Sweet Hill revitalizes former Gales Ferry farm property

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Ledyard — A stop to Sweet Hill Farm in Gales Ferry can result in ice cream, produce, plants, dinner, a vintage dresser, a yoga class or even a wedding.

Owned by former Mayor Fred Allyn II and run by operations and sales manager Charlene Rand, Sweet Hill is located on the former Alice Acres property on Military Highway. The property used to support a farm market and greenhouse as well as Cows and Cones, an ice cream stand, but it was foreclosed on in 2016.

Allyn, a lifelong farmer himself, said he didn't want to see the space go to waste, and as a real estate broker, he knew foreclosed properties don't sell if they sit vacant. He purchased the property in the spring of 2018.

Pop's Premium Ice Cream opened that summer in the former Cows and Cones building and had a great year, but it was a rebuilding year for the rest of the farm: the outdoor plumbing had to be redone because it hadn't been winterized after the foreclosure, the covers had blown off the greenhouses, and the mums Allyn grew for the fall season weren't ready in time. He said it's been a challenge bringing the farm back to its former glory.

"It's not the beautiful place I want it to be yet; it takes people and it takes money," he said. "I want to make it so pretty that people can't drive by, they have to come in."

Rand, a Gales Ferry resident who also runs Rustic Boutique Catering and Events, said she brought her now-teenage son to Alice Acres on field trips as a kindergartener and missed the farm's splendor.

She originally connected with Allyn in the spring of 2018 to inquire about hosting farm-style weddings on the property, but he had wanted to hold off a season. She came on board as operations manager this past winter, creating a plan to revive the property from the front where the farm store is now and working her way back to the other greenhouses.

"We're looking to slowly bring it back to life. We're definitely not trying to do what Farmer Pete did," Rand said. "We're just trying to be us in a new and unique way and offer something that the community doesn't have."

Sweet Hill Farm serves as a physical location for several other local startups in addition to Pop's. Rand said it was intended to operate like a co-op to give entrepreneurs a space to sell their products without the overhead of owning a brick-and-mortar store.

The store space is located in the front greenhouse, and it houses a selection of jewelry, bath goods, furniture and other products from a handful of area vendors, as well as prepared dinners from Rand's catering company and plants grown on-site.

Liz Honeyager, a Gales Ferry resident who runs The Salty Wayfinder, sells home decor made from recycled and salvaged materials.

"There's just so many treasures in trash that just need a creative mind," she said of her work, which includes Americana-style signs from repurposed wood.

Honeyager recently started selling her pieces on a more formal level rather than just custom orders for friends, and she's had Sweet Hill customers contact her because of the work she sells there. She said she likes selling there because there's no rush or pressure to maintain a lot of stock, and she wants to support women-run businesses.

Sara Holliday, who also lives in Ledyard, sells tea blends and herbal skin care items at Sweet Hill through her business, Thyme for Tea. She said it's a good setup and a good fit for her business, which she started in January; her best-selling teas are her Namaste and Chai of My Eye blends, but everything she stocks, from the teas to the beard oil and insect repellent, sell equally well. She said she wants to see more spaces like this in the community.

Sweet Hill also hosts Roots in the Ground Yoga, which offers a variety of yoga classes throughout the week. Lori Lee Miller, a Groton resident who teaches sunset yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays, said her kids grew up going to Alice Acres, and she wanted to help bring life back into the farm.

Through the summer, classes were held in front of the fenced-in field where on a recent Tuesday night the resident barnyard friends grazed while students moved through downward dog, mountain and tree poses, among others. Miller said there's something special about doing yoga outside where you can connect with the earth, both emotionally and by standing directly in the grass.

She said the setup of the farm is great for families, where the kids can visit the animals or run around while parents shop or attend a class before everyone gets ice cream. Many of her students also come for classes and leave with ice cream or something from the vegetable stand.

Sweet Hill Farm will remain open through the fall, including its Thursday cruise nights. Rand said the rear greenhouses are just about ready for fall weddings under the hummingbird vines and string lights, and she may open for a winter market.

She said she's most proud of the opportunity Sweet Hill provides, not only to her business but to the other businesses that share the space. She's grateful for Allyn's support in getting the farm up and running again.

"It's my dream handed to me on a platter," she said.

The farm is located at 29 Military Highway in Gales Ferry. Current hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday, though check the Facebook page at bit.ly/SweetHillFB for last-minute updates.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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