Published October 20. 2013 4:00AM
Lyme — Michael Melillo loves farming, but he likes his free time, too.
And there is the conundrum. How many farmers get a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor when there is always more labor to do?
But Melillo has found a new equilibrium as steward of New Mercies Farm, an agricultural experiment started by Hadlyme residents Rodney and Deborah Hornbake, who bought the 5-acre site on Beaver Brook Road after a 2011 fire destroyed a pre-Revolutionary home there. The idea behind the farm, which last summer harvested about an acre of its first organic crops, is to provide quality food to local residents, preserve Lyme's agricultural land for future generations and allow a young farmer to earn a living wage.
"It's almost like living in the Garden of Eden," Melillo said during a tour of the farm, a wide-brimmed hat shading his eyes.
Melillo said he had previously worked on an organic farm in California where much of the plowing was done by horses and there was little work accomplished by mechanized means - an aesthetic he appreciates. But even in this organic idyll, he said, the work could become overwhelming and the harvest would take up nearly every minute of the day.
It became a grind, just like every other job. And that's not the way Melillo envisioned his life, because he enjoyed playing music, dancing and socializing.
"It's very easy to fall into the mindset of the business pattern of the world," he said. "We want to find a balance for ourselves. We have to ask ourselves 'What, realistically, do we want to earn for the year?'"
New Mercies Farm has allowed him to enjoy a relatively normal life, because he gets a percentage of the farm's sales, plus a salary and a place on site to stay. The farm has attracted some volunteers and gets help as well from state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services clients and interns, but when he needs it Melillo also can hire extra hands.
"Our lifestyle is very important," he said. "Here, I have a workload I can handle."
It's a workload that could be reduced with power equipment, but Melillo prefers to farm with his hands. He believes the urge to mechanize separates humans from the land, and the New Mercies Farm experiment is an attempt to remedy this disparity.
"I employ people, not machines," Melillo said. "This is a place of spiritual renewal."
It's also a business, of course. And the sooner Melillo can get New Mercies to the point of profitability, the sooner he can purchase the land - once part of an 800-acre farm - and run the site on his own.
Part of Melillo's deal with the Hornbakes is that he earns sweat equity for managing the farm, earning a percentage of the business every year he stays with it. He expects to own the farm outright in 10 to 15 years.
"It's a model for everybody to witness," Melillo said.
Rodney Hornbake said the idea behind the farm is an exercise in social entrepreneurship. It fits in with a public policy in Connecticut to preserve 167,000 acres of farmland statewide - a goal that is only about a third of the way to completion.
Hornbake estimated that the farm eventually will be able to gross about $100,000 a year and said it already is about a third of the way to that goal.
"Michael is a very hard worker," Hornbake said. "He's done an outstandingly good job of developing a customer base."
Farming runs deep in Melillo's bloodline. His great-grandfather began the family tradition in the early part of last century when he built up a farming business in North Haven.
Melillo said a key to New Mercies Farm's future business success is the sale of memberships through a program called Community Supported Agriculture. So far, 43 families, all within about a two-mile radius of the farm, have signed up as members for a cost of $550 each, he said.
"Think of it as a membership where you receive a weekly or bi-weekly box or 'share' of vegetables for a given number of weeks," according to an online description of the program.
Melillo added that the program helps with the up-front costs of planting, labor and harvesting.
"The community support has been amazing," he said. "The spirit was just there."
But CSA membership, which New Mercies hopes will grow to 60 next year, isn't large enough to pay all the bills, so Melillo carts his organic produce to the Ashlawn Farm Farmers Market, specialty grocers and local restaurants.
During the summer, Melillo offered a wide range of vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, kale, corn, squash, cabbage and potatoes. The land also has a few fruit trees on about a quarter acre.
This winter, for the first time, the farm is planting hardy green and other produce that can withstand 40-degree temperatures under a large, newly constructed hoophouse.
"We can extend our growing season almost 10 months a year," Melillo said.
The farm also includes a small area for about 60 chickens, who are there more for the organic material they contribute to the soil than for their egg-laying prowess or profit-making ability. The chicken enclosure is moved around the farm regularly to provide natural fertilizer that replenishes the soil's nutrients.
Melillo said the intention is to increase to an acre and a half the amount of land used for cultivation next year while continuing to consider work-life balance by maintaining a good portion of perennial items that require less work to grow and maintain. He also hopes the farm can be used for educational purposes so young people will be able to reconnect with the land around them.
"Education is a very important aspect of keeping this lifestyle viable," he said.