The Greenhouse Effect

Diversification has kept Sam Mazza and his family thriving in their Colchester farm business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Sam Mazza stands beside a big blue New Holland tractor, eagerly awaiting spring, when he can ride his favorite piece of equipment.

The secret to successful farming, advises Sam Mazza, is to work hard, diversify, stay in step with the times and keep the family involved. Following his own advice has paid off for the Colchester patriarch, whose business, Sam Mazza's Farmstand, Bakery and Greenhouses, is the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to all of the above.

It doesn't hurt to have a big family whose members want to stay involved, and Mazza has been blessed in that regard. Of his six children, five are daughters with families of their own who live within sight of the Farmstand and Bakery on Lavigne Road (at least in winter, when the leaves are down). Four of those daughtersLaurie Bombard, Cheryl Patterson, Melissa Mazza-Abeling and Theresa Zimbronwork in the business. Theresa, also a Spanish teacher in South Burlington, works in the store part-time. A fifth daughter, Annette Wheel, works at Hannaford, and Mazza's son, Paul, has his own farm stand business on Vermont 117 in Essex.

Some of Mazza's grandchildren are working in the business. They are the fifth generation of Mazzas to farm the land and work with their families.

"We've diversified enough to support all the different families involved," says Mazza, putting simply a story that began in 1928 when Mazza's grandfather, Frank Mazza, brought his wife, Rose, from Italy to settle in Colchester.

"He started with this piece across the road," says Mazza, indicating land that, each spring, comes alive with strawberries. "Then my dad, Sam Mazza, took over and used to rent the land. He owned a grocery store on Malletts Bay Avenue."

The younger Mazza worked on the land, though, and found he liked farming. "When I got old enough, I started in farming part-time, and that's when it all began."

Mazza decided to start his own operation "in 1967 or '68" with 13 acres bought from Clem E. Meniere for a poultry farm. It's hard for him to keep track of land parcels added over the years. There have been many, including 108 acres from the Lavigne Farm next to the original 13 acres; 37 acres inherited from his father; 59 acres purchased from John Leo; 160 acres on Pine Island Road; and, "Oh, last week, I bought a few acres from the Thibault farm," Mazza adds.

Sam Mazza has headed to Florida, but staff and family members keep things in shape. Standing are: Neil Comstock; Tom Creswell, farm hand; Art Hawkes, field and farm manager; Gary Bombard; Melanie Morse; Kevin Peters; Laurie Bombard; Frank Peters; and June Provost. Seated are Cheryl Patterson, Theresa Zimbron and Melissa Mazza-Abeling.

Only a man passionate about what he wants to do could have done what Mazza has done. "We started from scratch," he says. "With nothing."

"Sam will probably tell you that the first time he wanted to borrow money, we wouldn't loan it to him because he didn't have cows," says Mike Farmer with Yankee Farm Credit in St. Albans.

Mazza doesn't mention which bank when he tells the story. "We had to have help from an individual, because the bank wouldn't take me." He's referring to Al Morrill and Al's father, Earl, of A.D. Pease Grain Co. "Al went to the bank for me," he says. This was in 1969, when he started the poultry farm.

By then, he was a family man. Mazza had met Annette Brunelle at a teen-age club in Winooski in 1960. He was 20, she was 19; and they married that year. Children came along in 1961, '62, '64, '65, '67 and '72. Mazza, Annette and the children, as they grew, worked hard in the business. "My kids were the fourth generation starting work here," he says. "Laurie and Cheryl [the two oldest] worked from the time they were 4 to 5 years old."

Mazza was continuing a tradition from prior generations. "Growing up, we didn't play, we worked," he says. "We didn't have to worry about drug problems, because we were too tired. We never had time to get bored."

In 1969, Mazza built his poultry house and had about 50,000 birds. The farm sold table eggs and delivered to restaurants and stores. But by June 1988, he had developed serious lung problems caused by dust from the birds' feather follicles and decided that he'd had enough.

"The following year, we were doing bedding plants in some of our back greenhouses," Mazza says. The retail farm stand started that year, and in '89, the farm stand building was erected. An extension was added about three years later, a greenhouse was attached to it, and in the next few years, the retail store was enlarged twice.

Additions and expansion have brought the space to its current size 100,000 square feet of growing space and 5,600 square feet of retail and Mazza's children have become important participants in the business.

In 1992, having made doughnuts for a couple of years, Mazza decided to get serious about the bakery enterprise. When Diamond Bakery in Colchester went out of business, Mazza bought the equipment and paid the baker, Frank
Peters, to work around the farm until he could get his bakery started. "Now everything is brand new in the bakery except a dough maker, which will last a long time," Mazza says.

The bakery has grown to be a big part of the retail business, supporting both Peters and his brother, Kevin, who helps out. The concept of "family" extends to the Peterses, as well as to June Provost, the only full-time employee in the retail end who's not family.

June Provost is the only non-family member who works full-time in the retail store.

"Laurie, Gary and Cheryl are the retail core," says Mazza. Gary is Gary Bombard, Laurie's husband, who came on full-time after Mazza's wife died from cancer in 1996.

The Mazzas' talent for recognizing opportunity has allowed the Farmstand and Bakery to become a year-round
operation.

"We've found seasons," says Mazza. "The greenhouse in January, we start seeds with begonias and pansies. February, it's geraniums and spring baskets." Early March sees transplanting of strawberry plants. He and Melissa run the wholesale produce end of the business, starting the vegetable plants in April, which is also the beginning of the retail and bedding plant rush that runs through June. Strawberries pick up in June.

"We start mums in June before the strawberries, and after strawberries, we get into the full line of fresh home-grown produce," says Laurie. "We start poinsettias at the end of July, and go right through October with pumpkins and hard squash. And we are busy in wholesale produce cucumbers, etc. through October."

At picking time each summer, 17 Jamaicans have been coming for 17 years to live on the farm and do the picking, says Laurie. "And several local packing house crew members return every season, including Sibyll Bullis. She's almost 70, and I think being able to work like she does has kept her young. She helps in the greenhouse and the packing house."

The family puts on a strawberry festival about the third week of June and a pumpkin festival the second or third week of October. Prized for their field tomatoes in late summer, the Mazzas also grow greenhouse tomatoes, starting seeds in late December and transplanting into greenhouses in February toward a May 1 or earlier harvest. "We're now selling greenhouse tomatoes from April through August and field tomatoes from August to November," says Mazza, noting that some of his customers have developed a preference for the greenhouse tomatoes.

Innovation and taking advantage of emerging technology are key elements to the Mazzas' success. There are 608 lines in two greenhouses to hold tomato vines. "We lay down bags of soilless medium 2 feet wide by 3 feet long, put holes in them and plant the seeds. They get automatic fertilizer with drip irrigation." Neil Comstock, who's been with Mazza for almost 20 years, runs the greenhouse.

New this year will be what Mazza calls "ebb and flow watering benches" in the greenhouse. "It saves two people just to water," he says. Underground wiring was laid in September for a new computer system, and a Web page is being developed that they expect to be on-line in April. "We'll probably build new greenhouses even, as I'll buy more land," he says.

A new computer system and a new Web page debuting in April will make tasks like placing orders much more efficient for Laurie Bombard (right), who runs the business office with help from her daughter, Melanie Morse.

This year, in the field, they'll be installing drip irrigation under plastic. "You can fertilize through the roots. It's very dry right now, and we can cover 75 percent to 80 percent of our water need with drip," Mazza says.

One of the things that make this operation succeed appears to be division of labor. Laurie's focus is the office and financial affairs, with help from her daughter, Melanie. Cheryl takes care of purchase orders, inventory on plants and retail "keeping things together," Mazza calls it. Gary takes care of produce, and Theresa is the store's gift buyer.

"We seem to be pretty good working together," says Laurie, who spends a lot of hours at work with Gary. "We keep to our own jobs, and try to keep the work away from the after-business hours. In the summer, it's pretty common for us to work until 8 p.m., and every once in a while we try to get away a little bit, at least a day or two. I guess we have a good relationship to be able to work with that schedule."

Of working with siblings, she says, "We grew up as a close family and still are able to keep that family unit together," quickly adding, "Not that we don't disagree!"

Mazza says a typical day for him in summer starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. "In winter, I put in only 50 to 55 hours a week," he says. Time off of any kind was rare when the kids were growing up, but being the patriarch has its privileges.

In April 1999, Mazza married Donna Chickanosky. "Sept. 13, 1998, was our first date," he says, smiling. "She came in here to get something, and I said, 'Have you eaten?' and she said, 'No,' and we went for pizza." He grins as he recalls that en route, they changed their minds and ended up eating a leisurely dinner at Pauline's restaurant.

Donna has fit right in with the family, says Laurie, although she doesn't work at the store. Laurie says Donna has even captivated the family's dog (and farm stand mascot), Bear, a big black Labrador retriever and German shepherd mix. "All Bear has to do is sniff her perfume and he's there looking for her," she adds with a laugh.

The future looks rosy, but development pressures are always present. "The land is great vegetable ground," says Farmer. "Unfortunately, it's great for growing houses, too. Everything except the land on Pine Island Road, which is in a flood plain. Sam's got an enormous amount of pressure on him."

Mazza's son-in-law Gary Bombard manages the produce in Mazza's retail store.

Laurie concurs. "I think most of the developers in Colchester probably realize that we will stay farmers as long as we possibly can," she says. "As long as we can diversify enough to pay the taxes, because the taxes are an issue. We hope to be able to save farming. But the houses are getting closer, and people don't always deal with the things that go on on farms, especially dust especially someone who moves from a city environment to the 'country.'

"So we feel the pressure, but as long as we can remain a business that's doing well, we'll keep going. Because it is good growing land, and once there's houses on it, there won't be vegetables on it again."

Farmer is hoping the business continues to succeed and grow. "I think he's the largest grower in the state for greenhouse growing. I don't know of anyone bigger. You don't take him for granted," says Farmer. "Other commercial banks visit them every year, and we make sure to provide them the best customer service and make sure they get the best deal from us."

Mazza says, "You can do anything if you want to work. Business has changed a lot. You can study all you want; but you get on the job, you learn mistakes cost money and you learn not to make the second one." •

Originally published in February 2002 Business People-Vermont