Perhaps the greatest thing that erstwhile engineer Ellen Leonard Parlee ’80 has grown on her Massachusetts farm is a family tree.
“Being your own boss is an empowering feeling,” says Parlee, who weaned herself off a career as a civil engineer in 2004. “But the best thing is having an occupation that involves my family. It’s been an invaluable gift.”
Parlee and her husband, Mark, have raised two daughters, Mary and Anne, and nine pick-your-own crops — apples, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, nectarines, sweet cherries, raspberries, flowers and pumpkins — on Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro, 35 miles northwest of Boston. In 25 years, the enterprise has grown from 10 acres to 100 and from a tarp-sheltered plank counter with a tackle-box cash register to a 7,500-square-foot retail farm stand with 50 seasonal employees, a country kitchen serving seasonal goodies and a petting farm featuring baby goats, sheep and bunnies. In addition to recreational fruit pickers, some 8,000 school children visit the complex annually. For the past two years, the Parlees have hosted a Bucknell Club family gathering for apple picking.
“It’s a great life,” says Parlee, who handles the retail side of the business. “Mark grows it, I sell it.”
Parlee says there were few surprises when first her husband, and then she abandoned engineering careers in favor of full-time farming.
“We didn’t go into it blindly,” Parlee says of the decision that led to the creation of Parlee Farms in 1986. “Mark had worked on his uncle’s farm. He knew what farming was about. It wasn’t an ‘I have a dream’ sort of thing.”
Mark committed himself to the farm full time in 1990. Ellen continued to work for the Bechtel Corporation for 10 years, then was a part-time consultant to MIT in the off-season from 2000 to 2004 before taking the plunge herself. Daughters Mary, 24 and a CPA for Deloitte & Touche, and 21-year-old Anne, a third-year pharmacy student at Northeastern University, began working on the farm when each was 7 years old and now spend summer breaks and fall weekends there.
“Both girls have told us they loved growing up on the farm,” Parlee says. “And we couldn’t have done it without them.” — Andrew W.M. Beierle