And on That Farm
A couple is turning a New Milford spot into a CSA based organic garden
It's not often that a quixotic dreams over drinks turn real. But for John “Bill” Miskimen and wife Amy Cunningham they did. “One too many days in Venice and one too many bottles of Chianti, and our lives were changed forever,” says Miskimen, a carpenter with a green thumb and gusto for green living.
Miskimen, 53, and Cunningham, a 49-year-old fourth-grade teacher in Bedford, New York, were lingering last year in an Italian café when they were overcome with conviction to start their own organic vegetable, fruit, and flower farm in the Connecticut countryside. “We looked for potential farm properties within an hour of Westchester, and we hit on this dreamland in New Milford,” Miskimen says. “We said, ‘That’s it. That’s our paradise.’”
It was a late winter afternoon, and Miskimen was walking the 16.4-acre property he bought in June for $203,000, pointing out where the vegetable crops, flowerbeds, and orchards will go, along with a 40-foot-by-80-foot barn and a 60-foot-by-43-foot geothermal greenhouse that will keep plants growing through winter months. He’s also building his dream dwelling: a tastefully designed 3,300-square-foot main house and 1,200-square-foot guesthouse that incorporate “all the elements of solar, geothermal, sustainable technology imaginable,” Miskimen says. “It’s going to be an 1880s-looking homestead with 2020 technology.”
Since the property is across the street from The Silo, a cooking school, art gallery, and farmland preserve in the Northville section of New Milford, many passersby have stopped to ogle the progress, assuming that it’s part of The Silo operations. “Everyone thinks that,” says Miskimen, who now lives in Greenwich. “Everyone’s curious.”
Agriculture was not just a random seed planted in the couple’s mind. “Since I was a little kid, I always did the gardening for my mom,” Miskimen says, who grew up in the Midwest. “I don’t know what it is, but everything I put in the ground comes up and flourishes.” Miskimen has taken numerous courses over the years in organic gardening, and Cunningham gained her vast knowledge at her family’s farm in Galway, Ireland, where she spent every summer as a child. “We go back there every chance we get,” says Cunningham. “Everything is organic, everything is raised or grown on the farm. The only thing we ever buy is sugar or tea.” The Cunningham family farm, called Finnegan’s Farm, inspired the name for their New Milford venture: Finnegan’s Farm West.
Cunningham, a former event planner for several national sports associations, including the NHL, the USTA, and the Olympics, switched careers to teaching eight years ago so she could have summers off to travel with her husband, the emphasis always being on agriculture—learning more about it and sharing their knowledge with other cultures. “We’ve been to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Iceland, Scotland, Africa, South Africa. We’ve donated water wells and helped people learn how to live off the land,” Miskimen says.
Miskimen already has contracts to sell his produce to restaurants and markets across Connecticut, and will sell directly from the farm. “My philosophy and my plan is to provide fresh, organic produce to people, no matter what their economic background, people who can’t afford Whole Foods or Freshfields,” Miskimen says. “We’re not doing this to make a huge profit. We’re doing this because we’re passionate about sustainability.”
He’s already enlisted a bumper crop of young, local gardeners who want to work and learn at the same time. And, down the road, he plans to offer a CSA, with even further discounts for families who tend to their own plots.
The couple plans to sell their home in Greenwich and move to the farm July 1. But the crops are being planted in May, hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, all native to this area.
While dairy farms have dwindled over the years in Connecticut—down from about 4,000 in the 1950s to 150 now—the number of produce farms has gone from 82 to 108 over the past five years, with about a dozen others being developed across the state this year, according to Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Connecticut chapter. “We’ve seen an incredible, steady increase in new organic farms in Connecticut,” Duesing says. “Some of the farmers are in their 20s; some are in their 50s or 60s. The average age is 55.” But the demand is still high, he adds. “There are so many restaurants, colleges, markets, institutions, hospitals that want to eat plow-to-plate.”
Miskimen says he didn’t want to propagate this growing industry for business reasons. “It’s more philosophical,” he says. “This is the right thing to do, and it’s how we want to spend the rest of our days. We want to help people eat fresh, eat organic, eat local. We want to help people become good stewards of the land.”