Buying the Farm
Making good food has not always been good business with farm-to-table things are starting to look up
Look to your left as you drive north up Route 63 as it winds into the Litchfield Hills and you’ll see a sign high up on the side of an old white barn overlooking the intersection with Route 109 in Morris that reads, “Sam Paletsky, Cattle Dealer, East Morris.” It’s a tribute to the man who tended the barn and the 150 acres of rolling farmland that stretch out behind it back when it was a bustling dairy farm with 150 head of cattle.
Sam Paletsky’s dairy farm—like so many family farms in this region and across America—fell prey to the rise of large, factory farms in the early 1970s and shut down. He died in 1999, and large swaths of his land has become overgrown while the barn sits largely idle. It’s peaceful and scenic, but it’s also sad to see a place once so productive and vibrant sitting still. It’s now a target for developers, but Sam’s grandson Ben Paletsky views the farm as a “slumbering giant” that he can revive.
The 34 year-old product manager for E Ink Corp., a tech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has returned with his young family to live on the farm where he grew up. And he says he wants to save it. He partnered with the neighboring Dorsett family—childhood friends who own another 20 acres of farmland—to form South Farms, a venture aimed at transforming the properties into a New England farm of the 21st century. In addition to raising beef cattle and selling produce, South Farms holds community music festivals and is open to host weddings and other large events. It also has ambitions to develop into an agritourism center, inviting tourists and locals alike to learn about and participate in the workings of the farm.
“New England farms are not going to be commodity providers—they’re going to be more experiential, bringing people in for entertainment and education and selling them value-added products,” says Paletsky, who readily acknowledged the daunting economic challenges facing his vision. “If you went to an accountant and asked him if you should buy a 150-acre farm in Connecticut, he’d laugh you out of the room.”
If new-age farmers like Paletsky have anything going for them, it’s the public’s rapidly growing awareness and sensitivity about food and where it comes from. There’s an unmistakable trend toward fresh, local, and natural foods and a backlash against industrial farming and the processed food industry. The trend is reflected in the proliferation of farmer’s markets and the popularity of books by author Michael Pollan, prime-time TV shows like Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” and First Lady Michelle Obama’s new veggie garden at the White House.
“There is a social movement underway that’s growing by leaps and bounds, and farmers are benefiting, but we’ve done a very poor job of keeping tabs on this new food economy of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture,” says Ben Campbell, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “We really don’t know how big it is, and there’s a big effort underway now to better understand it and harness it into something that can reverse the decline of farmland.”
The clock is ticking. Connecticut loses approximately 8,000 acres of farmland to development each year, according to the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Many hardworking, productive farmers in the region live off incomes well below the median income and, sometimes, below the poverty line. Connecticut recently passed legislation aimed at increasing the percentage of local consumer dollars spent on locally produced farm products from just 1 percent to 5 percent by 2020.
“As you look around in our part of Fairfield County, it’s easy to feel like the wooly mammoth on the iceberg,” explains Dina Brewster, owner of The Hickories, an organic farm in Ridgefield. “So many food-producing farms have had to turn into horse barns and subdivisions. Protecting working land and protecting farmers means putting our money where our mouth is. More simply put, it means we in this state need to spend more on our food and less on other stuff.”
The Hickories has benefited from a new business model in farming known as CSA, or community-supported agriculture. Farmers sell memberships—or “shares”—to the public. The money received before the season supports the farm’s expenses, and in return for taking on some of the financial risk, members get fresh produce throughout the season. “The profit margin of our farm is very small and sometimes hard to rely on, but I believe the long-term economics of farming has more to do with the balance of nutrients in our soil and the strength of the timber in our barns than the balance in our checkbooks,” says Brewster. “Small to midsize organic farms are our best hope for re-regionalizing our food system. It feels obvious to me that our big industrial food system is not providing us returns that we need on any level: economic, environmental, cultural, or nutritional.”
That spirit is behind ventures like Community Table, a restaurant in Washington that has become a sensation throughout Connecticut and beyond by serving delicious meals with ingredients that come almost entirely from local farms and producers. “Public awareness of these issues has really gone up dramatically, and it’s great that more farms are starting up, but I’m still not convinced the demand is there yet to support growth,” says Community Table’s chef Joel Viehland.
Viehland says more restaurants and markets need to get creative about connecting consumers with local farmers, pointing to markets like New Morning Market, a natural foods and organic produce store in Woodbury, and Adams Fairacre Farms, a family-owned market with four locations throughout New York’s Hudson Valley known for its huge selection of locally produced foods. He estimates that he spends $5,000 to $10,000 a month with local farmers. “We need more restaurants to make it their mission to support the local farming community,” says Viehland.
In 2001, Patti Popp and her husband went out on a limb and purchased a densely wooded lot in Easton. Over time, the hard work and dedication of the couple transformed a seemingly unpromising piece of real-estate into a manageable and sustainable farm. Today this land is known as Sport Hill Farm, and it encompasses 21 acres of fertile soil.
In recent years, the popularity of organic foods has steadily increased, causing the dynamics of farms like Sport Hill to change. “2012 definitely showed an increase in people wanting more sustainable, organic produce,” Popp says. She attributes this newfound interest to the movie Food, Inc., a gritty documentary that explores the ins and outs of America’s corporate controlled food industry.
Patti Popp and the other Sport Hill Farm team members work to educate citizens on the importance of eating local, sustainable food. Popp does not view her farming as a job, but as a lifestyle that she fully embraces. When asked about the recent growth of her farm due to the spike in organic interest, Popp says, “Growth for any farmer is a positive thing, not only to be able to support a family, but being able to keep our hard-earned money in our state.”
Tom Truelove, a 31 year old who founded Truelove Farms in Morris three years ago with a credit card and some idle land owned by family friends, is partly motivated by his experience observing the unsavory practices of factory farms in Iowa when he was a writing student there. His farm—which raises grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, pork, and turkeys—is intended to be an alternative. “Things are headed in the right direction, but the local food movement is still a very small part of the pie,” says Truelove. “Trying to take the time and wait for the movement to catch up with you is tricky.”
Like many of his peers, Truelove is cobbling together a business by selling to local restaurants and markets, but his largest business comes from a CSA program. UConn’s Campbell estimates there’s now over 100 CSA programs offered in the state, each of which probably has 150 to 200 customers. It can be expensive, but John Holbrook of Holbrook Farm in Bethel argues that when health-care costs are factored in, consumers that eat locally grown food come out way ahead over the long-term. “It’s an experience to buy food from your local farmer that’s not just about buying food,” argues Holbrook, who uses hoop houses to grow fresh greens in winter. “It’s about visiting the farm and seeing what’s in season and having the farmer know your name and let you sample things.”
Thomas Levine, owner of Longmeadow Farm in Cornwall, sells his produce at a small store on his farm, and he estimates that the vast majority of his business comes from customers living within a 15-mile radius of his property. “My business has grown every year, and I assume it will keep growing because over the last five years I’ve witnessed the increase in the number of people who are interested in eating this way,” says Levine. “They’re looking at their health.”
Before he became a farmer, Levine had a variety of occupations, but he was always interested in food and nutrition. After he had a child five and a half years ago, that interest became his life’s mission. “One’s consciousness gets raised when they’re suddenly in charge of making food choices for their child.”
That jibes with what Mark Palladino and Joanie Guglielmino, partners behind the certified-organic Wild Carrot Farm, see in their store and at their stand at the Litchfield Farmer’s Market. “We see young mothers with babies become new customers all the time,” says Guglielmino. “People are willing to make the investment for their children.”
Wild Carrot, which has been in Canton for years, is moving to Bantam onto land owned by Howard Rosenfeld and Cheryl Leach, who also own The Smithy, a store in New Preston dedicated to selling local agricultural products. They’re planning to grow raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, asparagus, garlic, and more, and they’ve also had solar panels installed to power the operation. “Howard and Cheryl are making a capital investment in hopes of creating a model for the future of local farming,” said Palladino.
Probably the largest capital investment being made in a local farm comes from George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, who transformed Arethusa Farm in Litchfield from a dying farm into a prize-winning cattle-breeding operation and dairy farm. In the world of high fashion, they’re known as the top executives at Manolo Blahnik, the women’s shoe brand. In cattle circles, these life and business partners are known for making history in 2004 when two of their cows were named Grand Champion Jersey and Grand Champion Holstein at the World Dairy Expo.
Cattle breeding was the main purpose of Arethusa Farm after Malkemus and Yurgaitis first bought it in 1996 to save the land from developers. They wound up building their own bottling operation and selling milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, butter—and even eggnog—with the slogan, “Milk like it used to taste.”
They don’t consider it a commercial operation, but have they realized any returns on their big investment? Says Malkemus, “The goal is to get the farm up on its feet financially so it’s self-sustaining. We want this to be around long after we’re gone.” Yurgaitis added, “We didn’t even realize we were on the cusp of this buy-local trend.”