FAIRFIELD, NJ - Fairfield Farms is one of the last working farms in Essex County. Located on 177 Big Piece Road and owned by Sal and Joyce Francavilla, it is one of the oldest farms in Fairfield, dating back to when the town was still part of Caldwell Township.
The Francavilla family story began in Avellino, Italy, where Sal’s grandparents, Salvatore and Maria, owned a tomato processing factory. Looking to better themselves, they boarded a ship and landed at Ellis Island in 1911.
Salvatore and Maria traveled to America when Maria was pregnant with their second child, Ralph, who was Sal’s dad. Her first child, Frances, was born in Italy and died in New Jersey at a very young age. In the United States, Maria had seven more children: Ralph, Anna, John, Tony, Charles and Vera. John became the mayor of Fairfield in the 1960s.
The young family settled in Little Ferry and opened a seed store.
In the early 1920s, Salvatore and Maria moved with their children to Fairfield, where they bought 100 acres of land extending from Sand Road to Big Piece Road and onto Hollywood Avenue.
They supplied greens, including kohlrabi, mustard, kale, escarole, chicory, radishes, scallions and beets, to all of Newark at the Newark Farmers’ Market and the A & P stores in the tri-state area.
According to Sal, his family bought the Hennion Homestead, which he said is now 127 Hollywood Avenue. As a side note, the Hennion Homestead is part of Fairfield’s early history. According to Mrs. Morris Collerd in the Feb. 2, 1977 Chronicle, Daniel Hennion was born in 1828 at a home on Horseneck Road but lived in Fairfield for some time with his wife, Abbie J. Davis. They later moved to Caldwell, and he eventually sold the farm. Before the Francavilla family purchased the Hennion house in 1923, there were several other homeowners on record. When the Francavillas bought the home, they completely renovated the old 19th century homestead.
Sal’s parents had five children, Mary, Sal, Rose, Terri and Linda.
In the 1940s, Sal’s dad, Ralph, farmed 60 acres of land from Hollywood Avenue to Big Piece Road. Much of it was considered low lands.
The family also bought land in South Carolina and on the eastern shore of Virginia, and the produce that was grown there was trucked into Montclair, South Orange and Newark. Along the way from the south, they needed to visit ice stations because trucks were not equipped with refrigeration at that time.
Sal’s sister, Mary, who just turned 80, remembers that her grandfather, Salvatore, decided that her father, Ralph, and his family would be sent to South Carolina to live there and run the farm.
Mary remembers that the farm was just outside of Charleston, and she was only 3 years old. She said that her mom was not very happy about this move because she had to leave her family, but she was “stoic about it.”
Due to an event that occurred in New Jersey, the family moved back to Fairfield, and Mary has vivid memories of many soldiers being on the train ride home since it was during World War II.
Mary also remembers her Aunt Sue, who owned the Romano farm on Horseneck Road, as a great story teller. She said that “some stories were so funny with lots of giggles, and others were scary.” She also said that Aunt Sue’s daughter Mary Ann Romano DeMaio takes after her mother as “a great story teller.” There were no electronical devices back then, and storytelling was a great means of entertainment.
Sal recalls that when he didn't have to work on the farm, he and his friends would ride their bikes all over the area. Some friends lived on Pier Lane, and after Sal met up with them, they would ride all the way into Singac. Sal has very fond memories of this.
He also remembers ice skating on low lands near Henning Drive and Barbara Drive. He said, “I had a good time there.”
Another memory of Sal’s was eating fried cauliflower that was prepared by Red Esposito at the fire department.
Having to work on the farm, Sal never got a chance to play any high school sports. He would have like to have been on the high school wrestling team, but the farm came first, and work is never done on a farm.
The Francavilla’s also owned the property on Passaic Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue where CVS is now located. In the late 1960s, it was a rhubarb farm.
Sal said in the early 1970s things started to change. Instead of growing an abundance of greens, their farm had to change to meet the demands of the people who preferred sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, radishes, lettuce and pumpkins.
In 1975, Sal and Joyce got married and set up a farm stand on Hollywood Avenue in front of the farm. They worked on the farm harvesting corn, tomatoes, and other summer crops.
Then from 1989 to 1999, they became involved with Jersey Fresh and trucked their vegetables to farmers’ markets in Verona, South Orange, Millburn and Montclair. Joyce said, “We were one of the first farms to join Jersey Fresh and helped get the program going.” The Francavilla family became the poster family for the organization.
Eventually they gave this up and decided to stay in the greenhouse business and run harvest activities like hay rides, pumpkin picking, and hosting farm trips for school children.
They moved the farm stand from Hollywood Avenue to Big Piece Road, which was nearer to their own home. The couple sold 12 of their 35 acres to developers to build single-family homes on Hollywood Avenue.
Sal’s older sister, Mary, has fond memories of her days on the farm, even though, as she admits, it was very hard work.
Here are some of Mary’s memories of life on the farm in Fairfield Township:
“Looking back all those years ago I've had to dig up some memories," Mary said. "I think I took it all for granted and have come to appreciate some of the lifestyle of that era. Both mom and dad were both from farming famiIies, so it was in our blood, but I'm sure I did not appreciate that when I was young. I worked on the farm when I was quite young, and I know I did not like that! Although I did save money and bought myself a brand new two wheeler bicycle, which I was riding every minute I could, and I still have scars on my knees from the falls I took!
"I think as we get older we appreciate some of the small things we may have taken for granted. For instance, I now understand and appreciate how hard my dad worked on the farm and how hard my brother still works on a small part of the farm.
"Mom used to ask me to walk in the fields and get some fresh veggies for dinner like string beans, radishes, tomatoes and some fresh basil from her own little garden near the house.
"Now I live in south Jersey where there are many truck farms growing all of those things. I just go to their market and buy them. But I still have at least one tomato plant in my yard. I love to go out there and see a ripe one and pop it into my mouth, still warm from the sun. And I also have my own herbs and make pesto. I always add some type of fresh herb to almost everything I cook.
"Working in the dirt is in my blood. I love it now, and it is a type of therapy for me, until my body tells me I've done enough! I do appreciate the lifestyle. I like the slower pace, the wide open spaces and seeing the fresh crops growing on the beautiful farms just down the road from me. And there is no traffic here. It's just peaceful farmland. Farmers grow all the fresh vegetables and fruits that I grew up with living on a farm in that farmland community so many years ago in Fairfield.
"The time came each year as school started when my mom began her annual canning, and it was a lot of work. Each day as I got off the bus from school, she called me to go and help her. I would change clothes, grab a snack and back to work. We made jam, put up sliced fresh peaches that we picked ourselves at local orchards and jarred lots of Italian tomato sauce. It was quite a process and a lot of work, but we enjoyed that sauce all winter with our pasta. And sometimes when we were lucky, Mom made homemade pasta. Nothing like it, it was wonderful!
"After work was done, we played in our yard, sometimes with our neighbor friends, the Hennings, Unglaubs, Eckardts, Ruggieros and Sperrys, and it was always fun. There was lots of energy left to play after all the work was done.
"Work...that is one thing that is always there on a farm, and Caldwell Township, as it was called at that time, had quite a few farms with hard working people running them.
"We mostly left the township to visit family, and there were lots of them. I have fond memories of grandparents, aunts, uncles and lots and lots of cousins. Folks could always take the bus to Caldwell, up the hill, for a quarter to go to the movies, shop or visit, but Mom was our bus. She always drove us in the family car.
"Caldwell Township was very rural at that time with a small population. It has changed so much over the years. There is shopping all along the highways and an increase in population with people coming from the eastern parts of Essex County to move to the country to live in our township.
"I like to remember it the way it was then when the very rural public school had only about 20 children in each class and with people you would spend eight or nine years with growing and learning together. I actually am still in touch on a regular basis with some of those people.
"I remember those early years at school, home with family and time spent with friends from school in the neighborhood. Life was so simple then, but time does march on, and we all get busy living our own lives. But it's always nice to think of those good old days.”
Mary has two sons and four grandchildren, who all live near her, except for her traveling granddaughter, Gina, who is now living in Las Vegas.
Fairfield Farms now is open during the spring, summer and fall seven days a week selling plants from their greenhouses and fruits and vegetables, along with all types of fall activities.
Sal and Joyce feel the success of their business was a willingness to change with the times and to put in a lot of hard work. Fairfield Farms and the Francavilla family are truly a big part of Fairfield farm history.
For more information, visit fairfieldfarms.net.