John DeMarco started his farm and his family in the 1950s, when he was "poor as a church mouse," as he always said. He and his wife, Anna, had to collect soda cans sometimes to make the payroll for the vegetable farm.
Later, he would work a full day on the farm, in Mullica Township's Nesco section; then, at 5 p.m., he would head out to the gas station he added to the front of the farm and pump gas until 9 p.m. Sometimes, Anna and the kids would sit with him, so the family could eat dinner together.
But John died a prosperous man last month, at 78 - apparently of a heart attack after he was in a car accident as a passenger, said Brenda Pinto, their oldest child. Pinto is not sure her dad would like her calling him "prosperous" in public, though, because he was never too big on showing off his success.
At its height, his Sun Valley Farms was about 100 acres of "cucumbers in the summer, potatoes in the fall, tomatoes, peppers" and more, said Pinto, 53, who worked on the farm along with her brother, John Jr., and sisters, Carol and Annette.
A lot of DeMarco's school friends also worked there over the years. Pinto said her dad paid his people more than the going rate, and he expected to see them working. But this boss also believed in feeding his workers, right at the table with his own kids.
"They would eat free, and they became part of the family," she said.
By the 1980s, DeMarco converted his farm to all blueberries, which were easier to harvest. Later, he sold part of the land. But he was an active farmer until he died.
In fall and winter, when things slow down on local farms, DeMarco would get together with 15 or 20 other farmers almost every morning for coffee and breakfast at Farmer John's, a market that John DeMarco Jr. now runs - also on the family property.
Some of the talk is just giving each other trouble, said Bill DiMeo Jr., 58, who knew DeMarco for almost 50 years. But a lot of it is sharing information and ideas, and DiMeo added that the real Farmer John came up with some useful suggestions for his friends.
He was never shy - "He'd give you his opinion whether you wanted it or not," DiMeo said. But over the years, other farmers learned to listen to him - and not just when he had a new joke.
At slow times of year, DeMarco had plenty of time to travel. He also had the means, and since he was proud of his roots in Italy, his kids would tell him he should go see it for himself.
His answer was always the same, Pinto said: "I haven't seen all of Nesco yet."
In the end, after all the struggle - and the success - DeMarco was a pretty simple guy:
"He loved his family," Pinto said. "He loved his farm, and he loved my mom."
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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