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Friday, April 1, 2011

Seeds Planted for Fairfield’s Organic Teaching Farm

Seeds Planted for Fairfield’s 
Organic Teaching Farm
By Mike Lauterborn
(Appeared on front page of 
Fairfield Sun 3/31)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – New England has a rich agricultural history, dating back prior to European settlement. In 1920, 215 farms supported the town of Fairfield. However, as Fairfield continues to grow, the number of working farms supporting the area has dramatically declined. A group of concerned citizens has stepped up to see that farming traditions in Fairfield are preserved while creating a new educational center that would be a hub of year-round seasonal activities.

Pamela Jones, president of the Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm (FOTF), as the project is known, and other members of the group, met with the Sun at two sites that are being considered for a working farm. Both parcels of land flank the H. Smith Richardson driving range along Hoyden’s Lane in northeastern Fairfield.

“We’ve been given permission to use a one-acre lot on the Parcell’s property, which is also the site of a proposed girls softball field, abutting the driving range to the west,” said Jones. “This is under the jurisdiction of Parks and Recreation.”

As to the alternate site, Jones said, “We also have permission to use a two-acre site, with an open field and barn, adjacent to the range, but to the east, which is part of Hoyden’s Hill Open Space (HHOS) and under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission. Both sites are situated on the highest elevated point in Fairfield, which is ecologically significant in terms of water flow.”

Jones said her group seeks a 3-year lease on one of the two sites, but that there are pros and cons to each parcel, which is making decision-making difficult.

Hoyden’s Hill Open Space plot

“The Commission’s requirement in terms of leasing the HHOS space is to have FOTF undertake a bird study,” said Jones. “The last comprehensive bird study done in town was in 2005 at a cost of $10,000. Having to undertake such a study creates a significant obligation and challenges in terms of fundraising and resources to manage, and the FOTF is the only party being asked to do this with regard to land usage in this area. You’ve got a police gun range here, the driving range, development plans for the softball field… all of this going on, and no one else has been asked to do this study. It’s frustrating.”

On the other hand, added Jones, there’s historical significance to the site, with roots dating back to the 1600s, and an existing management plan that specifically recommends that the land be used for farming and educational purposes. The HHOS is also on the north-south migratory bird route and is an important resting place for various bird species. “It’s really part of a matrix of habitats,” Jones said.

Jones’ colleague, Jennifer Cole, the FOTF’s vice president, said the group has already made an investment here as well.

“The soil in the HHOS open field was so degenerated,” said Cole. “It had been farmed until 1995 by Buster Kosivich, who grew corn that was well liked by local residents. The field has been maintained by the Commission since then, who just mowed it once a year.”

“We asked permission to not only mow it to remove invasive plants, but to harrow, till and plant winter rye, which was recommended by our advisory board. We did this back on December 2nd, the last day we could have done this before hard winter set in. We turned over about four acres, which is actually double what our allotment was, at the cost of $950, which was raised from a blue ribbon pie auction. The work was beneficial to the soil and the Commission recognized the value of it,” she said.

Cole pointed out other attractive features of the HHOS space. “There’s an old apple orchard that we’d like to revitalize,” she said. “We think it would be great to rededicate it to offer fresh apples and peaches. There’s also a barn, with an original structure dating back to the early to mid 19th century that was expanded to incorporate dairy cows. It’s now basically a warehouse. The vision would be to restore the structure as one of Fairfield’s last and most beautiful barns and use it for equipment storage and informal workshops.”

Parcell’s property space

With regard to the Parcell’s property space, which in total encompasses nine acres, Jones said Parks and Recreation plans call for a dramatic alteration of the landscape to remove conifers which birds now inhabit and raze an existing private dwelling. The entire space would be bulldozed and leveled.

While not ideal in terms of preserving habitats, the department has included in their design the organic maintenance of the planned athletic field versus chemically treated grounds, said Jones, which is in keeping with the proposed establishment of the FOTF.

Jones has also asked for certain materials from the dwelling, like wood and stone, to be saved so her group can re-purpose them for such things as sheds and an outdoor fireplace. “We don’t have the money to create new structures and the re-use allows us to practice our principles,” said Jones.

She cited other plusses to the site. “There’s no bird study required for this plot and there would be easier access to water and electric given the plans for development,” she said.

“Of the two space options for our farm, working with Parks and Rec may be the smartest way to go as softball and farming activities would be clustered and the environmental impact would be reduced in terms of vehicle traffic and disruption of overall habitats,” said Jones. “We also want to make the most of a 3-year lease in terms of time and investment and provide a breadth of programs to the community.”

Initial Inspiration

Jones remarked that the journey to this stage began humbly in the summer of 2009, when she visited Haydu, the last remaining working farm in Fairfield, in the Greenfield Hill area.

“Bob Haydu’s family has been farming the town-owned plot for generations and he maintains a seasonal produce stand. When I visited, I noticed a sign indicating he wasn’t going to be able to continue running the farm. I felt very concerned about that, mentioned it to my friend Jody Eisenmann and we both agreed we should do everything we could to help the farm continue. Though Haydu ultimately rejected our offer to collaborate, the seed had been planted to secure a dedicated space for an organic teaching farm that uses highly intensive growing techniques.”

Jones said they conferred with Ann Bell, the director of the Ambler Farm in Wilton, a highly reputable and successful teaching farm on town-owned land there. She provided guidance on how to start a similar operation in Fairfield. Though Eisenmann moved on to other activities, Jones partnered with Cole and several other area women who were interested in bringing organic local produce into the school system and local marketplace.

Since then, the group has been operating with two different goals and objectives. “One is to go through the administration process of acquiring the lease, the fundraising process and gathering a team of master farmers, academics and environmentalists to serve in an advisory capacity,” said Jones. “The second track has been to work as community organizers offering educational workshops.” 


Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm reaches out

While determining a dedicated site for its operations, the Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm, an initiative led by a group of Fairfield women, has been busy offering interactive programs to the community.

President Pam Jones said, “In the past year, we’ve launched a seed bank through Fairfield Woods Library, recognized local environmentalists with a Hummingbird Award, taught children how to carve pumpkins at Fairfield Museum, offered a jamming and canning session at Pequot Library, presented master farmers and scientists in a seminar environment, co-sponsored film screenings and held public meetings.”

One project they hope to undertake this year is to bring back the Southport Onion. “It was so essential to the local economy for generations,” she said. “They were shipped all over the world.”

In an effort to raise $30,000 to initiate and maintain a dedicated working farm, on June 25, the group will hold its first major fundraiser, at Pequot Library. Titled “A Meal in the Meadows”, the event will offer a farm-to-table feast prepared by local Fairfield chefs.

“The new Whole Foods has agreed to donate substantial quantities of locally grown organic produce,” said Jones. “And we’ll have a summer beer garden, raw bar, grass-fed entrees like beef or pork, and fresh-churned ice cream.”

Jones said the ultimate mission of her group is to lessen our reliance on products grown in other parts of the nation and be carbon neutral. “We seek a One Town One Farm goal and would like to go out and help other towns do the same thing. It’s a matter of homeland security and a way to save our planet.”