A Steward of the Land

Tim Martin photo

It's 9 a.m. on a chilly Friday in early October and Kristin Orr looks and sounds as if she's already run a marathon.

Her blonde hair is tousled, her cheeks are flushed and she's nearly breathless when she talks.

Yet instead of being exhausted, she's energized and borderline frantic with excitement.

Orr's marathon isn't the traditional 26.2 miles of running, although she's a runner. It's the daily grind of living and working on a farm, on the land that she not only relishes, but that feeds her infectious enthusiasm for nature, plants and good old fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty-in-the-soil type of living.

She recites her philosophy of living: "Be conscious, aware and amazed at all times," then explains, "Some people don't understand it…so many people are not conscious. People say they don't need to learn anything…I, I just don't understand."

Orr, the 53-year-old co-owner of Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, is a dynamo.

Since buying the original 320-acre farm in 1989, she and her husband, Peter, have taken a fledgling wholesale nursery business and transformed it into an operation that earned the recognition as "the best place to go nowhere" by Yankee Magazine this year.

The farm incorporates agritourism through its annual corn maze and lavender labyrinth and newly opened creamery, a growing dairy that is one of the founding members of the Farmer's Cow brand and Quintessential Gardens, the plant and flower retail segment of the farm.

It all may seem patchwork, but like a quilt, it works.

"It's not so many different things…everything is connected here… We couldn't work this hard if it wasn't all connected," Orr says as she walked outside to meet guests hoping for a romp through the corn maze.

Her worldview can snap in an instant from the physical to the metaphysical; one minute talking about the science of plants and farming, the next musing about the connection between how she used a pick ax (in Greek it's labrys) from the 1800s she found on the farm to plant her organic lavender labyrinth, a word derived from that Greek term.

"That's what you need to take through the maze of life: a pick ax," she said with wide eyes.

Orr was a studious, conscientious and energetic child, her mother, Norma O'Leary, says.

"She was a great reader. As a kid she had a lot of ear infections and I spent a lot of time reading to her before she was able to read."

Orr's love of words, their meanings and the challenge to find connections between what she's read and what she's experienced is apparent.

If you're in her presence for more than five minutes she'll have made a connection between something that she's read or a specific word and the reason for you standing next to her.

The mother of two daughters, Kies Kristin and Lily Truman, she doesn't have time for television. She has the girls to care for, Latin and Greek to study and a farm to run.

She inherited her work ethic, and love of farming, from her family. Her grandfather, Truman O'Leary, farmed in Nova Scotia.

"She'll work from sun up to sun down and even before and after," says Norma O'Leary, who served for 16 years as the state's farm bureau president.

As a teenager, Orr regularly milked the entire herd of cows and didn't mind, her mother said.

Orr vividly recalls her after school chore list: bring hay to the cows, feed the calves, help her father Ernie finish milking and clean the parlor.

And man oh man, is Orr competitive.

"She was a very determined little girl, very competitive," her mother recalls. "In the spelling bee she wanted to be at the top. She worked really hard for it and she was an achiever. She didn't win, came in second."

That competitive spirit and determination are what have helped Orr stay focused on her goals, her dreams.

As a college student at the University of Connecticut, where she met her husband, Orr studied soil sciences. She wanted to know how to make plants grow stronger and healthier, without chemicals.

She continued to maintain gardens, even as she followed Peter Orr to Pennsylvania, where he continued his studies, and then back to the Nutmeg State, this time to the shoreline. She remained a farm girl at heart, though, while she worked as an exercise instructor.

Her life lurched back to Thompson after she was struck by a 42-foot sailboat in the Mystic River as she was rowing her shell between her home and an exercise class.

She was knocked clean out of the boat. She collected the dislodged 40-foot oars and got back into her shell and rowed home.
In that moment she realized she'd had enough of life by the water and was going back to Thompson.

"It just happened. I was able to seamlessly get back in and row myself home and then I was able to just seamlessly come back here," she says, nearly shouting with excitement, waiving her arms about to illustrate where "here" is.

The damaged shell is now part of the backdrop in one of the nearly 75 gardens that are part of the Quintessential Gardens section of the farm.

An "uncool" farmer

For the first three years in Thompson, Orr lived on a mattress in the more stable portion of the existing run-down farm house on the property.

In characteristic bluntness she lays out her life at that time.

"Truth be told, honey, I had no cows, no kids, no customers and no employees and no friends. In 1989 it wasn't cool to be farming…it was so uncool to be farming."

The property was an overgrown nightmare. The impressive old stone barn foundation that is now home to more than 1,500 organically grown lavender plants was then filled with trees and bittersweet. She spent nearly every waking hour clearing the land; Peter helped on weekends as he was still working fulltime for a business along the shoreline.

She opened her first nursery as a wholesale entity, but missed the personal connection with customers. She missed, she says, learning from them, like the older female customer who instructed her to carry unique seedlings.

"They already knew everything. They already knew about the native species. I learned that from them," she says.

She also missed the feel of the earth between her fingers. For Orr, who finds meaning in nearly everything, her plants needed their roots to run as deep as hers. Instead, they were trapped in the pots necessary for the wholesale operation.

She felt similarly trapped.

She began transplanting during the wet months — April and May, or a rainy June, and October and November — so the plants would search for water and nature would provide the irrigation tools necessary for survival.

As the wholesale operation became a growing retail nursery, the couple had the opportunity to purchase the O'Leary family farm. In 1997 they sold their house in Mystic to pay for the transaction.

Since then, the 92-head herd has grown to more than 230 milking cows and 200 heifers and calves and become part of the eastern Connecticut dairy cooperative known as the Farmer's Cow. The farm now encompasses more than 1,000 acres. When they started they didn't realize they'd be creating a tourist destination.

They take their responsibility as stewards of the land and agricultural educators seriously. They've hung a sign reading "in-farm-ation" at the creamery. They incorporate lessons in the games in the corn maze. The couple wants people to ask questions and even if they don't, the Orrs want to provide the answers.

"They have to think about what they can do with the land that will benefit them and the community," Norma O'Leary says. "That's what they're looking at now. I think there's more that they can do and will do down the road. We're very proud of what they've accomplished."

m.bard@theday.com


For more information on Fort Hill Farms,visit www.forthillfarms.com, where you'll find links to the Farmer's Cow, the Quintessential Gardens and Kristin's blog.

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