Old Lyme farm helps customers live off local land, organically
Old Lyme - On a sprawling property off Sill Lane sits a farm that abounds with Brussels sprouts, bok choy, Swiss chard and turnips.
Bordered by homes and red barns, the open field is etched with vegetable beds, a high tunnel and a small greenhouse.
Under the stewardship of farmer Baylee Rose Drown, Upper Pond Farm uses organic farming techniques and only uses "human-powered" farming, meaning it harvests the food without heavy machinery. The farm sells its produce to customers at local farmers markets and to restaurants as well as through a community-supported agriculture program.
"It seems like there is a lot of support in this area to have a farmer directly feeding the residents of Old Lyme," Drown said Tuesday as she stood outside on the vegetable farm. Birds chirped and her brown-and-white dog, Maria, ran around the field on a quiet and temperate November morning during the farm's offseason.
Drown, 28, who has farmed the land since January, said her farming practices are ecologically sustainable and good for human health, and she also wants to show they can be economically viable.
The farm grows unique offerings - from edible flowers to a red-meat radish, which has a pale outside and a bright center - as well as staples like lettuce and spinach. The farm's 160 vegetable beds were all dug by hand by Drown and a team of workers and interns.
Drown uses smaller tools, rather than tractors or heavy machinery, to till the land, a practice she said promotes soil quality and prevents soil erosion.
"We want to use practices that don't disturb the soil," she said. She also plants cover crops, such as clovers, to improve the soil's health, and leaves fallow four of the six acres she leases to allow the land to rest.
The technique of farming by small tools - such as a wheel hoe that tills the soil - also yields other benefits, Drown said. The technique, which requires just a small walking path between every five beds, allows farmers to plant more crops per square foot. Weeds tend to also be less pervasive, when crops are closer together, since some sunlight is blocked, she said.
Drown said she wants to be able to grow food year-round for the community. She has a small greenhouse for herbs, flowers and micro-greens, and recently launched a successful campaign through Kickstarter, an online fundraising tool, to purchase a second greenhouse for micro-greens.
A high tunnel - a covered structure that raises temperatures by about 15 to 20 degrees - helps insulate crops such as kale. The tunnel, mostly funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, extends the farm's growing season from March through November, rather than May through October.
"There's a lot of support for young farmers, both through the federal government and local markets," Drown said. "I'm really fortunate."
Growing up on a conventional dairy farm in Michigan, she saw many farmers struggling financially and thought she would grow up to be a veterinarian and farm on the side. But as she took some philosophy classes in college, Drown became more and more interested in sustainable and ethical food practices. She went on to earn a master's degree in sustainable food systems at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Drown took over operating Upper Pond Farm in January.
The farm's produce is sold directly to the Bee and Thistle Inn, Old Lyme Inn, FoodWorks Natural Market in Old Saybrook and at farmers markets, including in Lyme and Chester. The farm also supplied produce to Six Main, a restaurant in Chester that recently closed. Drown also runs a small Community Supported Agriculture program, in which she is able to listen directly to the food needs of customers. The pre-pay program, which she hopes to grow, runs June through October.
Drown said an increasing number of people are interested in healthy food grown in a local and sustainable way, particularly people who cook at home or mothers who want to make sure they are feeding their children healthy foods.
While she is able to sell some produce at prices comparable to grocery-store fare, she said some are higher in price due to the labor-intensive way of growing them.
"But you're paying the price now, rather than in health costs and environmental damage later," Drown said.
She said there's a growing market for sustainable, local produce, and people are excited about healthy and flavorful food. Since it's something she truly believes in, she's happy to put her enthusiasm and sales skills to work in promoting her product.
"I'm really passionate about feeding people really healthy food," she said.
Upper Pond Farm is on Facebook at facebook.com/upperpondfarmer; email is email@example.com.
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