Doing Good: Gay Wagner
Part of our series on farmers and others in agriculture who give ’til it helps: For Wagner, it’s all about the kids in his hometown.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
Gay Wagner can stand on the Millstone, N.J., township streets that used to be dirt paths and point to the land where he was born 85 years ago. Within what are now a few city blocks, he and his family grew everything from corn and beans to vegetables and mums on more than 200 acres.
The 85-year-old still has five working farms and is a partner in a cattle operation, but further down the coast, not here in Jersey. “You caught me on my way out of town,” he says. But on his way out, he’s leaving a legacy.
As the New York City and Newark suburbs encroached, Gay and his son Karl worked with the township to turn 25 acres of what was once farmland into Wagner Farm Park, where hundreds of kids enjoy athletic fields and a playground, shaded by two giant elms that have shaded generations of Wagners as well.
Wagner, who began his 69th season of custom harvesting this past August, shows no signs of slowing, just as he didn’t 54 years ago when he lost his left arm in a corn dryer. “You keep doing what you have to do,” he says. But he is slowly but surely divesting himself of a farm equipment collection that spans seven decades and includes more than 20 Massey Harris and Massey Ferguson tractors. He donates pieces to museums, public collections and the American Children’s Society, which uses proceeds from sales of the restored equipment to help sick children.
“It’s about the kids,” he says. “Seeing these fields filled with kids, it’s all worth it.” As New York and Philadelphia continue to grow together, says Wagner, development is inevitable. But it seems appropriate that children—the most precious commodity—are growing here now.