Small Organic Farms, Big Ideas in Fairfield County
Jul 02, 2014 01:48AM
By Eileen Weber
Farming is making a comeback across the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 figures, the state of Connecticut has had a 60 percent increase in the number of farms since 1982. Of those farms, women operators make up 25 percent, which is up 2 percent in the last seven years.
Fairfield County is home to several organic farms, some of which have been in the same family for generations while others are new urban farms. Many of them boast successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)programs with long waiting lists.
Farming for a living is hard work, particularly for older farmers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average farmer is close to 60 years old. However, more young people seem to be taking an interest in this profession. “We are seeing a much younger audience that is far more cognizant of health issues as to what they should eat,” says John Holbrook from Bethel’s Holbrook Farm. “More and more young people are going into farming [as a way of life].”
Holbrook, who has been farming for the last 40 years, holds workshops for a number of area school programs, including Yale University’s Sustainable Food Project. Other schools, such as Quinnipiac University and Western Connecticut State University, integrate his organic produce into their cafeteria meals.
Holbrook’s farm is one of many in this region that practices organically with a Farmer’s Pledge from the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA) but is not USDA-certified organic. A common complaint of many farmers is the amount of paperwork and red tape that is involved with becoming a USDA-certified organic farm.
Other local farms do fulfill the requirements to be certified as organic. Dina Brewster, a former teacher and Ivy League graduate who owns and farms The Hickories in Ridgefield, says teaching got her accustomed to the paperwork. In her opinion, the paperwork, which requires filling out forms and keeping a daily log of farm activity, is not overly burdensome.
On the other hand, Brewster says the challenges she finds taxing are the economic hardships of farming. “Farming like your grandmother is nostalgic but not realistic,” she explains. “That’s the real challenge. Farmers should be making three times what they actually make based on how hard they work. Frankly, I’d make more money working at Starbucks.”
The main source of income for for-profit farms is the sale of produce at farm stands and farmers’ markets. The average consumer may forget that aspect and wonder why their purchase is often more expensive, Brewster reflects.
The health of the soil is another obstacle that farmers need to contend with. The Hickories has been deemed usable farmland for 250 years. In that time, the soil wasn’t always tilled for profit. To become an organic farm – starting out on one acre and jumping to 30 – the soil had to be rebuilt. In order to do so, massive quantities of compost were used to refertilize the soil to make the pH levels optimal for growing.
Randy Brown, better known as “Uncle Buck,” had a similar soil problem with the land he farms. It took over a year to bring the soil back to good growing levels at Hubbard Heights Farm, a semi-urban farm situated near downtown Stamford with a greenhouse and planted crops. The land, originally intended to be a housing development, was offered to Brown by owner Bruce Sclafani of Sclafani Foods when the deal fell through. Brown brought in a considerable amount of compost, turning the soil over and adding more compost frequently to finally get the soil to support growth.
“Farming is a very unique occupation,” said Mike Aitkenhead, program director at Wakeman Town Farm in Westport. “If none of my cucumbers or squash grow this year, it makes you realize how much is at stake. It has forced a deeper appreciation of how things grow.”
The local proverb about New England’s weather conditions, “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes,” reflects another issue community farmers need to contend with. One day there is a record high temperature followed the next day by near freezing temperatures at night. “These extremes can really wreak havoc on us farmers. I think you’re going to see more greenhouse growing [in the future] as a result,” says Patti Popp of Sport Hill Farm in Easton.
Local farmers are also frustrated by competing with farms that plant a small amount of crops, form a CSA, and pick up the rest of their produce wholesale and sell that to consumers as their own. “They take the easy way out,” says Popp. “It’s rampant in our area and it’s frustrating as a farmer.” A clear sign that a farm stand is selling wholesale produce is when the food is out of season. Popp points out that many people have lost touch with the food system and do not recognize the seasonality of regional produce. “It’s not Farmville,” she declares. “It’s real life.”
To get their communities more involved, many local farms have become “educational farms,” running workshops, summer camps for children and special events in addition to growing produce. Apprenticeship program and internships are also becoming more common. Ambler Farm in Wilton incorporated Program Manager Kevin Meehan’s 20 years of experience as a Wilton teacher with the vast farming experience of Director of Agriculture Jonathan Kirschner, to educate community members. “We have so many loyal people because they were part of the process,” says Meehan. “It’s about the experience.”
Westport’s Belta’s Farm has grown in a similar way. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, they’ve developed a regular following at their farm stand. “That’s what people are looking for,” said Angela Belta, who runs the stand with her family. “It’s fresh, it doesn’t go on a truck, and it was picked just a few hours ago.”
Supporting the farms in Fairfield County is a responsibility community members should take seriously. Every time you stop by a farm stand, join a CSA, participate in an event, or sign up your kids for summer farm camp, you are supporting the people who put food on your table. The growing season is here. Which farm will you visit this summer?
Eileen Weber is a Fairfield-based freelance writer with a master’s degree in journalism and a professional background in publishing. She has written numerous articles for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites, including the Fairfield Green Food Guide.