22 May, 2022
"Often the most unlikely friendships are the best." - Charlie Mackesy
-by Nikki Bartley
Sunday, May 22, 2022
This past week we celebrated the life of someone very special to our flower farm, Mickey Fernandes. Sometimes people come into your life and leave a big mark. Mickey was one of those people. I only knew him for 3 years, but in that time, Mickey became a close friend, teacher, and mentor.
Our meeting was serendipitous. Mickey came to our farm as a favor to a friend, to spec out an irrigation system for us. For reasons I will never be sure of, he agreed to do the job, and I count my lucky stars because we now have water on demand, year-round everywhere we need it on our 7-acre flower farm.
I remember when I shook his hand for the first time, he kind of looked at me sideways. I could tell he was thinking something like- who is this woman in the middle of this field of flowers down on her hands and knees, covered in dirt, trying unsuccessfully to fix a very leaky drip irrigation system. And more likely, “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into here.” But Mickey was nothing if not generous, and by the end of our first visit, he had decided that I was worth his time and attention.
Mickey was an old school New England vegetable farmer through and through and he dressed the part. He always wore suspenders and big work boots. He looked like Santa Claus with his perfect, snow white beard and white hair popping out beneath an old-fashioned leather cap.
Besides those first few minutes between us, I never saw the man without a smile and he was always in a good mood. He was the definition of easy company. Mickey was born in the early 1950s and lived his entire life on his 80-acre family farm in Berkeley, MA. He farmed from his first steps until his last and I do believe he loved every one of them.
Mickey once told me his job on the farm when he was a teenager was to flip the tires on his father’s Ford tractor every morning, depending on the work that needed doing- tilling, planting or cultivating. Like most small-scale farms during this era, his family used basic Ford or Farmall tractors to accomplish most tasks on the farm. As a result of his natural abilities and with plenty of practice on the farm, Mickey became a master mechanic at a young age. By the time I met him in his late sixties, the man was a walking encyclopedia of any farm problem or solution I could dream up.
Of course, not speaking tractor the way he did, it took me a while to realize the true good fortune that had landed in my lap. The best way I can explain it is like this. Mickey reached down as I sat there trying unsuccessfully to fix my leaky drip tape, extended his strong, calloused hand and over the course of the next 3 years, pulled me up not only to standing, but got me running at full speed. He taught me how to use tractors to accomplish almost every task I once did by hand.
Mickey was a treasure trove of wisdom on the dying art of small-scale farming in this country, and I became his eager student. Our connection was simple- we both loved farming and could talk for hours on end about it.
Over the past 3 years, Mickey helped me scale up my farm from 1 to 7 acres, by teaching me how to use the tools that would allow us to produce much higher quality and quantity of flowers. He taught me the basic language of tractors and farming in a way that never felt condescending or presumptuous. His foremost concern was always in teaching us to safely operate our equipment.
Every time I called him with a question, he not only answered the phone on the first ring, but he would then proceed to magically diagnose the problem with just a few panicked words from me, and patiently walk me through me the steps to fix it. He saved us countless hours and service calls. Honestly, I don’t remember ever asking him to do any of this, because I was worried that if I demanded too much, he might not ever show up again.
But show up he did, again and again. My crew liked to say that Mickey lightened the mood, and any day Mickey came was always a good day at the farm.
I run at full steam most days, jumping from task to task, rarely pausing for breaks. But every time Mickey came, I would clear the decks to work and have lunch with him. And in those shared meals, our unlikely friendship blossomed.
He was keen to hear about my life and my latest farm struggles. He teased me for being impatient about my progress at the farm, and he gently encouraged me to invest in and value my farm crew. He would say, it is hard to find good people and even harder to replace them. He made fun of me for texting too much on the tractor and laughed at my seeming inability to drive it in a straight line.
He told me stories from his farming days and how he trucked his family's produce into the Boston market early every morning. He talked about his friends scattered up and down the East Coast and his beloved road trips to visit them.
He didn’t judge me when my 3 boys showed up at the farm and refused to work, instead they just horsed around and drove the work carts too fast. He joked that he would love to send kids today back in time for just one day to watch them try to do half the work that was expected of him and his siblings on the farm on any given day.
He was a man from another era and I loved gleaning as much knowledge and wisdom as I could from him. Our friendship became so close that over the past 2 years we talked almost every day. I loved his phone calls which he always started with, “ Hey, how ya doin?” And ended with “Ok, I’ll give you a hoot later.” He was a great storyteller and I loved listening to him regale me with tales about his life and the main characters in it.
The last time Mickey visited my farm was on Mother’s Day this year. Truth be told, it was the first time I was not excited for him to come, and I told him so. Mother’s Day is our biggest selling day of the year.
But Mickey persisted. Because he knew that the day after Mother’s Day is also a very important day on the farm. It is the day we aim to start planting dahlias. Mickey and I had been working over the winter on purchasing a new tractor that would allow us to continue to expand our dahlia production with less labor and by using mechanical cultivation to keep the weeds at bay.
We finally settled on a Tilmor tractor, a specialized American-made cultivating tractor based off of the 1950s style tractors Mickey grew up using. The tractor arrived in mid-April giving Mickey only a few weeks to get it modified for the post Mother’s Day dahlia planting.
So, despite both of our busy schedules, Mickey insisted that Mother’s Day was the day to set it up and train me on the Tilmor. At around noon on that Sunday, when I had a momentary pause in the Barn Shop, I realized that in the hustle of the day, with a line stretching out the door, I had not heard from Mickey.
He had never not shown up before when he said he would, so I texted and asked if he was still coming. He quickly texted back, that he was indeed here and had been all morning with Tyler (his grandson and protege). He didn’t want to bother me, so they had gotten straight to work.
I was so busy that day I did not get to eat lunch with Mickey. At 2:00pm when the Barn Shop closed, he walked over and announced it was time for me to try out the new tractor. My body was so tired and I just wanted to go home and celebrate Mother’s Day with my boys, but Mickey wouldn’t let me. He said, “Nikki, it’s time to get on the tractor. I know you are afraid to drive it, and I can’t be here this week to help you run it. But I can help you now."
So, for the next hour and a half we practiced marking rows with the belly mounted shovels, laying out dahlia tubers and drip tape, and then covering the tubers with the disc hillers while simultaneously burying drip tape he had mounted and adjusted to the back of the tractor. For anyone who has tried planting 10,000 dahlia tuber clumps by hand, or really anything at that scale, you will recognize the importance of accomplishing multiple jobs in a single pass of the tractor. It is literally a game changer.
Next, Mickey was determined to teach me how to drive my new tractor in a straight line. Straight rows are important for mechanical cultivation, or else you will inadvertently run over your newly planted crops.
Mickey walked to the far end of the field and sat himself on the stone wall. He told me not to take my eyes off him as I drove down the field. I laughed and started driving. About halfway down the row, maybe due to exhaustion, as I was looking at Mickey, I started to cry. I saw him there so clearly, a kind and gentle angel of a man looking like Santa Claus perched on the stone wall at 4:30pm on a Sunday afternoon just to teach me how to drive my new tractor in a straight line.
When I got to the end of the row, he said, good job and told me to always pick a point just like that and stick to it and he guaranteed that I’d never drive crooked again. He didn’t seem concerned about my tears. I guess having grown up with 6 sisters made him immune to that sort of thing.
Mickey called me every day for the next few days to see if we had started planting the dahlias. I told him no, that we pushed back our Dahlia planting a few days from Monday to Thursday because of post Mother’s Day exhaustion and bad weather. If I’m being honest, I think my procrastination was also caused by lingering apprehension of doing it without Mickey.
Nonetheless, on Thursday morning, May 12th, we began marking the rows and planting our dahlias in earnest. Around 12:30pm, my phone rang with the news that Mickey had died suddenly that morning of a heart attack. I cried the rest of the day, so I can’t imagine what his family and lifelong friends went through. If my story doesn’t make it clear, Mickey touched many lives and gave of himself to everyone he loved.
I went to his services and finally got to meet many of the family and friends whom I heard so much about. Each one greeted me with “Oh, you are the flower lady, I have heard so many good things about you from Mickey. He was so impressed by your farm.” I could not have felt more welcome among his tribe.
I finally got to visit Mickey’s farm in Berkeley for the first time too. I got to walk his fields, albeit without him, and stepped inside his beloved greenhouse where he would sit every night and make calls to all his close friends. I got to see his treasured fleet of old Ford tractors and farm implements. On this Tuesday, May 24th, I will return to his farm one more time on what would have been Mickey’s 71st birthday to help his family and friends plant the seedlings he babied in his greenhouse all Spring but didn’t get in the ground.
Back on our farm, we are about 75% of the way through planting our dahlias, which has proceeded much faster and with much less back breaking labor for my crew. They are all smiles. The tractor modifications Mickey designed are working perfectly and I am no longer afraid of driving it. The rows are the straightest I have ever made, and you better believe that as I line up my tractor with the stone wall and pick my point, I can just about see Mickey sitting there smiling at me.
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