Ledyard farmer who died in Saturday crash led many lives, but settled at home

Farmer Robert Burns weighs summer squash and zucchini headed for the kitchens at the Stoneridge retirement community in Stonington in this Tuesday, June 28, 2016 file photo. Burns, 79, was killed in a one-car accident July 15, 2017 in Ledyard. His 17-year old son was seriously injured in the crash that occurred at 9:47 a.m. on Shewville Rd. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Farmer Robert Burns weighs summer squash and zucchini headed for the kitchens at the Stoneridge retirement community in Stonington in this Tuesday, June 28, 2016 file photo. Burns, 79, was killed in a one-car accident July 15, 2017 in Ledyard. His 17-year old son was seriously injured in the crash that occurred at 9:47 a.m. on Shewville Rd. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Ledyard — The daughter of a Ledyard farmer killed in a car crash Saturday morning said her father was known by several names during his life.

First, he was called Bruce, his middle name. Then, for a while, he was Robert Burns. By the end of his life most people just called him Bob.

It’s a complicated story for a complicated man.

Burns was born in St. Louis, Mo., and grew up on a farm in Ledyard, Kelly Burns Lieber said Sunday, living all over the world before coming back to a Shewville Road home across the street from where he lived as a child.

On Saturday he died on that road, crashing his car in a wooded area less than a mile north of Aiki Farm, where he had lived for two decades, his daughter said. Burns’ son, Bruce, was seriously injured in the crash and remains at Hartford Hospital in stable condition, she said.

Burns, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after high school. After leaving the Marines he worked at Electric Boat, taught martial arts at a Marine Corps recruit depot, trained wild horses, acted in the New York theater scene and lived on a boat in the Virgin Islands, Lieber said.

Burns’ neighbors in Ledyard heard many of these stories, they said Sunday, but they primarily knew him as the eccentric and strong-headed man who loved his 5-acre bio-intensive farm and martial arts dojo, loved to meditate and loved a good argument.

After a protracted 2011 zoning dispute over two solar panels Burns installed on his farm, Ledyard Town Council member Bill Saums said Burns planned to resolve the problem by running for election as the town’s zoning commissioner himself.

“I said ‘Bob, you can’t do it that way. You can’t just get on the zoning commission because you have one thing you disagree with. … You’re an activist, you’re not a commissioner,” Saums said.

It was one of the only times Burns agreed with him, Saums said.

“He was a Buddhist monk, and an activist, a farmer and an old Yankee,” Saums said. “He was not easy to get along with.”

In 2015, he led a public demand that the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center reject a monetary gift from chemical giant Monsanto because of the company’s production of genetically modified seeds.

The nature center revised its gifts policy, but Burns kept up the charge, telling The Day that if the center didn’t promise publicly to forgo any future grants from Monsanto, he would lead a protest in front of the nonprofit's property on World March Against Monsanto Day.

"This is a single issue," Burns said, speaking as the head of a local chapter of a group called GMO Free CT. "I'm going to stay on it till the ... day I die."

Burns could also have a neighborly side.

The day after she moved onto the farm adjacent to Burns’ property, Allyson Angelini said he arrived with a tractor and plowed her field.

“He would stop by at least once a week to check in,” she said. And Burns was never short on small talk — he was passionate about organic farming, GMO labeling and healthy food, among other things.

“He always had a topic on his mind,” Angelini said.

Burns donated 500 pounds of zucchini to a local food bank on Friday, she added.

Burns’ four daughters live in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and Utah, according to his eldest daughter, Kelly Burns Lieber.

His two sons from a later marriage — Lieber said her father was married multiple times — lived with Burns at Aiki Farm.

“He was a romantic,” she said.

In the day since he died, friends from Ledyard have told his family members he was a generous neighbor, a dedicated teacher and a "wonderful advocate" for organic farming."

In the 1990s in San Diego, Burns discovered aikido, a form of martial arts.

It became a central part of his life, and when his mother died and Burns returned to Ledyard, he opened an aikido training center alongside the farm, and named the farm after the practice.

Wendy St. George said her son started learning aikido at Burns’ dojo as a child, and has continued for nearly eight years.

“He had some pretty strange views on things,” she said. “But for the most part he tried do the best he could and make a good impact on the world.”

The dojo was “a safe place,” she said. “He’s been there for so long, and it’s hard to imagine not having that space anymore.”

Paul Maugle, who met Burns when they were both selling food to a Mystic restaurant in the early 2000s, said the Aikido-obsessed farmer was also a poet — he had recently written a song lamenting the decline of farming culture in Ledyard.

Describing a handful of sprouted garbanzo beans he planned to deliver to the StoneRidge retirement community in Mystic last year, he gushed about their taste at peak freshness.

"It's cleaner. It's sharp," Burns said in a story that appeared in The Day. "I call them the Macadamia nut of the sprouting world ... when they're sprouted, the quality and nutrient dynamic is at its height, (and) delivers the sweetest flavor."

Burns was collaborating with the chef at StoneRidge to bring fresh local produce to the retirement community. Demand for his products was so high that Burns said he had expanded his 2016 crop and planted vegetables on an additional two and a half acres.

"He never backed down," Maugle said. "I will sorely miss him."

Burns was a founding manager of the Ledyard farmer's market, but he wasn't a natural leader, Saums said.

"He got mad at everybody and quit," he said. "It was his way or no way."

Recently, Burns had been working with town officials to establish an agricultural commission to support and regulate Ledyard's farmers. Collaboration seemed to come more naturally to Burns, he said.

"He came to several meeting and he was very quiet," Saums said. "I think things were going the way he wanted them."

m.shanahan@theday.com

Robert Burns, a Ledyard farmer and anti-GMO activist, lived all over the world and returned home to run an organic farm and martial arts training center. Burns, pictured here as a teenager with his siblings, died in a car crash near his farm Saturday morning. (Photo courtesy Kelly Burns Lieber)
Robert Burns, a Ledyard farmer and anti-GMO activist, lived all over the world and returned home to run an organic farm and martial arts training center. Burns, pictured here as a teenager with his siblings, died in a car crash near his farm Saturday morning. (Photo courtesy Kelly Burns Lieber)

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