were giving their annual end-of-season party, which draws friends and customers from all over.

He was a little deflated, he conceded. But, he said, “it gave me an appreciation for how deeply entrenched they are in the community.”

The Grays are “very community-oriented, they’re honest and dependable, the produce is always high quality, the prices are reasonable and they’re easy to deal with. All the stuff you want,” said Dan Fraser, of Dan and Whit’s General Store in Norwich.

In an era of “globalization and fragmentation of communities,” Welch added, there are few professions which offer a better opportunity for binding communities than farming that is rooted in a local area with customers and neighbors who have a vested interest in the farm’s prosperity and longevity.

“We all want to see the farm succeed,” said Molly Gray. How they ensure that is the puzzle the family is still figuring out, she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.