Lanesborough couple on mission to save family farm
LANESBOROUGH — A young married couple determined to reclaim and revive their family farm won't let a $280,000 deficit get in the way.
Kristen Tool and Chris Wheeler need to raise that six-figure sum to erase lingering debt and own outright the Olsen Farm, which has been in Wheeler's family since the Great Depression. All the while, raising 60 egg-laying chickens, harvesting dozens of blueberry bushes, rejuvenating apple trees and beekeeping — gradually restoring agricultural use to an area just north of Pontoosuc lake.
"Even though the [fundraising] number is overwhelming, we feel there's no other option," Tool said.
Failure isn't an option because of the blood, sweat and tears several generations of the Olsen/Wheeler family has invested in the property a stone's throw from Balance Rock State Park.
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. Today, Tool and Wheeler look to retain the 30 acres remaining of the original Olsen Farm.
The Tom and Randi Olsen, their children and grandchildren actively farmed the land on Olsen Road for the next 30 years raising cows, pigs, chickens while growing corn and potatoes.
Wheeler's father, Tommy Wheeler, grew up on the farm, stayed and eventually the life-long carpenter built a separate colonial-style house in 1981 on the site, raising his own family, vacating the deteriorating 18th century farmhouse.
The death of widower Tommy Wheeler in January left his three children as the heirs to the farm. Chris Wheeler, one of the sons, is looking to buy out his two siblings in order to secure sole ownership and prevent the land from being scooped up by potential developers, according to the couple.
Such a family history in Lanesborough is not lost on the 30-something couple.
"This spring we buried [Tommy Wheeler's] ashes on the property. The thought of having to sell off the land he fought for and where he is buried is heartbreaking," Tool told The Eagle. "[Selling] is definitely not an option."
There's still the matter of raising $280,000; $80,000 to pay on the mortgage, back taxes and other fees for the 1981 house. The remaining $200,000 would cover the cost of buying the 28 acres that surround the newer home.
Since April, Tool and Wheeler have managed to raise $35,000 of the $200,000 via a GoFundMe account; relying on tag/estate sale proceeds and other individual donations to pay for the debt portion of the bill.
Another estate sale of furniture, tools and other personal belongings from the Olsen Farm will be held 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday at 50 Olsen Road.
"We can only generate so much through tag sales," Chris Wheeler noted.
What Wheeler and Tool have generated is plenty of support from friends, relatives and total strangers who want them to succeed.
Penny Childs and her husband have been among the biggest cheerleaders of the couple's monumental ambition. The Lanesborough seniors have donated what they can of money, but as important, their time to assist with the tag/estate sales and generally spread the word about saving the family farm.
"It's very important to keep local farmers going," Penny Childs said. "They are young people working hard to save a hunk of land and farm it, organically, which I like."
Tool and Wheeler, whose relationship began when they were students at Mount Greylock Regional High School, began reclaiming the farm two years ago when they moved in with Tommy Wheeler. An arborist by trade, Chris Wheeler quit his job with a local tree care company to work the farm full-time, with Tool keeping her day job as a school teacher.
Wheeler began peeling back the overgrown areas last farmed in the 1960s, to isolate apple trees and uncovering blueberry plants longing to produce the plump juicy fruit that they have been selling locally.
"It's an already-made-for crop that doesn't need to be cultivated," Tool said.
"It's like a little piece of Maine was plunked right here," added Wheeler, referring to the state best known for its blueberries.
After two years, the farm is up to 60 chickens and several roosters, an annually expanding garden of corn, squash, pole beans and other vegetables, and two beehives producing honey.
Family and close friends are impressed that Tool and Wheeler have had some early success, confident they have the desire, skill and support network to fulfill their dream.
"They're passionate about homesteading and being self-sufficient," said Tool's mother, Leanne Yinger, of Lanesborough. "If anyone is going to make it happen, it's those kids."
"The very look on [Chris'] face when he says, 'I love this land,' tells you he's serious," added long-time friend, Jeremy Perkins, of Pittsfield.
Perkins and Yinger are among the dozens of people helping out when they can with such chores as clearing the land to recover the blueberry bushes and apple trees, using wood from Yinger's old garage to build the chicken coops and helping out with fundraising.
Tool and Wheeler say they have plenty of offers to help fix up the 1981 house, as the 1790s farmhouse is better suited for reusing the lumber than for habitation.
"There's no running water and a bunch of woodchucks, bats and the neighborhood cats now live there," Wheeler noted. "Upstairs is pristine, maybe we can repurpose the wood."
Tool and Wheeler's determination to make a go of farming in the 21st century mirrors that of Wheeler's great-grandparents, chronicled in a May 12, 1940, article by the Boston Sunday Post, a framed copy of which they found among the family possessions.
The story describes Tom and Randi Olsen as rugged, thrifty folk who go to great lengths to be successful farmers.
"Mr. Olsen's greatest income is derived from the sale of eggs," it read. "Three times a week he walked to Pittsfield, peddling his hatchery nuggets and returned home. On each round trip to the city he covered 21 miles. That meant a 63-mile walk, weekly. How would you like that?"
Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.
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