Front Porch Guy
Cranberry farmer Leo Cakounes stepped down from his decade-plus post as President of the Cape and Islands Farm Bureau at the organization’s annual meeting on October 16, 2012. We salute you, Leo!
Leo Cakounes’ career as a farmer came by circuitously. “As a young man in the Boston area, one of the financial acquisitions I made was the purchase of a small motley cabin colony in Harwich,” says Cakounes. “I bought it thinking my parents could run it a while and I would end up being able to someday retire to the Cape.”
Fate had other plans. When his father developed Alzheimer’s at the age of 56, “My mother was devastated, and so I came down with my wife to run the place. We just fell in love with the Cape.”
Lacking the funds to upgrade the rustic facilities and outmoded communal bathing facilities, Cakounes recalls walking straight over to the town offices, and saying, “I’ve got two acres on Route 28, legally zoned for business. What can I be?””
“I remember that day so well,” says Cakounes.
“You could be a farm,” they told me.
“And so I was a farm.”
Cakounes soon had 300 chickens and was the largest supplier of fresh eggs, milk, and feed and grain in the area, selling from a general store on the property. “We had pigs, lambs, and even registered Black Angus, all on those two little acres. Using best manure management practices, we did well.
“My grandfather had immigrated from Greece, and I grew up his property in Saugus,” says Cakounes. “He was one of the largest pig farmers in New England, but he didn’t make his fortune until Costco and BJ’s bought his farm for the land. Like him, I did okay with pigs —that is until the surrounding population density began to climb. They wanted me gone, and sadly, after a two-year lawsuit, they won.
“I wanted more land and they had bought me out, so now I had some money to expand,” says Cakounes. “I found, though, that only the wetlands were affordable. So I decided to raise cranberries on an existing bog.
“I buy a 63-acre parcel of bogs and I don’t even like cranberries,” says Cakounes, “and I don’t know when to pick them. I go straight to the guru of the cranberry business—Link Thatcher in North Harwich, and he becomes my big brother. It’s just a lot of work keeping the bogs weed free and clean, and then you harvest. Luckily for me, it’s not brain surgery.”
Fifteen years into the cranberry business, Cakounes and his wife made the discovery that they were finally to become parents to the daughter he adores: Evangeline, now fourteen. “At the time,” says Cakounes, “I was doing some agricultural work with the Community of Jesus and for a number of years those sisters there were after me to have a child. They’re connected to a higher power I guess. I try and send them a thank you card every year.”
Cakounes expanded his acreage too, this time with a ten-acre parcel on Main Street in Harwich. There he keeps a handful of goats, eighteen pigs, several dozen sheep and a few milking cows. One sparkling late afternoon found Leo doling out dinner as the sun set. “Look at these meals—where have you seen a nicer selection of fresh vegetables?”
When the animals mature, Cakounes’ membership privileges in the Rhode Island Cattleman’s Association allow him access to their cooperative slaughterhouse. Individual cuts of pork, lamb and beef can be purchased directly through Cakounes at his farm.
“We’re finding this is a much better choice for most people right now. The problem was that people used to purchase an entire live pig, and they owned it all when it was slaughtered. We just don’t eat slabs of meat like that anymore,” says Cakounes. “This is the first year of this new procedure, and already it seems better.”
“Farming—it’s all a lifestyle choice,” Cakounes shares. “You’d better have other investments though, because you certainly won’t be rich, but you sure may love it.”
Along the way some twelve years ago, Cakounes ran for and won the election for the Presidency of the Cape and Islands Farm Bureau. Presently the bureau has some 600 members—farmers, farmer wannabees, and friends of farmers. The Cape and Island Bureau is part of the seventeen counties represented in the Massachusetts State Farm Bureau, which in turn is represented by the American Farm Bureau. Cakounes explains, “It’s a member-driven organization, and we’ve got all kinds of farmers.”
“One of my proudest accomplishments,” according to Cakounes, “is the introduction of the Agricultural Commissions here on Cape Cod. These Agricultural Commissions educate our towns on laws promoting local agriculture and have townspeople on each board to help work out problems with farming. Board of Health members and Building Commissioners contact me. They trust me to do the right thing,” says Cakounes.
Cakounes says, “Cape farmers have to do business cognizant that their neighbors could be summer people who may have worked 48 weeks to come to the Cape and don’t want to see Leo driving his tractor down the road. Guys in Minnesota don’t have to worry about spreading manure at certain times of year. We can work together with the town officials on issues. We can all soften.”
In the larger picture, the relationship between the Cape and Islands Farm Bureau and the Massachusetts State Department of Agriculture (MDAR) was also very adversarial. “We were in two separate lanes on the issues,” says Cakounes. “I personally brought the attitude that the Cape and Islands Farm Bureau needs to work with the State Department of Agriculture very closely and have tried to bring us towards an attitude of unity.”
Throughout it all, Cakounes has tended his organic cranberry bogs. His wife Andréa gives tours of the farmstead from March through December. Depending on the size of the group, she ferries them around the acreage in a bus or a cart explaining what occurs each month in the farm. Included are glimpses of their barn, the resident animals and their equipment, including on original cranberry separator from the 1920s,
Concerned about what comes next for the collective landscape of Cape Cod, Cakounes is several years into a three-acre trial of growing native grasses. The concept he hopes will take off is using them as cover crops for homeowners’ lawns as well as for land owned by local municipalities. He and others have searched the Cape in undeveloped places like the Punkhorn areas for the seeds of species that may have been grown during the Colonial era.
“It won’t look like Kentucky,” explains Cakounes, “but I hope it takes off. We’re hopefully leaning away from manicured lawns. These seeds require no fertilizer, no pesticides and no soil conditioning. It will look okay and it will be so much better for the environment.” Particularly with the Cape having a sole source aquifer, these trials could positively impact future generations.
Over the past five years, Cakounes has grown plugs of hair grass ideal for the Cape’s coastal wetlands and even sand. In extreme summer heat they brown up, but they return the next year. Cakounes says, “They might not be putting-green perfect, but they’d be great for carpeting the roughs of golf courses or for use on the edges of highways, ramps and embankments.”
Cakounes is also the guy who donated goats to the town of Eastham, as a potential solution for removal of the brush beneath their power lines. “The power company doesn’t legally have the right to place animals on the land beneath the power lines if they don’t own it,” says Cakounes. It’s a complicated situation, and labor intensive, but because Eastham does actually own the land beneath some of their lines, the goats may prove to be a part of the solution for keeping their easements clear.
Next up for Cakounes may be a run for another office. The cranberry farmer muses that joining the race for County Commissioner may be next on his slate.
Ready to move on to whatever comes his way, Cakounes respectfully turned the reins over to Jim Knieriem of Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm at the October 16th annual meeting at the Cape Codder Resort in Hyannis.
Addressing the audience, Cakounes said that he has not tired of the position, but felt it time to release his grip and get some of the other volunteers to the helm. Twelve years ago he came on board to what seemed like the Titanic and he gratefully acknowledged the Board of Directors who helped him navigate. “It’s been a pleasure, and it’s because of you people in this room that agriculture on Cape Cod is not a sinking ship anymore.”
Declaring his families’ love for the farming life, Cakounes coins himself the Front Porch Guy. “I like to look people in the eye and shake hands. That means a lot to me.” He’s confident that Knieriem will aptly steer the bus into the challenging times ahead.
“I’m so glad that I was there to witness the attitude of people change to one of caring about where their food is grown and maybe even knowing who grew it,” says Cakounes. “I’m very fortunate to have been on board when this rebirth occurred.”
“The Buy Local campaign, the farmers’ markets and the farm stands have all contributed,” says Cakounes. “The reality is that there are very few farmers here and they alone can’t feed Cape Cod. But all of this has helped us from blindly throwing food into our carts and to start asking, “What’s in our food?””
“Families may even be a little less disconnected now,” says Cakounes. “Food reconnects us all.”
Sharing time at the podium is Cakounes’ beloved daughter Evangeline, clutching a letter she has composed. Too choked up to continue, Jim Knieriem does the honor of reading what she has to say to her Dad. She poignantly writes of her happiness that he is retiring to the solitary job of being the best dad anyone could have.
“Leo,” adds Knieriem, “is a man of integrity. He has always spoken highly of every person in this room. What he has to say is always based on the facts even if sometimes we don’t like those facts. And if you need to borrow equipment or your cows are running away down the street, he is always there for you.”
Members of state and local government and agriculture organizations follow, each on hand to laud the efforts and accomplishments of Cakounes during his presidency. A pattern emerges: leading with intelligence, always being the voice in the room questioning, challenging and seeing things from a different angle. Cakounes’ credible, consistent and reliable support of agriculture as a way of life and as a viable part of the economy earned him the admiration and gratitude of the farmers of Cape Cod.
And so, with a laugh and a smile and a nod to all, Leo Cakounes, Front Porch Guy, steps down, but hopefully not far away.
Thank you Leo.
Bog Tours and Meat Sales:
Cape Farm & Cranberry Company
374 Main Street, Harwich
508-432-0790 508-364-6474 (cell)
Freelance writer Michelle Koch works with eighth grade students at Nauset Middle School, grows flowers and does whole grain baking for the Orleans and Wellfleet farmers’ markets, and lives with her daughters Camille and Chloe, and their dog Woof. Getting to watch Cakounes put out the supper buffet for his menagerie was a blast.