April 4, 2017


BETHLEHEM – Ever since he began showing cows as a boy, Jon O’Neill always dreamed of having his own farm.


But what he never imagined was that he would finally get that farm as a gift from a retired dairyman he’d known since childhood, and who left the O’Neill family his 160-acre farm after passing away several years ago.


In honor of that bequest from Joe Welukaitis, O’Neill and his wife Malisa have ensured the farm will forever remain available for agricultural production by conveying its development rights to the state under its Farmland Preservation Program.


“This fulfills Joe’s wish,” O’Neill said this week as he showed a visitor around his Todd Hill Farm. “It will always be a farm and it also preserves his memories and his dreams.”


O’Neill had first met Joe as a child because Joe and O’Neill’s grandfather, Dwight Bennet, were best friends. The two men were also skilled mechanics who repaired tractors and equipment for many farms in the area.  


Joe almost singlehandedly built the farm’s dairy barn in 1951, using timber harvested from the property, which sits on a long, sloping hill that provides views to Long Island. 


O’Neill remembers tagging along with his grandfather to Joe’s farm, which sparked his lifelong interest in dairy cows and farming. At the age of 8, he joined 4-H and started showing cows at local fairs.


He attended the vo-ag program at Nonnewaug High School in the late 1980s, and maintained his interest in agriculture even after taking a job with the public works department in Bethlehem that he still holds today.


The journey that led to Joe giving him the farm began one afternoon in the summer of 1995, when O’Neill was on the job mowing roadsides. Joe flagged him down and the conversation, as usual, turned to O’Neill’s desire to get into farming.


Then in his 70s, Joe had sold his herd and stopped farming in 1988, and the property and buildings were starting to deteriorate.


“At one point in the conversation Joe asked me if I was still interested in playing farmer,” O’Neill recalled of that afternoon.


He was indeed interested, and that meeting led to O’Neill and his wife Malisa, a hospice nurse, working at the farm on weekends, mostly clearing fields and repairing buildings and fences.


By 2000, the farm was again ready to raise animals, and the O’Neill’s were ready to try their hand at small-scale dairy farming in their spare time. They also began harvesting about 30 acres of hay and an equal amount of corn from the property.  


“We started out with one Jersey and just grew the herd from there,” said O’Neill, who within a few years was milking about 35 cows and selling milk to the Agri-Mark/Cabot Creamery Cooperative.


The farm’s resurgence was a joy for Joe.


“He just liked to see the cows out in the fields,” O’Neill said. “He said it wasn’t a farm without animals. He could look out of every window and see what was happening with the tractors and the hay wagons and the milk truck. It really put a smile on his face.”


Sometime around 2005, with Joe’s health starting to fail and no family of his own, he asked the O’Neill’s to move into the farmhouse with him.That allowed Jon to spend more time on the farm, while Malisa was able to care for Joe, who was adamant about living out his years on the farm.


“My wife did an awesome job keeping him at home,” Jon O’Neill said. “That’s all he asked for.”


A private man of few words, Joe had hinted about “taking care” of the couple and their two young sons when he passed, but never spoke directly about giving them his farm. 


Only after he died in 2009 was the news delivered to the O’Neill’s, through Joe’s attorney.


“He said: “Joe left you the farm. He wanted to make sure you’re taken care of and the boys will never have to leave this place,” Jon O’Neill recalled. “I wish he had told us when he was alive because I would have given him a big hug and a kiss and said thank you. I’ve always dreamed of having my own farm and for me, this is like winning the lottery.”       


Joe and the O’Neill’s never discussed protecting the farm under the state preservation program. That impetus came from conversations with their neighbors, the March family, who preserved their well-known 133-acre fruit and vegetable farm in 2012. 


“Joe gave the farm to us because he always wanted it to stay as a farm,” O’Neill said. “If we turned around and sold it, that would be a dishonor to his memory.” 


The O’Neill’s reduced their herd by about half a few years ago, when a bout of Lyme disease left Jon unable to handle his normal workload.They have built a new milk room and are in the process of refurbishing the barn, and by fall hope to have increased the herd to about 30 Milking Shorthorns and Ayrshires.


Long-term plans are for their teenage sons, Jon II and William, a freshman in the Nonnewaug agri-science program, to take over the farm when their father retires.


“We’re so grateful for all of this,” Malisa said. “Joe’s given us so much and he is missed dearly. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of him and the kids don’t reminisce about him.”