Back when my grandparents bought the place in 1936, there was good reason for the street name,” says Dina Brewster, as she began our conversation about The Hickories, her 100-acre farm sited just a stone’s throw from Ridgefield’s Farmingville Road. Food has been grown on this land for more than 250 years, and at the time her family acquired their acreage, it was just one piece of an expansive quilt of agrarian properties that covered a good portion of Connecticut. As time passed and farmers ceded their increasingly valuable land to developers of single-family homes, the number of properties dedicated to agriculture steadily decreased. But with interest in sustainably grown, healthy food on an equally steady incline over the past two decades, Fairfield County farms have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. The popularity of farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants has created the potential for local small farms to make a go of it in this land of expensive real estate.
“People tend to use a lot of glossy adjectives about small farms in beautiful places,” says Dina, “but the reality of growing food in a community-based and sustainable way is quite a bit less glittery.” She explains that in any ten years of farming, three years will post losses; three consecutive bad seasons can be ruinous. Modern farmers must be agile, continually developing ideas that enable them to reach out and expand their base of local customers in new ways. Entrepreneurial ability is a must-have.
The Hickories is no exception to this rule. While her farm enjoys the benefit of Dina’s father’s farsighted strategy to protect the property—Ridgefield’s purchase of development rights for The Hickories—the work of maintaining a farm here is daunting.
“Organic fruit and vegetables are our major offering,” says Dina, “but we also have livestock, and we even have a trout pond—a customer can come here and pay ten dollars to fish all day.” In addition to wool products from the farm’s sheep, crafted by local knitters and weavers, organic cut flowers grown on the property are another new revenue stream. Dina also makes her barn and expansive acreage available for weddings and parties; there are always baby animals—a big draw for children’s birthday celebrations. It is apparent that there’s not much downtime on a working farm.
IT TAKES A COMMUNITY
On-site farm stands are a tradition, but, these days, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs also figure prominently in the business model for many modern family farms, including The Hickories. Shareholders buy in at the beginning of a growing season and reap a portion of the farmer’s bounty on a regular—usually weekly—basis. Dina’s own CSA program has 250 shareholders throughout the year. Having begun farming this land fifteen years ago—“I still consider myself new to the farming world,” she admits—she continues to build capacity. “By cultivating the consumer toward an investment in the harvest, and caring about the food they eat, we are creating farm ambassadors, spreading an awareness of healthy and sustainably raised products.
“We work with our CSA members, learning what they want, getting feedback. As shareholders, they have a real stake in this farm, and they can spread the word about what we do more broadly. For those who aren’t ready to take the step to be shareholders, our farm store, which is open seven days a week, is another way to connect people to the healthy products of carefully managed working land.”
The success of local food is about connection to its source, and now there are many ways to experience this growing counterweight to mass-produced food from factory farms. Back in the early aughts, Chef Michel Nischan and actor Paul Newman, both philanthropic, were pioneers when they opened a first-in-Fairfield County farm-to-table restaurant, The Dressing Room. They also helped launch the Westport Farmers Market (WFM) in the parking lot of the Westport Country Playhouse. Since 2010 the market has been held every Thursday from mid-May through October, now at 50 Imperial Avenue, with its tented stalls for the produce of local farmers, farm-to-table cuisine, artisan breads and the fruits of local waters. In winter (this year’s market ends March 16) the vendors move inside on Saturdays to Gilbertie’s Herbs & Garden Center at 7 Sylvan Avenue. It’s a great opportunity to stand face-to-face with the people who grow the food that ends up on our tables, and to help them keep up the good work.
After The Dressing Room ended its eight-year run in 2014, more than a dozen farm-to-table venues began to spring up in its stead. Lori Cochran-Dougall, WFM’s director, offers a few names you’ll find nearby: The Whelk, Jesup Hall, Kawa Ni, Taproot, The Cottage, Tarry Lodge, Match, Terrain, The Stand, Bloodroot, Harvest, OKO, Fat Cat Pie, Boxcar Cantina, Truck and Nit Noy Provisions—that’s just off the top of her head. Not only will you have a great meal at any of these restaurants, but also you’ll be helping to support farmers. The Hickories, many of the WFM vendors, and other local producers grow the ingredients for the creative dishes listed on each menu.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
There are more ways to make contact with the precious resource that is our local food supply. Dina Brewster and some of her family-farm colleagues have begun hosting farm dinners, often created with the help of one of a constellation of rising stars in the farm-to-table culinary world. These intimate gatherings provide another reminder of where and how a wonderful meal winds up on your dinner plate. She continues to learn the rhythms of managing a working farm, and admits the challenges and savors the rewards. “To know who I’m feeding, to look into the eyes of my neighbors and their kids, to see their enjoyment of the farm and what we do here, that’s job satisfaction. The world I am helping to make, the one I envision, is a place where people take care of one another.” Surveying the expanse of all that is green and growing, in her care, she concludes, “When I get discouraged, all I have to do is walk out my front door.”