Peak season for growing a farm
Under the care of farmers Baylee Rose Drown and Ryan Quinn, vegetables and plants are growing in bright green rows within a covered high tunnel at Upper Pond Farm in Old Lyme.
Among the bounty of crops thriving in February, there is the winter spinach that pumps sugar into its cells, acting as "anti-freeze"; the daikon radishes that serve to open up the soil and prevent compaction; and the orange and yellow nasturtiums, edible flowers that are both spicy and sweet.
Drown, 29, and her partner and fiancé, Quinn, 30, say they are constantly trying new techniques and perfecting their craft, whether it's learning how to cultivate a tea plant or growing vegetables in the winter.
Recently, the farmers began another endeavor. In addition to Upper Pond in Old Lyme, they will run a second organic vegetable farm, New Mercies in Lyme. The two farms will operate as one business, with Drown and Quinn living at the Lyme farm.
A growing interest in organic produce and support from the community enabled them to find a niche in farming in Old Lyme and Lyme, they said.
"I think it's great that people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and have values that allow us to do what we're doing," Drown said.
Drown began farming at Upper Pond Farm in 2014 using sustainable, human-powered machinery and practicing extended growing techniques by using high tunnels and greenhouses.
Raised on her family’s dairy farm in Michigan, Drown earned a bachelor’s degree in conventional farming, but she later became interested in organic farming and received a master’s degree in sustainable food systems.
Quinn, who was raised in Lyme and whose mother was the principal of Lyme Consolidated School, has worked as a teacher and enjoys working outdoors. He teaches at Nature’s Classroom in Ivoryton, but also has been farming part-time and plans to move into it full-time.
“There’s a lot of room to be creative and independent in farming,” Quinn said.
They said that they are encouraged by the growing interest in farming and organic produce, which has enabled them to pursue their passion for farming.
“It can be both fulfilling and financially viable,” Drown said.
The farmers sell their produce to restaurants, grocery stores and markets, and directly to customers at farmers markets in the region and through Community Supported Agriculture, which is like a subscription for vegetables.
This year, they will offer CSA pick-up at their farm, as well at St. Ann’s Church in Old Lyme, and are growing their CSA by 50 percent to reach 60 members.
The farmers said they are constantly learning how to perfect their craft, whether it means research over the winter months or analyzing specific techniques that made a plant thrive.
At 29, Drown said, she couldn’t be more gratified that she has been able to start her own business and run it alongside her partner, but it can also be humbling to see the challenges of making farming sustainable.
It was in her second year of farming at Upper Pond Farm that she was able to turn a small profit. This year, she said, she will focus on making her produce even better.
Drown took a class through the Northeast Organic Farming Association for beginning women farmers and developed a plan for marketing her business, stepping up her efforts through Facebook and email newsletters.
She also learned from the produce left over the first year, which was donated to a local food pantry, just how many vegetables she should grow.
Drown and Quinn can live at New Mercies Farm, which solves one of the most challenging problems for the farmers: finding affordable housing for them and their staff, preferably on farmland.
The two are leasing the land at New Mercies, which was started by Rod and Debby Hornbake as a social enterprise with goals of preserving the land, growing wholesome food for the community and providing an opportunity for a young farmer to get started.
According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census, 6 percent of the primary operators of farms in the United States are under age 35. The average age for a principal operator of a farm was 58.3 in 2012, up from 50.5 in 1982.
Farming has almost “skipped a generation,” Quinn said.
Drown said she saw first-hand some of the challenges of conventional farming faced by her parents’ generation.
But a growing interest in farming, particularly organic farming, has rejuvenated the industry, the couple said, and has allowed them to step into the role.
Now with 11 acres of land on two farms, they said they can tailor their crops to the unique soil qualities of each.
Having two farms is particularly helpful for land-intensive crops and for crop rotation to promote soil health and mitigate diseases and pests without pesticides. As she scales up her farming, Drown said, she will use some limited machinery that is still gentle to the soil.
"We can pay so much attention to each plant when we're growing at this scale," she said.
Rod Hornbake said the farmers are well educated and have a proven track record. The fact that they are also a couple would allow them to bring in outside income, if need be.
As the operator of Upper Pond Farm, Drown has proven she has business acumen and is a good farmer, Hornbake said, adding that she also has observed first-hand the farming lifestyle from growing up on a farm.
"She understands how to be a farmer," he said. "It's easy to get out in the growing season and work yourself to death. There's always more work to do on a farm. She knows how to pace herself and organize the work so it looks easy."
In addition to the four farm hands they expect to hire in the spring, Drown and Quinn also are hosting a 21-year-old farm apprentice.
They said farming is their passion, and their work is in line with a tendency of their generation to pursue work that brings them joy.
“I think our generation wants to spend their life working on something they love, rather than something that pays the bills,” Drown said. “What I’m trying to do is have the thing I love pay the bills.”
Both farmers enjoy teaching at local elementary schools and community organizations.
They will welcome the community onto the Lyme farm when they plow the land with oxen and horses in the spring, as part of their goal to share their knowledge with the community.
"We feel there is a huge need for people to know their farm," Drown said, "and to know their farmer and be educated about where their food comes from."
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