Reaching into the past to move forward, an unexpected journey into becoming local farmers.
It began with an old black-and-white photograph of Dexter and Henry Pearson, two elderly brothers walking through an open field on property that Bill and Lesley King purchased six years ago. Something about the image of the two farmers—rail-thin, their faces weathered from years of working outdoors—struck a chord with the Greenwich couple.
Initially, the Kings bought the Greek Revival house and 50 acres bordering the Steep Rock Association as a weekend house where they and their four children, now ages six through 16, could experience a rural life. They named the place The Back Forty, signaling the second half of their over-forty lives and as a nod to farm slang for remote, uncultivated acreage.
But at the closing, the former homeowner gave them a black-and-white photo of the Pearson brothers, dairy farmers who owned the farm until the 1980s. Neither brother had married, and they worked tirelessly on up until their death. Dexter died on his tractor; and Henry passed away in his sleep not long after. “It really hit home that we were part of a much larger picture, a deeper agricultural heritage,” says Bill. “And, it made us much more aware of the farming community in Litchfield County.”
But the turning point for them came after they planted a couple hundred tomato plants on not much more than a quarter-acre of land. “We were just growing for ourselves and our extended family and not thinking about a commercial enterprise,” says Lesley.
But they soon found themselves overrun with vegetables. They began donating them to Neighbor to Neighbor in Greenwich, a non-profit nutritional-based food pantry. “We also realized that real organic farming was going to be beyond our skill set and about that time we were introduced to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York,” says Bill.
A working farm and educational center, Stone Barnss operates Blue Hill, one of the most successful farm-to-table restaurants in the northeast. Lesley had been given a gift certificate to the restaurant for her volunteer work at a Greenwich church and she became fascinated with the restaurant’s approach to food. “There is only one menu, a farmer’s feast. And the server goes into great detail explaining each of the ingredients, the history and how they are grown, so you really gain a sense of what you are eating,” says Lesley, who gave Bill a farm tour for his birthday. “We ended up developing a relationship with Stone Barns,” says Bill, who now sits on the board.
In 2011, Stone Farms helped the Kings develop a pilot program allowing one of its apprentices to gain experience by managing the Back Forty Farm. With more help, the Kings expanded their farm operation. They grew more vegetables, raised layer hens for eggs, and sourced local products to distribute at Greenwich businesses they co-own, including Green and Tonic, a vegetarian take-out; The BackForty Kitchen, a full-service restaurant; and, The Back Forty Mercantile, a modern incarnation of a general store. They also sell produce at the Old Greenwich Farmer’s Market, a weekly farmer’s market Lesley formed with several families.
More recently, they began selling to local restaurants, including The Community Table and White Horse Country Pub and Restaurant.
They purchased an additional 25 acres and restored farm structures. The house had been had been added onto over the years and renovated, but the beautifully proportioned old barn was completely broken-down. During its renovation, the Kings uncovered a treasure that helped piece together the history of the farm. Buried among old hay bales, they discovered Dexter and Henry’s filing system: a milk container filled with old coffee jars stuffed with more than 2,000 farm records.
They removed and carefully flattened and framed many of the papers. Among them were handwritten invoices: a monthly telephone bill totaling $13, a receipt for white washing the barn totaled $12, property taxes that were lower than today’s take-out pizza.
As the Kings moved forward—employing solar-powered electric fencing, using chicken coops on wheels, and experimenting with non-native crops—they continued to delve into the farm’s past. “We uncovered a farmer’s graveyard, not for human remains but a junkyard where all the old equipment, empty bottles and debris was tossed,” says Lesley.
They also hired Thomas Wessels, an ecologist, writer, and professor at Antioch College. Wessels has been described as a forensic forest scientist who analyzes land and pieces together its history. Based on formation of the stone walls in the yard area, Wessels theorized the earliest use of the property was for growing flax, probably as early as the 1700s.
It reinforced a realization that “we are just part of this much larger narrative,” says Bill. As for Henry and Dexter, their photo now occupies a prominent place at the entry of the house where, says Lesley, “We’re reminded every day we’re carrying on their tradition.”