Massachusetts Grower Carries on Tradition

Published online: Aug 21, 2018 Articles Luis Fieldman
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Source: Daily Hampshire Gazette

His hands are creased from a lifetime of toiling on his family’s potato farm, but there is a youthful joy in Frank Szawlowski’s eyes as he raises a handful of his red potatoes.

“Have you ever seen a prettier potato?” Frank, 80, asked on an early July morning at Szawlowski Potato Farms at 107 Main St.

By now, nearly all the red, white, Yukon and russet potatoes on the farm are harvested. Last month, Frank held up freshly picked red potatoes that will be shipped all along the east coast, with large portions heading to Florida and Pennsylvania.

Frank and his brothers, Chet and Stanley, have 5,000 acres of potatoes under production in Hatfield, Northampton, Hadley, Amherst, Sunderland and Whately through grower partnerships, making Swaz, as it’s commonly known, the largest potato farm in the state.

Even when the farmers are not harvesting or packaging their own potatoes, the operation runs throughout the year, as the packing plant receives potatoes from other farms across the country.

Chet is the farm’s “master mechanic,” according to Frank, and Stanley helps with supervision of the packing. Frank’s oldest brother, John, worked with pesticides that integrated pest-management techniques, until his death in 2016 at the age of 81.

Now, there are about 20 third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Szawlowskis working on the farm today.

‘Like a racetrack’

At 7:30 on a typical morning this summer, Dick Weller, Frank’s longtime employee, was on the phone in the office, buying and selling potatoes like a Wall Street day trader. He’s got a contact list written out on large chunks of cardboard, not far from a life-size standee of President Donald Trump.

Since 1989, the farm has packaged potatoes for growers outside of their harvest, and on average the farm ships out 500 tons of potatoes a day.

“It’s busy, busy here taking care of customers, taking care of business owners,” Frank said, as farm workers, including some of his relatives, sought his help about everything from shipment orders to daily operations.

“It can be a madhouse, like a racetrack,” Frank said about the harvesting season, while pulling potatoes off the packaging line.

He speaks quickly and to the point. He’s worked all his life planting potato seeds, maintaining the sprouting plants, keeping them free from pests and harvesting them during the summer. He does not have time to talk about much else.

“You keep your nose to the grindstone, keep your eyes and ears open, and take care of your customers,” Frank said. “You’ve got to be reliable, trustworthy and honest. The customers are important to us, and we are important to them because we got the volume and we are dependable.”

Frank’s grandfather, John Rupert Szawlowski, also known as J.R., started Szawlowski Potato Farms in Northampton in 1910, four years after immigrating from Poland at the age of 16. In 1972, the city took about 75 acres of the farm by eminent domain for an industrial park development, and the operation moved to Hatfield.

“J.R. was like Caesar,” Frank said, noting that his grandfather became known as the Potato King. “He was a tough son of a bitch, working as a businessman. He was pretty sharp, and he knew what it took.”

The ‘heartbeat’ of sales

Growing up, Frank said he and his brothers “did the work of 10” on his grandfather’s farm in Northampton from “sunrise to sunset.”

“We’ve been around for 100 years, so what does that tell you?” he asked.

Today, Frank’s three daughters — Shelley, Melanie and Diane — help run the day-to-day business at the packing headquarters. His son, Frank Jr., works on the farm, and Frank’s 22-year-old grandson drives trucks for the company.

Frank is the “heartbeat” of the sales and packaging side of the operation, Shelley said, selling the product that his family diligently grows.

“We all wait for him every day to come in, and he and Chet still make the major decisions,” Shelley said. “When they are not here, there is a void.”

Frank said he is happiest when he’s working because his father brought him and his brothers up to work. He wants to stay at the farm for as long as he can, he added, and he hopes that the family will “carry it on” for as long as possible.

“It’s all I know. I never travel,” Frank said. “You work, work, work all your life, and when you are older, you are happy, and that’s the way it is.”

There’s a gold plaque in Frank’s office that was given to him in 2017 by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, after he donated 100,000 pounds of potatoes and helped provide 81,250 meals for people in the region. It earned him the distinction of being the Food Bank’s Farmer of the Year — along with a poem, titled “Potato King,” written in his honor:

If e’er a Tater King there was/Szawlowski’s one — just call him Swaz.

“My father used to come home from work and say, ‘You have to do something for your country.’ And we all did,” Frank said. “We worked hard, kept our noses clean, and I’m lucky to be here.”

“These potatoes mean everything to me,” Frank said.