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North Stonington farmer helping people grow their own food

North Stonington — Firefly Farms is a small, family-owned humane-certified livestock farm and “not a garden supply store,” jokes farm manager Dugan Tillman-Brown.

But he knows his compost and has plenty of it that he spreads in his pastures at his Wintechog Hill farm. It got him and his father thinking one day about how the farm might be able to make a difference for those trying to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

He had noticed a sudden surge in Facebook posts showing modern-day Victory Gardens, which were popular during World Wars I and II to help ease pressure on public food supplies. With social isolation the norm these days and people out of work, “think about how many people are hurting,” Tillman-Brown said.

The idea of providing a way for people to become self-sufficient and grow their own food — especially those who are food-insecure, or lack access to affordable, nutritious food — fully manifested last month, when the farm started an initiative to build, supply and deliver raised vegetable garden beds, complete with seeds and instructions, to residents around New London County.

Tillman-Brown turned to his gardening mentor, Craig Floyd, for help putting together the seed order and instructions. He set up a demonstration garden at the farm.

The garden beds quickly sold out as word spread.

Farmhands were busy this week flinging nutrient-rich compost soil mix used on grazing fields and assembling the 4-by-8-foot frames of raised vegetable beds in preparation for delivery to backyards across the region. There are 53 of the “turnkey” raised beds going out. The farm sold the beds for $150, virtually at cost, and delivers the kits at a cost of $1 per mile.

“We are not doing this for the money,” Tillman-Brown said. “This is our way to help.”

He said he was moved by the feedback and generosity of others. One woman called to purchase two of the beds for two different families. He’s hoping the idea might become a full-fledged movement and says he’d be happy to see other farms get in on the act, considering the numerous requests he could not fill.

“We're getting calls from all over the place,” Tillman-Brown said. “This is a time of exceptional need.”

Even with the beds sold out, he said he’s willing to sell his compost mix, terra preta, something he calls “rocket fuel for vegetables.” He says the nutrients in vegetables grown in the garden can help supplement a family who might be depending on a food pantry for meals.

Tillman-Brown additionally is putting the call out to other farms to follow suit and start a movement of sorts.

“I think anybody encouraging people to grow their own food at home is terrific,” FRESH New London director Alicia McAvay said.

McAvay contacted Firefly Farms this week to inquire about the beds.

FRESH New London’s mission has been to use urban spaces across the city to grow food and welcome in groups of youth volunteers to work on community gardens and inspire people to grow on their own.

“Our usual model is to grow food with the community. Obviously, we cannot do that right now,” McAvay said.

Instead, staff from FRESH New London have all become farmers in an attempt to prepare the nonprofit’s raised beds across the city. FRESH New London maintains an urban farm and education center on Mercer Street and beds at McDonald Park and Ledyard street, among other places. This year, it also is developing a terraced property on Cottage Street.

The group plans to continue its community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, this year and each week distribute food harvested from its sites to families that subscribe. For more information, visit freshnewlondon.org or email info@freshnewlondon.org.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Craig Floyd's name, and the name of the farm in the photo captions.

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