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Farming: The Mid-Life Crisis Career Option

Rural Intelligence FoodRoberto Flores’s face is a familiar one in the Berkshires. For 15 years, he owned and operated Seven Hills Inn, a 60 room mansion hotel next door to The Mount in Lenox, which he sold last spring. But he’s a fresh face at the farmers’ markets in Sheffield and Millerton, where he’s been selling baby bok choy, mizuna, baby turnips, radishes and assorted greens since May. “You can come to my table and make a really great salad,” he says. Flores, 43, is living out his (and, perhaps, your) fantasy. Until this spring, Flores’s only agricultural experience was mowing the neighbors’ lawns as a kid and helping in the extensive vegetable garden in Ashley Falls, MA, planted by his partner, Maria Nation, who cooks out of her garden all summer long and had dubbed her property Good Dogs Farm. Rural Intelligence Food “We have a contest every summer to see how long we can go without going to the grocery store,” says Flores, who did not start thinking seriously about farming until this winter.  He had spent last summer finding new venues for the 19 weddings and conferences that had been booked into Seven Hills before the sale. (The new owners wanted to turn the old mansion into a private residence again.) “We sent some of the brides to Ethan Berg’s Winthrop Estate and some of them to Cranwell,” he says. “I really did not feel free from the inn until the last wedding happened in October.”

Flores decided to take some time off to consider what to do next, because he had been coerced into becoming an innkeeper by his father. “I had been in Bank America’s training program in Houston when my father told me he’d bought this inn at a real estate auction and sent me up north to run it with my sister who was living in Lenox,” recalls Flores who grew up in south Texas. “I was so cold at first. I wore my ski pants until April.”  Gregarious and sensitive, he mostly liked being an innkeeper, keeping tradition alive for Seven Hills’ clientele who liked the Catskills-style service with full meals and entertainment. “In the 1950s,  Seven Hills was the only resort in the area that did not discriminate against Jews,” he explains.  But as the old-timers, who would come for a week or two, faded away or bought second homes, the new generation of guests only wanted to stay for a night or two. “And then when the Comfort Inns and Days Inns opened, it really did us in.  We kept things alive by doing as many as 26 weddings a year.”
Rural Intelligence FoodIt wasn’t until snow was covering the two-acre meadow between Maria’s vegetable garden and the Housatonic River that Flores settled on the idea of becoming a farmer as his third career. With farmers living on either side of him, he knew that if he tilled the fallow meadow that he would have rich loamy, chemical- and pesticide free soil for growing crops. He consulted with nearby farmers including Dominic Palumbo, Laura Meister, and Ted Dobson. “They all told me that I had to get some experience and get my hands dirty,” he says. He wasn’t willing to wait an entire year to start his new business. So in March, Flores flew out to Ojai, California, a valley rich with groves of orange, olive and avocado trees, which has been called the Berkshires of California. He bunked with Maria’s sister, Jane Handel the co-publisher of the magazine Edible Ojai, and introduced him to Peter Wilsrud of Avogadro’s Garden Farm, who let Flores work by his side for six weeks so he could ask questions every step of the way. “When I went out to California, I was planning to grow only a few simple things—garlic, onions, potatoes—but Peter convinced me to grow a bit of everything. He told me I had to grow white turnips called haruki. I cut them up for people at the market, and they go nuts. If you marinate them, they become addictive.” (You slice the turnips, marinate in a couple of tablespoons of rice wine vinegar with lime zest, coarse salt and pepper; chill for a an hour.)

As he walks through his one-and-a half-acres planted with carrots, potatoes, arugula, haricots vert, fava beans, pumpkins, and tomatoes, Flores has the quiet confidence of someone who has been working the land for decades. He explains that even as newbie, he shares the exact same challenges and goals as veterans like Palumbo. “We have the same soil and weather,” he says.  “We grow things to bring to market.” (He’s also been selling to local businesses like Berkshire Harvest Restaurant, John Andrews, and Stage Coach Tavern.)  He says he has a deep sense of satisfaction from his new work. “Growing food is such a healthy thing to do in every way,” he says. “It’s such a right thing to do.”

Rural Intelligence FoodWhile farming is strenuous, it’s not as stressful as being an innkeeper which was a 24/7 job. “I don’t miss getting calls to plunge toilets at 2 AM,” he says, grinning. Farming has changed his outlook on the weather, too. “I hated the rain when I was an innkeeper because it would ruin a wedding,” he says. “But now I am thankful every time it rains.”

Good Dogs Farm
Ashley Falls, MA

Sheffield Farmers’ Market - Fridays, 3:30 -6:30 p.m.
Millerton Farmers’ Market - Saturdays 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.


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Posted by Dan Shaw on 06/30/09 at 02:22 PM • Permalink