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Home Grown: Many newer homes were built on old Andover farmland

Andover Townsman (Andover, Mass.) Thursday, August 4, 2005

By Rita Savard

Garabed "Red" Dargoonian remembers when Andover's landscape was an endless canvas of emerald green fields.

That was before industry and interstates helped change Andover into the upscale bedroom community it is today.

"House after house, developers kept them coming," recalls Dargoonian, squinting in the sun as he fixes his gaze across the road from his property at 23 Blanchard Ave., where 32 acres of his family's farm once stood.

"I crawled on that land on my hands and knees for over 40 years," he whispers. "To see houses over there, it hurts."

The disappearance of Andover's farms was the town's single greatest change during the last century, say Andover historians. Tucked away on a shelf at the Andover Historical Society, the yellowed pages of a 1920 Town Directory list the names and addresses of 206 working farmers. By 1950, fewer than half remained. Today, the town assessor's office shows five parcels of land listed as paying a farmland tax.

Those chapter 61A records, according to Assessor Bruce Symmes, do not necessarily include all the town's remaining farmers. For instance, Peter Loosigian, 84, is not on the list but he continues to work his land religiously each day despite a never-ending train of offers to buy. Loosigian has a 10-acre farm on Lowell Street.

Nevertheless, the significant decline in Andover's farming community is clear. Richard Nabydoski is selling his farm following lawsuits and neighbors' complaints about seagulls eating food meant for cows. When Nabydoski's land is sold, Bob Parks, owner and operator of Parks' Piggery at 141 Chandler Road, will be the town's only livestock farmer.

"Many farmers sell the land because they simply cannot afford to farm anymore," said Town Planning Director Steve Colyer. "Small farms have almost become obsolete as a result of economic change. For farmers, staying in their profession becomes a decision between putting bread on their own families' tables or putting bread on the tables of others. In the meantime, property taxes increase, the values of land go up and returns on produce or livestock fall."

From farmhouses to cul-de-sacs

Before the turn of the last century, farming was a vital force in the area's economy, with Andover farmers helping to nourish the industrial boom that put Lawrence on the map.

"Andover was known as the home of the hill, the mill and the till," said historian Juliet Mofford. "It was the farmers in town who supplied the food to feed all the thousands and thousands of mill workers in Lawrence and beyond from 1845 into the 1950s."

Colombo Yogurt started in Andover in 1929, in the kitchen of the Colombosian family.

But the very advent of industry in the area eventually led to many Andover farms' demise. Factory towns provided the perfect location for major throughways. During the 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of Route 495 and Interstate-93 led to more industry in Andover.

"Everything in West Andover was pretty much farmland," said historian James Batchelder, whose own family owned and operated Rolling Hills, a 120-acre dairy farm on Argilla Road. "After I-93, we became more of a bedroom community, with Boston being 25 minutes down the road instead of an hour-long drive along Route 28."

This construction of major throughways increased Andover's accessibility to commerce, trade and out-of town jobs - and lessened the demand for homegrown produce. Highways also made Andover a more attractive place to live.

Home developers began clamoring for Andover land. Farmers who did not stop work during earlier construction waves were later approached with attractive payouts for their land.

"When I came to Andover it still seemed like the last frontier," jokes Colyer, who moved to West Andover in 1984.

Today Andover is a town of more than 30,000 people, and there is little land left to build on.

"If a guy gets a good price for selling, you can't blame him," said Benjamin "Ben" Dargoonian, Red's brother. The Dargoonian brothers sold their 32-acre lot on Blanchard Street in the mid-1990s, when produce profits were no longer enough compensation for labor-filled days in the fields, they said. Ben Dargoonian's son, Tom, is continuing the family farming tradition on close to 40 acres of state-owned property he bought across the road from the old Dargoonian farm.

As new housing developments continue to spring up throughout town, some business-minded farmers such as the Sarkisian family, which owns Sarkisian Farms and Driving Range on 153 Chandler Road, have managed to remain by adding new services. The Sarkisians now have an ice-cream stand and a golfing range alongside their active greenhouses.

Whatever their secret to survival, a handful of residents are now part of a distinctive breed. They are Andover's last farmers.

[Profiles of the farmers are published in the printed edition.]

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