Couple struggling to raise money to keep Lanesborough farm in family
A bumper crop of raspberries and apples, the first batch of beekeeping honey, chickens laying dozens of eggs and an earful of corn.
"We started growing our own sugar corn this year, and it turned out good," said Chris Wheeler.
"We may increase the corn crop next year," added Kristen Tool.
If only the young farmers could get money to grow on trees.
Tool and Wheeler are struggling to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to own outright the farm that has been in Wheeler's family since the Great Depression. In addition, the couple are facing a $78,000 estate debt it inherited when Tommy Wheeler, Chris' father, died this year. Tommy Wheeler would have turned 65 on Friday.
While a GoFundMe campaign started in April has raised about $37,000, efforts to secure local bank funding and a federal loan have failed.
"Based on our income, a $200,000 loan is hard to come by," Tool said. "We had also hoped to settle the estate by the summer, and that hasn't happened."
"I wish we had a manual on how to handle this," said Wheeler, frustrated by the financial limbo.
The couple is under no deadline to buy the farm, but they say they and the siblings are eager to complete the sale.
The death of widower Tommy Wheeler in January left his three children as the heirs to the farm. Chris Wheeler is looking to buy out his two siblings to secure sole ownership and prevent the land from being scooped up by potential developers, according to the couple.
Tool and Wheeler, whose relationship blossomed when they were students at Mount Greylock Regional High School, began reclaiming the farm two years ago, when they moved in with Tommy Wheeler. Chris Wheeler, an arborist by trade, quit his job with a local tree-care company to work the farm full time, with Tool keeping her day job as a schoolteacher.
Wheeler began peeling back the overgrown areas last farmed in the 1960s to isolate apple trees and uncover blueberry plants longing to produce the plump, juicy fruit that they have been selling locally. The Olsen Farm chicken coop population has peaked at 60, with "Maple," a Silkie breed and the farm's popular spokesbird.
"She became a celebrity at the [Pittsfield] Farmers Market," Tool said.
"She is sort of a diva," Wheeler said.
The Olsen Farm legacy begins in New York City, where Wheeler's maternal great-grandparents, Tom and Randi Olsen, arrived from Norway seeking a better life. After 15 years of urban living, the Olsens moved to Lanesborough in 1938 and initially bought, for $1,200, 95 acres, including an original farmhouse dating to the 1790s.
Tom and Randi Olsen, their children and grandchildren actively farmed the land on Olsen Road for the next 30 years, raising cows, pigs and chickens while growing corn and potatoes.
Wheeler's father, Tommy Wheeler, grew up on the farm, stayed and, eventually, the lifelong carpenter built a separate colonial-style house in 1981 on the site, raising his own family, vacating the deteriorating 18th-century farmhouse.
Chris Wheeler and his wife are looking to retain 30 acres of the original Olsen Farm. Confident that they can overcome their fiscal problems, the couple feel like they are treading water.
"We're doing all this work and we're not making a dent," Tool said.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-496-6233.
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