Meet The Bonannos

For more than 100 years, the Bonanno family has farmed the Merrimack River Valley at Pleasant Valley Gardens. During this time, the farm has been involved in dairy, swine, vegetable and flower production. In fact, during World War II, more than 4,000 pigs lived on the property.

Today, Pleasant Valley Gardens produces vegetables for wholesale markets, including Market Basket, Whole Foods, Trader Joes and more. They also raise flowers and vegetable transplants in greenhouses and in fields. Hanging plants, geraniums, bedding plants, proven winners, cemetery baskets and patio planters are offered for both retail and wholesale. Also, the farm offers a CSA (community support agriculture).

“This farm was started by my great grandfather in 1910,” said Rich Bonanno, who is the fourth generation on the farm and a past president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “My father is still here every day, so a lot happens that is very family oriented.”

A few years ago, Bonanno accepted a position with North Carolina State University as an extension administrator. As his time is now split between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Methuen, Massachusetts, his daughter – Heather Bonanno-Baker, now manages the farm with assistance from her grandfather and mother.

“This is her third growing season since I’ve been away at North Carolina State University and we hope that continues,” Bonanno said. “We have a bumper crop of grandchildren coming up. We will be pushing five by the end of the year, which is good. And it doesn’t make any difference if they are boys or girls.”

Bonanno-Baker is also a member of MFBF’s young farmer and rancher (YF&R) committee, representing Essex County. She also serves as the vice president for the County Farm Bureau.

“The YF&R has helped young Massachusetts farmers network with farmers from all over the country, we’ve met farmers from Canada, and the group has really helped with my father leaving me here,” she said. “Farm Bureau has helped me network with farmers across the state too, which has really lead me in the right direction, given me guidance and really helped me understand what I’m doing.”
But the YF&R committee is not the only reason that the Bonannos are involved with Farm Bureau. According to Bonanno, it’s in part because “Farm Bureau is an advocate for all farmers.”

“Farm Bureau allows every farmer to work under one large tent to focus on issues that are common to them,” Bonanno said. “It doesn’t mean that every farmer has the same opinion on every issue but the ability of Farm Bureau to work with all farmers with all issues and allow people the most flexibility to be able to stay in business, produce food, remain profitable, protect the environment, those are all the things that we work collectively on. It’s important to have an organization like Farm Bureau to make sure that happens.”

He said that there are many challenges that he faces – including mother nature, labor, regulation, taxes and more. Some of which, Farm Bureau has assisted him with.

“On a local level, from a regulation standpoint, these are things that are every day things that I think a lot of farmers take for granted,” Bonanno said. “Those include Chapter 61A, which give us the ability to pay taxes based on how we use the land; pesticide regulations, which allow only the state and federal government to make those decisions so that individual cities and towns are not part of that process; and zoning, which gives us the ability to use our land and not have to be far away from our property line.”

On a national level, Bonanno cites American Farm Bureau Federation’s work on H2A labor reform.

“Most people will tell you in agriculture that foreign hands are going to harvest your food,” Bonanno said. “The decision is whether those foreign hands are harvesting your food in this country or in some other country. And our goal is to make sure that we produce as much of our own food as possible in this country.

“Farm Bureau, especially at the national level, has been very effective in helping us with immigration reform, but also H2A reform. Our farm is in the H2A program mostly and it’s a difficult, expensive program to be in. But it’s also a legal program and that’s a choice for us to want to do that. And Farm Bureau has worked over the years on the regulations involved with immigration.”

Many of these issues, whether local, statewide or federal, impact farmers of all kinds. This is especially important in Massachusetts, in which many farmers produce a variety of specialty crops.

“The beauty of the state is that we have such a diverse population,” Bonanno said “Such a diverse group of farmers that regardless of your production practices or your marketing strategies or plans, there’s a place. As long as there is a population here and they need to eat, there’s a future here for us.”

This sentiment was echoed by Bonanno-Baker.

“I think Massachusetts is one of the top, if not the top, direct to consumer states,” Bonanno-Baker said. “And I think that will be taking a lot more forms in the future. This includes a lot more CSAs and more farmstands as consumers don’t want to go to your local grocery store. They want to come to your farmstand and be able to buy local milk, eggs and everything.”

This is why Bonanno wants all farmers to know that there are so many common issues that farmers need to work on together under one umbrella organization.

“I think the public feels that they don’t know us very well sometimes and as a result people don’t see us,” Bonanno said. “But farmers need to understand that we all need to work together with common goals. That’s why regardless of who you are as a farmer, Farm Bureau can be an important part of your ability to persist.”

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