Acre by acre, a family farm is disappearing

Million-dollar homes fill up fields of New Jersey

September 22, 2000|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NORTH CALDWELL, N.J. -- Standing in the middle of James Matarazzo's eggplant patch and gazing up toward his grandfather's farmhouse, which dates to the 1840s, it's almost possible to imagine what life was like here before the split level and the strip mall turned New Jersey into the paradigm of American-style sprawl.

But without a good set of blinders, there's no missing the newly built McMansions that surround Matarazzo Farms, nearly 80 of them, all plunked down on land the family has sold over the years.

Matarazzo grins as he gestures toward one subdivision, Oyster Pond, where million-dollar homes have been set around a former livestock watering hole. "People put docks on it," he says with a bittersweet laugh. Of course, with land selling at $300,000 for half an acre these days, the laugh is more sweet than bitter.

Of the original 103 acres that Matarazzo's grandfather, who emigrated from Italy, cleared in 1921, only 23 are still growing produce.

Sitting in northern Essex County, one of the most densely settled places in the nation's most thickly populated state, it's a wonder that Matarazzo Farms exists at all. The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 21 farms in the county in 1997, but Matarazzo says all but two have since given way to development. Statewide, despite an ambitious farm preservation program, more than 50,000 acres of farmland have been lost in the last decade.

"Whenever we have a sluggish season, we sell off a few more acres," Matarazzo explains. "The land prices make it too tempting." The most recent parcel he sold, where cauliflower, broccoli and corn once grew, is awaiting the construction of seven homes.

For now, he's holding on to the rest. His 88-year-old father, Joe, still rides the tractor; his wife and sister run the produce stand; and at 54, Matarazzo figures he has a few more seasons left in him. "I'll probably die doing this," he says, lighting his pipe, a Panama hat shading his eyes.

His three children work in air-conditioned offices and hate to rise with the sun, so Matarazzo has no illusions about the farm's long-term future. Every month or so, a land-craving developer stops by and makes an offer. Matarazzo usually tells them to come back another day. "Every time I think of selling, I get a knot in my stomach," he says, sorting through a bin of tomatoes, some of them spotty from the overabundance of rain.

Despite the odd complaint about rotting produce or noisy irrigation equipment, most residents prize the farm for its fresh produce, bucolic vistas and autumnal hayrides, which draw neighborhood children. Maria Rampinelli, a real estate broker, said she liked the idea of using more land for more houses, but would hate to see all of it go. "You know, there's absolutely nothing for sale here," she said of the housing market. "But then again, I'd really miss their bread-and-butter corn."

When he's not thinking about selling, Matarazzo has more mundane worries: fiendish weather, sagging crop prices, and voracious deer. As the amount of open space here shrinks, the remaining deer are becoming hungrier, peskier, and less fearful. Folk remedies including human hair, bars of soap, and a pack of barking dogs have all failed to keep them out. His latest foil, an 8-foot-tall fence costing $5,000, has been a bust.

"I've seen them hop right over with little effort," he says, pointing out rows of ravaged cucumbers, corn, and arugula leaves. "We lose more stuff to the deer than we sell."

With his slightly frayed chinos, well-trimmed beard, and philosophical musings, Matarazzo doesn't look the part of the tobacco-chewing, weatherworn yeoman. Like his father before him, he is the mayor of North Caldwell, a part-time job he has held for 14 years. "I guess I keep getting re-elected because everyone always knows where to find me if they have a problem," he says.

Matarazzo never planned to be a farmer. The long hours and the summer vacations he spent hunched over in the sun as a teenager convinced him that he was meant for another vocation. The summer after he graduated from Villanova University with plans to become a sociologist, Matarazzo returned home to make some pocket money.

He never left.

"I really wanted to get away from this," he says, yanking a small cucumber from the vine and popping it into his mouth. "I guess I could never get used to the idea of working indoors day in, day out."

Of course, there are downsides to the agricultural life. Matarazzo rarely takes a day off, and on the few occasions that he and his wife, Pat, have ventured to Cancun or Boca Raton for a week, he found himself distracted by the Weather Channel.

"I never really relax when I'm not here," he says.

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