SACO — The yellow Grant’s Farm sign with its jolly farmer and blue ribbon seal still hangs over the barn doors. A doghouse, an exact replica of the barn, sits at the edge of the yard, an auction tag dangling from its roof.

But the once thriving farm run by Rick Grant is otherwise empty, the tractors gone and fields overgrown for the first time in decades. Julie and Ben Grant, his youngest children, walk around the locked barns, pointing out where their father used to park his tractors and the tree with Ben’s name carved into the bark. There are memories of their dad everywhere.

It’s been a week since the 300-acre property that has been farmed by Grants since the family was given 25 acres as a gift from King George III in the late 1700s was sold at auction. And it’s been more than a year since Rick – the seventh-generation farmer who worked the land – died unexpectedly, leaving behind a grieving family and uncertainty about the fate of the large farm that produced corn, peppers, squash and other vegetables sold in supermarkets throughout the region.

After a partially handwritten and unwitnessed will was found on a shelf above a bed, Rick’s widow, Stacy Grant, and his three children – Julie, Ben and Trena Soucy – became locked in a bitter dispute that led to the end of the farm Rick Grant spent decades building and an auction on July 12 that drew bidders from across New England. And shortly before the auction, the children learned they would not be able to bid on the land, elevating fears the property would end up in the hands of a developer.

After 16 months of uncertainty and 20 minutes of bidding, Grant’s family now has new hope.

The farm sold for $1.3 million to Marcel and Tina Bertrand, a local couple who want to keep the land as an active farm. The Bertrands, who had not met the Grant children until 10 minutes before the auction, plan to iron out an arrangement that will allow Ben to again farm the land.

“At the end of the day, we met the family and we felt it was important to keep the farm going,” said Marcel Bertrand, the second-generation owner of Arundel Machine Tool. His wife grew up on property abutting the farm. “The only thing we know is we’re going to let Ben start where he needs to start to continue the legacy.”

Ben, who farmed full time with his father for well over a decade, is sure that is what his dad would have wanted.

“I thought we’d have a development going in here. Someone was watching out for his farm to make sure it wasn’t houses,” he said, eying the overgrown fields. “My emotions have been stronger in the past week than they were in the past year. We know the fate of the farm now.”

‘INSTILLED A GOOD WORK ETHIC’

It seemed like Rick was destined to be a farmer. He grew up in Saco, where his family had for generations owned land in a rural corner of the city dotted with farms. He played with farm toys as a child and would later restore a toy tractor and buy farm play sets for the grandchildren who called him Papa and loved to ride with him around the fields.

Rick, a friendly guy who loved to talk about farming, purchased his ancestral farm in 1984 following the death of his father, Benjamin Richard Albert Grant. He started out with a small tractor or two, then bought a harvester to grow beans to sell wholesale, his son said.

“We handpicked corn back in those days,” said Ben, now 31. “I remember riding around with him in the early years. I would sit on his lap or on the fender of the tractor all day while he was plowing the farm.”

This February 2016 photo shows Rick Grant in the machine barn on Grant’s Farm in Saco. He died of a heart attack – the same affliction that killed his own father – on Feb. 13, 2017. Staff photo by Whitney Hayward

Rick continued to invest in his farm, buying equipment and clearing 50 acres of woodlot to expand his fields. Every season, he planted and harvested more than 100 acres of vegetables that were sold locally and by Hannaford, Native Maine Produce and Pennrose Farms.

“Our dad was up as soon as the sun came up and worked until the sun went down,” Julie, 34, said.

Rick talked about his style of farming in a 2006 promotional video for Hannaford. By then, he was running one of the largest farms in the area and was well-known in the farming community.

“We try to keep small enough so me and my boy can basically do 100 percent of the farming and that way we retain control over every field and every product line,” he said. “My crew is instructed to look at that item of produce and decide whether his mother would buy it in the grocery store.”

Julie and Ben spent every summer of their childhoods working on the farm, starting at $3 an hour picking and sorting corn to earn spending money. When Ben wanted a minibike, his dad handed him a paintbrush and a bucket of paint and pointed to the side of a barn.

“He certainly instilled a good work ethic in all of us,” Ben said. “He loved what he did and he put everything he had into it.”

A 2016 photo shows Rick Grant with his wife, Stacy, a former kindergarten teacher whom he met through the dating website FarmersOnly.com. They had been married two years when Rick Grant died in 2017. Staff photo by Whitney Hayward

Rick was in his 50s and divorced when he met Stacy, a former kindergarten teacher from New Hampshire, on the dating website FarmersOnly.com. They were married about seven months later in Florida, then came home to Saco to finish building a log cabin-style house on 10 acres down the road from the farm.

They had been married just over two years when Rick died during a snowstorm on Feb. 13, 2017. The man known as the Corn King and Bean Baron of Maine died of an apparent heart attack.

Stacy said she and her husband sometimes talked about heading out West or down South, but were committed to farming together until they knew for sure what they wanted to do next. In court filings, she said she saw her husband write out a will that left her the farm.

“We did know wherever life took us, we’d be together,” she said in an email last week.

After Rick died, Stacy continued farming, and said she hoped to carry on, but an agreement reached between her and Rick’s children to settle the estate called for the farm to cease operations this year.

“But without Rick, farming felt so empty. Rick made farming an adventure, he made it fun,” she said. “Rick would stop me in my tractor and surprise me with a beautiful bouquet of wildflowers and show up at sundown on the hottest day with an ice-cold beer. We would sit in the tractor and dream about what was next for us.”

Stacy said she, too, is relieved the land will not be developed.

BITTER DISAGREEMENTS DEVELOP

In the days after her father’s death, and before Stacy found the partially handwritten will, Julie called every lawyer she could think of in Saco and Biddeford to see if her dad had a will.

His children and extended family were certain Rick had always intended for his son and grandchildren to farm his land. After the birth of his grandson, Richard, Rick posted online a photo of the baby with the caption “future owner of Grant’s Farm,” said Vanessa Grant, Ben’s wife and Richard’s mother.

Shocked by his death just a month after he told them his doctor had given him a clean bill of health, the Grant children paid for an autopsy to try to determine how he died. A doctor signed off on his cause of death as a heart attack, which had also killed Rick’s father.

Tension quickly grew between Stacy and Rick’s children.

Ben Grant steps down from his tractor at his grandparents’ property last week. He farmed full time with his father, the late Rick Grant, for more than a decade and is pleased the auctioned farm in Saco won’t be converted into a housing development. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Instead of grieving, we were dealing with lawyers every week and police would show up at our doorstep,” Julie said.

They disagreed about whether an autopsy had been needed and if Rick would be buried or cremated. Stacy accused Ben of stealing from the farm and had him served with a no-trespass order by Saco police. Ben was never charged with theft, according to police.

Vanessa, who lives with her husband and their two sons in a house at the edge of the farm, pulled down the window shades in the home and left them closed. It was too hard to watch other people work in the fields.

While lawyers filed motions in probate court, Ben tried to refocus on work. He had to start over from scratch, planting crops on land owned by his grandparents a mile away from Grant’s Farm. Other farmers loaned him equipment he needed because he didn’t have access to the tractors and harvesters he had used with his father. He said he turned a profit despite the obstacles.

“You forget how small the community is until something like this happens,” Ben said. “Everybody came together to offer help in any way they could. We’re very grateful for that.”

This year, Ben planted 20 acres of crops on his grandparents’ land and a nearby leased field and is now spending his days harvesting. The small red farm stand his wife runs at Grant Family Farm is full of baskets of cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini. On the counter sits a handmade sign painted in Rick’s favorite John Deere colors and covered with photos of the farmer in his fields and laughing with his children.

THE DAY OF THE AUCTION

The Grants were well into their second season of farming their grandparents’ land without Rick when they finally reached a settlement with Stacy.

The undated will found in Rick Grant’s bedroom left the farm and all equipment to his wife. It also included a handwritten list leaving house lots and vehicles to Stacy’s children, a bottle of vodka to Julie and a screwdriver to Ben, according to court records. But it was never signed by a witness and was therefore not considered legally valid.

The settlement, which follows Maine succession law for people who die without a will, calls for half of Rick’s estate to go to his wife and half to his children to be divided into three equal parts. They agreed to sell the estate as soon as possible.

On a hot Thursday, the Grant children were up early to get ready for the auction. Ben and Julie had made two offers to buy Stacy’s half of the farm, but those were rejected. They found out at the last minute that they would not be able to bid on the property because they could not get title insurance and would have had to make a cash offer. As small-business owners, there was no way they could come up with that kind of money, they said.

At the farm on Grant Road, around 200 people walked around the dusty yard to look at rows of tractors and other equipment while the Grant children watched. Around them stood relatives, friends and other local farmers. They met people from Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Farmers drove down from Aroostook County to bid on harvesters and tractors. Someone bought the firewood stacked outside the barn.

The Grant children were not the only ones in the community worried about the future of the fields and forests.

A neighbor walked over from across the street, later describing herself as “the crying girl in the corner,” as she watched people place bids on Rick’s equipment. A fish and chips truck was parked in the corner of the dirt parking lot.

People introduced themselves to Ben and Julie and asked questions about the farm. It was hardest for Julie to talk to the developers eying the land for house lots.

“That was never my father’s wish,” Ben said. “He put his whole life into creating what he created. He wouldn’t have wanted houses scattered through his life’s work.”

‘GOODBYE TO A LOT OF FAMILY HISTORY’

Jeff Warren, who lives across from the farm and knew Rick, said the auction was disheartening. He and his wife, Erin – the one who cried in the corner during the auction – bought their house because they love the rural area and had talked to Rick about his wishes to never see it developed. They feared a developer would scoop it up and build neighborhoods like the ones that recently went up down the road.

“The idea of losing it was beyond words,” Warren said of the farm. “It was like losing Rick all over again to watch his legacy be sold off.”

The 313-acre farm sold first for $1.3 million, less than Ben and Julie had been ready to pay if their financing had worked out. Rick and Stacy’s house sold for $308,000. The farm equipment sold for a total of more than $300,000.

Ben bought irrigation equipment, corn harvesters, planters, and tractors. His sister bought their dad’s Harley-Davidson, then paid $140 for signs and a couple of Grant’s Farm T-shirts. She bought the doghouse her dad built for $10. She felt like she was buying back her family memories.

“It was a very emotional morning,” Ben said. “I was saying goodbye to a lot of family history.”

There were a lot of tears that day, but the Grant children now say they feel the black cloud that hung over the farm for a year has been lifted. They want to keep planting corn and beans like their dad.

“I just want to farm that farm,” Ben said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

filed under: