Deadline approaches for local farmer to clean up property
Gamil Azmy carries a bale of hay over to his bull Hercules while tending to some chores on his land in Warner on November 8, 2013.
Azmy has been in a long court battle with the towns of Warner and Webster about the state of his land.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Gamil Azmy has been in a long court battle with the towns of Warner and Webster about the state of his land. Photographed on November 8, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
One of Gamil Azmy's pigs perches on the fence of its pen on November 8, 2013 on Azmy's property in Warner. Azmy has been in a long court battle with the towns of Warner and Webster about the state of his land. Some of the complaints from neighbors rise from the fact that much of Azmy's working farm is in such close proximity to Highway 103 (behind the fence in the background.)
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Gamil Azmy’s tomato plants could be anyone else’s tomato plants in November, brown and fading as the weather grows cold.
But the old ski poles holding up those dying tendrils wouldn’t be in anyone else’s garden but his.
“I’m not a gentleman farmer,” Azmy said with a little laugh. “I’m a gentleman, and I’m a farmer. But I’m not a gentleman farmer. I would like to be a gentleman farmer, but it takes money.”
Azmy, 69, walked around his property Friday, gesturing to the garden outside his yellow house but ignoring the ski poles – “I tell you, this is the best garden ever,” he said – and petting his animals as he walked past their pens – “He’s very, very friendly, like a dog,” he said of Hercules, a gigantic bull licking Azmy’s coat with a thick black tongue.
He can’t hide the pride in his voice. But he can’t hide the defensive edge to his tone either, because those ski poles, that barn, the trash bins for sawdust and water, the cages for his animals – they all look very different to the proud farmer than they do to inspectors from the towns of Webster and Warner.
To him, it’s a working farm. To them, it’s a junkyard.
Azmy and his wife, Lois, are facing more than $29,000 in fines over the state of that property, a piece of land that straddles both of those towns. Town officials and neighbors have complained that debris, machinery and out-of-service vehicles on the farm violate town ordinances and have become a nuisance. The couple signed a settlement agreement with both towns in May 2011, at that time promising to store materials and equipment in permanent structures on their property.
In June, a Merrimack County Superior Court judge found the Azmys in contempt of court and in violation of that settlement agreement. The couple appealed that decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court and lost.
Now the Azmys must clean up their 18-acre property on Route 103 East by Friday, Judge Richard McNamara ordered in September, or the towns of Webster and Warner will do it for them at the expense of the landowners. They petitioned for an abatement of their fines, but the judge will not rule on that until after the deadline this week.
“We are in the fire,” Azmy said. “We are right there, burning up. We are burning up.”
According to the terms of his agreement with the towns, Azmy needed to build enclosures that would house much of his equipment indoors. But he is allowed to keep equipment outside if he is actively using it for agriculture.
“The agreement said it has to be inside, but not the stuff we use every day,” Azmy said. “Every day, I get up and use the trash bucket. I use the water bucket in the wintertime. I use the hoses. Because I have to take care of all these animals. They depend on me.”
His tone edging on defensive, he made sure to point out a two-story barn he has built to house hay and animals, and the birdhouses he builds himself, and the pen he built from metal fencing to house 19 grunting piglets.
The property is not picturesque. It’s just a working farm, as Azmy has repeated in court over and over.
“Give me a 4-by-4 like that,” he said, pointing to a pile of wood. “That’s not junk wood. That’s a 4-by-4. It can be . . . for something else.”
He pointed to the building he says he has constructed in the past few months – a barn with plywood walls, a metal enclosure for some of the 150 bales of hay he receives each month. He has pieced together walls for some of the structures out of whatever he could find, like recycled wood shutters on one enclosure still in progress.
“It’s not exactly perfect, but hey, you want it enclosed? I enclosed it,” he said of the walls on the building that houses his farmer’s market.
That farmer’s market is just one of several businesses Azmy runs on his property, he said. He also has a gift shop, where he sells birdhouses and other small wood products, and he sells aquaculture systems.
And as he tries to cope with the coyotes and foxes that have been attacking his animals, Azmy said he is also trying to manage declining business as more and more customers avoid him and his land. He hasn’t sold the piglets yet. He can’t keep his own fish tanks anymore because of the expense, and he hasn’t been able to hire part-time help for the farm as he used to.
“If you look around, there’s no trash,” he said. “Every single day, I pick it up. Trash to me is waste, and that’s . . . the problem with the neighborhood now. ‘Oh your place is full of trash, your place is toxic.’ What’s toxic? And that’s what killing our business.”
As Azmy walked past their pen built from chain-link fencing, his 19 piglets pushed against the gate with excited grunts. Suddenly, they were out, running in a squealing pack on their short legs.
“Come on, girls,” Azmy said, chasing after them.
He clicked his tongue patiently at the little animals as he and his wife and son herded them back to their pen, luring them with bread from the house. They flocked around him, jumping over his ankles but finally following his lead back into their enclosure.
“I love my animals,” Azmy said. “They are my fixation. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I don’t do anything. This is my friends, each one of them.”
Lois Azmy tossed pieces of a cheese bagel to the pigs in their pen. She has been by her husband’s side in court as they argue their case, but she said they still don’t feel like they understand the settlement agreement they signed with the town.
“I feel like I’m on a runaway train, the brakes are broke, the conductor jumped off, it’s going downhill,” she said.
Azmy said he had just received pictures and information from the most recent visit by town officials. He shook his head, still unsure what he needs to accomplish in the last days before his deadline.
“I have to call my lawyer,” he said.
The lines of his age are starting to show under the black-and-gray scruff on his cheeks. He has lived in America for almost 50 years since he emigrated from Egypt, and he’ll be 70 soon. He was quiet for a moment, and suddenly there was a sadness in his words that had not been there before.
“The freedom here is beautiful, and I came to America as a student and an immigrant because of that freedom,” Azmy said. “And to see this happening to me and my family, it’s just breaking my heart.”
He watched the chickens dig in the nearby soil. Then the moment was gone, and the tone in his voice was defensive again.
“So, here we are,” he said. “All we want to do is live in peace.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)