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The Hartford Courant

From Seed to Shelf Logo

Thursday, July 29, 1999

Will A Family Tradition Survive To A Fourth Generation?
Workers in Fields

Joe Futtner, 15, the son of Jim and Honora Futtner, uses a hoe on the pepper plants on his family farm on a hot day in July. To the right are Matt and Adrian Cotoia, who work on the farm. Peppers are one of the largest wholesale crops for the Futtners.

Family Farm Rests On Slender Shoulders

Courant Consumer Affairs Writer


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Joe Futtner, left, helps his dad, Jim, unload cabbage at the Regional Market in Hartford.

"It's still a decision Joseph has to make. When you get a few years of serious farming under your belt, then you make your decision."  JIM FUTTNER, a 51 year-old farmer, on whether his 15-year-old son, Joe, will continue a family tradition into a fourth generation.

This is the third in a series of stories examining the experiences of one Connecticut farmer, James Futtner, as he takes his crops through the growing season.

Fifteen-year old Joe Futtner and his dad, Jim, are running a little late when they get to the South Windsor cornfield at 6:40 a.m. A morning chill has left the thick, closely planted stalks wet with dew.

Wearing yellow rain slickers to shield them from moisture on the slender leaves, the Futtners get right to work, plucking "Summer Ice" and other varieties of early corn from the 6-foot tall stalks. Later it will be sold at the family farm stand in East Hartford.

Each of their 12 mesh bags must be filled with 60 ears of corn. The leaves, whose edges are sharp enough to cut skin, slap their shoulders and hips as they pick.

At this hour, the only sounds are the steady whispers of their footsteps, swishing leaves and the snap of the corn as it is broken from the stalk. The quiet rhythms are interrupted only by the periodic squawk of an electronic box that scares birds from the field.

Jim, 51, likes this time of day, when the sun is low in the sky and there are no crews of workers that need his direction. Over the years, each of Jim's four children has accompanied him to the field in these early morning hours.

This year, Joe is by his side.

Red-haired, freckle-faced and rail thin, the teen is the only one of Jim's four children who has expressed interest in making farming his life. Since school ended in June, Joe has plucked corn, planted peppers, hoed cabbage, driven the tractor and lifted 20-foot pipes to irrigate fields the family cultivates in South Windsor and East Hartford.

"I was brought up doing this," Joe said. "So it's like an obligation to me. But it's a job with more variety than sitting in an office all day." Joe is the fourth generation of Futtners working the fields. The Futtner farm, once more than 50 acres in East Hartford, was started by Joe's great-great grandfather, an Italian immigrant.

But family-owned fields have shrunk to just 8 acres as generations of Futtners sold the land to developers. That 8-acre parcel in East Hartford is too small to support a family. So Jim and his wife, Honora, rent another 15 acres in East Hartford and 15 acres in South Windsor, down the road from their home.

They also own 12 acres, "the meadow," directly behind their home. But they rent that to another farmer because spring floods would delay planting there.

The East Hartford land they rent - surrounded by a multiplex cinema, a Super Stop & Shop and housing - is up for sale. Jim and Honora worry there may be no land left for Joe to till if he does become a farmer. They also worry whether Joe will be happy working long days in the field, eking out perhaps $30,000 to $40,000 profit in a good year.

Jim began working full time in the field; with his father, Raymond, when he was 13.

"I wasn't given a choice. My father would just yell upstairs 'time to go to work," he said.

But Jim fell in love with the land. When he told his father he wanted to takeover the farm - the only one of five siblings who was interested - Raymond discouraged him, trying to make sure Jim really wanted that life. Nov Jim gently warns Joe about what's ahead for him if he takes over the farm.

"It's a nice job, but you have to work hard," Joe said. "My dad, sometimes I think, tries to push me away from it. It's not a very high income job."

This year hasn't been easy. The dry weather has repeatedly sent the Futtners to the fields to move irrigation pipes.

Irrigating is a tedious and physically demanding process. One mid-July day, Jim, Joe and a crew of four spent hours hoisting 10-pound pipes above their heads to move them from one part of the South Windsor field to another.

At 5-feet-4 and 110 pounds, Joe is the smallest of the farm hands.

"You've got to duck especially low when Joe comes by with the pipe," Matt Cotoia, a beefy co-worker, teases in the field.

But Joe enjoys the work. He likes the challenge of picking crops faster than other workers and watching the seeds he planted in winter bear a harvest.

Joe's three sisters - all of whom have spent thousands of hours on the farm over the years - think he's crazy.

Elaine, 21, earned a degree in nursing from St. Anselm's College in Manchester, NH., in June and just accepted a position at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Her mother, Honora, was a nurse but curtailed her career to raise four children. Later, Honora began running the farmstand and greenhouses where the Futtners raise bedding and potting plants. Elaine enjoyed working with her mother at the farmstand, talking with the customers. But life on a farm is not easy.

"We had to do more work than other kids. I remember coming home from school and driving the tractor and having to make boxes in the barn," she said.

While she loves to return to the farm in the summers to help, enjoying the sunshine and open space, Elaine can't envision a lifetime in the fields.

"I think it would be a rough life. I see what my dad does. You have to really enjoy it," she said.

Carrie, 20, has taken Elaine's place at the farmstand this summer. As she heads into her junior year at the University of Connecticut, Carrie hasn't decided on a career or even what to major in at college. But she knows she doesn't want to spend her adult years in the fields.

Though she learned to drive a tractor at 10 and spent more time, than any of her siblings picking corn in the cool of the mornings with her dad, Carrie doesn't see a future in farming.

"There's not going to be [any land] left. The field across the street from the stand will be gone," she said. "It's too much to deal with and not enough appreciation."

Maggie, the Futtner's 12-year-old daughter, is just beginning to get more involved in the farm. But the long-legged preteen has another love - soccer. The farm, she said, is too much work, with its bugs, and heavy bags to lift and all.

"It has been a part of my life the whole time," she said. "But I'm going to be the next Mia Hamm," she said of the soccer star who has become one of the nation's most recognized female athletes.

With all the work comes fond memories for the Futtner children.

They like the times when the family walks down to the meadow behind their home after dinner, or takes their friends for a ride in the tractor during birthday parties - or the quiet time spent with their father in the corn fields.

How many other kids can say with such certainty what their dads do every day at work? they wonder aloud.

And they cherish the time they spent with their grandparents, Raymond and Antoinette, who lived in a small red brick house across from the East Hartford fields. Raymond died in 1995 and Antoinette in 1997.

"I used to come in from picking corn and Grandma would make me breakfast. We'd talk about the Yankees. Or, if you worked at the stand, she'd call you up and make you a steak and fries. She always made sure you'd eat," Carrie said.

The children say Jim and Honora never pressure them to take over the farm. In fact, Jim isn't sure he wants his daughters dragging irrigation pipes or spending long days hunching over pepper plants. And he wants Joe to think very carefully about becoming a farmer.

"It's still a decision Joseph has to make. When you get a few years of serious farming under your belt, then you make your decision," he tells Joe.

About 95 percent of Connecticut farms are family-run. But farmland in the state has shrunk in half since the 1950s.

Joe says he feels that as the son of the family, he should take over the farm. But he has toyed with other ideas, such as becoming an astronaut. He says he doesn't think his parents would be disappointed if he decided to pursue another career. But in the future, he doesn't really see that happening.

"I don't think they would be upset," he said. "But it would be hard for me to get used to a different lifestyle."

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