With a half-smoked cigar on his lips and four more in his shirt pocket, skin leathered from years in the sun and a pot belly that belies his profession, former North Caldwell Mayor Jim Matarazzo is the last man standing in what was once a rich farming community.
"We're the last real farm left in Essex County," he said with a just a tinge of pride in his voice. "At one time, there were 45 farms in Fairfield. North Caldwell had three or four, West Caldwell, Essex Fells—the whole area."
Ask him anything about his crops and he could seemingly offer a dissertation. But he usually keeps the answers simple.
When a customer recently starting pondering the different types of tomatoes and which ones are best for canning, Matarazzo simply replied, "Whichever one is the ripest, that's the one you want."
Matarazzo, 64, is a third-generation farmer, carrying on the family tradition of Matarazzo Farms that has stood at its North Caldwell location on Mountain Avenue for 90 years. The grandfather of three wakes up each morning from mid-April until the end of December between 4 and 5 a.m., often picking zucchini flowers before dawn.
These days, it wouldn't be hard to drive right past the unassuming roadside farm stand and five-acre plot that sits behind it. Years ago, the 128-acre L-shaped property was impossible to miss.
The family dynasty started back in 1906, when Matarazzo's paternal grandmother, Filomena Pascal, arrived in Hoboken. She came to work as the housekeeper for her four older brothers, who were longshoremen working on the Hoboken docks.
Just 14 years old at the time, immigrating to the United States was never part of Pascal's plans. Her older sister was originally supposed to make the trip, but Matarazzo said, "She got cold-feet at the last minute, so they sent my grandmother."
Pascal never returned to her hometown of Avellino, Italy, or saw her mother again. She also never forgot her farming roots. After she married Italian-American Constantino Matarazzo, an arborist who had experience working in wineries, the couple owned farms in Brancheville and Livingston before settling in North Caldwell in 1920.
"They did it all. They were self-sustaining," Matarazzo said of his grandparents, who lived into their 80s and raised 13 children on the farm.
"She instilled in them that to be successful, you had to own your own business," he said. All 13 went on to do so, including her fourth-eldest son, Joe, who took over the family farm.
"He was always my grandmother's favorite. She relied heavily on him," Jim recalled of his father. Other family members owned farms in Parsippany and Livingston, while Jimmy opened the Montclair Food Exchange and another owned a restaurant in Bloomfield.
According to Jim Matarazzo, his father married a "stubborn" Irish-American named Margaret, known as "Midge" for her tiny build. They raised three children near the farm in a house on Mountain Avenue.
After spending the majority of his childhood working on the farm, Jim decided the long days in the sun were not in his future. Upon graduating from West Essex Regional High School in 1964—a member of the first class to attend the school for all four years—Jim studied sociology and politics at Villanova.
"I was going to be a teacher," he said. But with the farm short on help in the summer of 1968, the recently graduated Matarazzo agreed to help his father.
"I said I'd stay through the summer, but then I never left," Matarazzo said with a laugh. "I have no regrets. I enjoy it, I really do."
His brother is also still in the business, operating a 390-acre property in Hope, while his sister lives in California.
Though he never formerly ran a classroom, Matarazzo considers himself a teacher of another sort. He hires college students to work on the farm every summer and helps them understand the value of a strong work ethic.
"I'm happy the way it is," he said. "I could've been a retired teacher now, but here, I'm teaching them the realities of life. Nothing comes easy."
The farm is no longer as diverse as it once was. Gone are the dairy cows and the wide variety of vegetable crops. Plants, herbs and a handful of vegetables are still grown on the property, but Matarazzo said, "We're more of a road show now."
Rather than tilling the fields, the Matarazzo staff visits nine farmers' markets each week, selling produce from sister farms in South Jersey and other wholesale farms in the area.
The busiest time on the farm is in the fall when Halloween-fever takes over. There are hay-rides around the property and pumpkins covering just about every inch of grass.
Aside from Halloween festivities, the favorite attraction among young visitors is Millie, the resident donkey. Along with an adult and two baby goats, Millie stands in a pen near the back of the property.
Considering the family's community involvement, it's not a surprise that daily operations have been scaled back. Jim Matarazzo was mayor of North Caldwell for 16 years up until 2002, while his father was mayor of the borough for 12 years, mostly in the 1960s.
"We love government, we love the town," Jim Matarazzo said. "He was on the governing body 25 years, I was for 25 years. Between the two of us, we're like half the town's history."
He is proud to say it was the Matarazzo family's vision has always been to keep North Caldwell a residential community.
"Both my father and I made a decision that North Caldwell should stay almost 95 percent residential while other communities went for the high-rises and corporations as rateables," Matarazzo said. "But in the end, it wasn't cost effective for them."
With his days in government behind him, Matarazzo now spends the offseason relaxing in Florida. The twice-married father of three still enjoys working the farm, but relishes those months away. He credits his wife, Jeannie, with the continued success of the farm.
"She's the workhorse, she runs the stand," he said.
Pondering if the farm will stand on Mountain Avenue for another 90 years, Matarazzo isn't certain. He said he will definitely not keep it if he is forced to sell off any more property, and does not know if future Matarazzo generations will choose to continue the tradition.
He does see one possible torchbearer: his granddaughter Gabbi.
"Gabbi, she's like a little me. She's only about 12 years old, but she's here ordering the college kids around," he said, again bursting out with a hearty laugh. "There's a chance here, we're trying."
No matter what happens in the future, Jim is proud of the Matarazzo Farms' rich history.
"You will come to a lot of crossroads in life," he said. "I'm lucky, because I chose the right way."