On top of the highest hill in Colchester, Connecticut on a Monday in March, Jess Stone pours lemon ginger tea into ceramic mugs she snagged from her kitchen cabinet. She sits on a picnic table in her 340 acre “backyard,” which visitors call Cold Spring Farm. The smell of ripe dry soil and warm compost swirls with every gust of wind. The farm grows fifty-seven varieties of fruits and vegetables, maintains five large wooden barns as well as the Stone family home, and keeps 1,600 livestock, including a peacock.
Jess’ brown, layered hair is pushed back by a thick cotton headband, several layers poke out underneath a navy-blue Carhartt jacket, and sturdy black pants rest on top of her forest green barn boots. Bug-eyed sunglasses cover most of Jess’ face, drawing attention to her radiant smile. “When I was growing up, people would say, ‘you can’t make a living farming,’ and I’m like, ‘watch me.’” Jess’s laughter interrupts her guard dogs’ afternoon snooze. “Farming requires the most diverse skill set in the world. I don’t know any other job like that.”
Jess pauses for a few seconds to sip her tea, the spirals of steam touch her cheeks. To Jess, farming is not just playing with adorable animals or planting in the fields; it’s a career to support her family.
In reality, a farm is a constant work in progress. Mulch is piled across the fields, a barn is in the midst of renovation, her son’s blue sled leans against the house, and an empty cardboard box sits on the front steps. Jess is adamant, “I think the best we can do is show what a working farm looks like, because so few people understand what a farm really is and the day to day maintenance that happens to keep it working.”
Cold Spring Farm is one out of nearly 6,000 farms in Connecticut. From Stamford to New London, farmers are trying to make a living. According to Farm Flavor magazine agriculture is a considerable industry in the state, contributing $4.8 billion to the economy as of 2018. Though the rocky soil and low spring temperatures aren’t ideal, approximately sixty percent of Connecticut is farmland. But the farming industry is often labeled a hobby—a pastime for retirement or a distant pipeline dream.
“We have this Norman Rockwell view of farming. Yet, farming is hands-down a career, and farmers are entrepreneurs,” says Lori Cochran, Executive Director of the Westport Farmers’ Market in Westport, Connecticut. She explained that every farm is its own entity, and therefore farmers have to create a business model that is unique to their land. Just like any other business, to make a profitable living farmers need to properly manage their money and always plan ahead.
Jess is incredibly savvy at managing the farm’s budget. Community support and local volunteers are extremely important to keep maintenance costs down. She recently designed a work-share program for volunteers to work five hours a week performing tasks like cleaning the animals’ stalls or packaging eggs for markets in exchange for fresh produce. Fundraising events help raise money, and volunteers assist in upkeep and renovations that normally carry a hefty price tag. The proceeds from potlucks, bonfires, and other activities go straight to the farm. In 2016, seventy-five people attended a barn-raising luncheon under a massive tree behind the Stone’s house. “That building took four hours to put up,” Jess reminisces. “It took me the next week with the volunteers to put the whole thing together, but in general, what a cool community.”
Cold Spring has maximized their resources to create multiple sources of revenue. Since 2012, Cold Spring’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or C.S.A., has been a huge success. At the start of the season customers buy shares of the farm’s harvest, ranging in price and size, to receive a portion of crops throughout the season. The farm now provides for twenty C.S.A. families nearly year round. Jess runs a daily farmstand, open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. The farm also runs a larger Sunday market, inviting local vendors who sell everything from environmentally safe toiletries to organic kombucha. Cold Spring also houses students through an internship program and distributes high-demand, organic produce to “mom and pop” markets and restaurants in Connecticut.
“There’s a definition of what ‘year-round’ is—all farms go year round,” says Lori Cochran. “Just because they aren’t selling products to you, doesn’t mean they aren’t working.” Even the small amount of ‘downtime’ is spent preparing for the next growing season, managing livestock, repairing barns, ordering seeds and supplies, and attacking an assortment of paperwork like record keeping and taxes.
As spring approaches and the ground begins to thaw, Jess prepares for the busy months ahead. She rattles off her plans for the upcoming season: harvesting, summer markets, children events on the farm, and a vegetarian program for local residents. Jess’s cell phone rings; it’s a local farmer dropping off a turkey for the upcoming season—her tea break is over. She places her mug in the sink, slips on her boots in the mudroom, and heads out to prepare for the newcomer.
Headline photo courtesy of Ursula Coccomo.
Paige Gainey is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
0 comments on “Farming in CT: Harvesting a Career in Your Backyard | Paige Gainey”