DOAG: Phoenix Farm Rises



Phoenix Farm Rises

Bureau of Agricultural Development and Resource Conservation

 


Phoenix Farm in Cromwell has seen its share of challenges since Christine Whitney’s step-grandparents purchased the land in 1957.  They operated a dairy and vegetable farm, then known as Lassen Farm, until 1978, when Christine’s stepfather took over. 

In 1971, a tornado took the roof off the two-story dairy barn, destroying three greenhouses and two silos. After Christine’s stepfather passed away in 1997, her mother stopped farming and sold off most of the remaining farm equipment.  The farm’s future was in doubt.

But Christine’s attachment to the land and to her parent’s legacy was stronger than the pressures from other forces.  Together with her husband John, they purchased the land from Christine’s mother in 2010 and decided to permanently preserve it for agriculture.  The Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg)’s Community Farms Preservation Program (CFPP) proved to be a perfect fit. The purchase of development rights (PDR) was deed recorded in the Cromwell land records in December 2015.

The goal of the CFPP is to protect smaller farms that do not meet the criteria of DoAg’s flagship Farmland Preservation Program. The program is intended to increase the capacity of municipalities to plan for, and participate in, farmland preservation efforts. The program also requires the protected farms to be in active food production.

To participate, municipalities must meet eligibility requirements, including recognizing agriculture in the town’s plan of conservation and development and establishing a source of funds for agricultural land preservation, among others.

Through the partnership between DoAg and Cromwell, the Whitneys received approximately $3,198 per acre for the development rights to 47.5 acres of prime farmland soils. The town of Cromwell contributed 25 percent of the funds for the PDR, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), contributed 60 percent, and DoAg contributed 15 percent. 

The Whitneys reinvested the funds right back into the farm to purchase equipment and make improvements to the farm.

“All the money went back into the farm because Mom had sold off the tractors and farm equipment,” said Christine.

While the land’s future in agriculture seemed solid at that point, challenges on the farm continued. 

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy blew the cover off their 72-foot high tunnel, which had been constructed with assistance from USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).  With help from neighbors and friends, the Whitneys recovered the tunnel one unseasonably warm weekend in January 2013 only to see it collapse a month later when Connecticut was hit by a blizzard that brought three feet of snow.

Undaunted, Christine and John rebuilt the minimally heated structure again.  They use it to get an early start on the growing season in the spring and extend the season for cold-weather crops such as radishes, carrots, parsnips, and a variety of greens.  Low tunnels inside the high tunnel further insulate the crops in the ground from the outside air temperatures. 

“When it’s 19 outside its 38 inside,” said Christine.

Even when the farm stand is closed from mid-October to May, customers can call ahead to get fresh, certified organic produce. 

“We do custom orders a few days per week,” said Christine. “You don’t even have to get out of your car, you just drive down here and we hand you the bag.”

That bag may include lettuce, kale, swiss chard, arugula, spinach, or radishes freshly harvested from the high tunnel. It may also include potatoes or winter squash harvested earlier in the season and stored in the root cellar located beneath the farm stand.

The farm stand, which operates spring, summer, and fall, was added to the farm with support from a $39,609 DoAg Farm Reinvestment Grant in 2016.  The total project cost was $94,141— about 18 percent more than expected— with some modifications to the original design necessary because of unanticipated conflicts with easements and zoning regulations.

In order to accommodate the utility easement and not impact the farmland soils protected by the PDR, the footprint of the building was reduced and moved to a different location.  The smaller building meant less area to sort, store, and showcase produce and farm products, but allowed for the addition of a basement, which makes an ideal storage space for root crops.

Future plans include building a larger chicken coop, a separate egg processing area, and a commercial kitchen to increase production of their award winning pickles and other value added products.

“We do pickles—dill, bread-and-butter, and spicy,” said John.  “We won the blue ribbon at the Durham Fair for all three varieties.”

While the cattle Christine’s step-grandparents raised no longer reside on the farm, chickens and bees provide for the sale of eggs and honey.  Recently the beehives had to be moved closer to the house where power was available to run an electric fence that deters bears.

“We had bears when I was a kid,” said Christine. “Now the bears are back.”

In 2017, the Whitneys upgraded the farm’s irrigation system with assistance from a $12,685 Farmland Restoration grant from DoAg.

Prior to installation of a new well and underground irrigation mainline, John and Christine used a 600-gallon water tank mounted on a trailer to move water to the back fields.  They needed to refill and move the tank once or twice a day to provide enough water to their crops.

The Whitney’s original plan to dredge and use a farm pond for irrigation was modified after consultation with DoAg and the NRCS, who suggested a well might be a better option for vegetable crops due to increasing produce safety requirements.

“It’s nice working with these guys. They’re very helpful and have great ideas,” said Christine.

The new well has excellent yield and provides adequate water supply to the high tunnel as well as to the fields.

DoAg’s Farmland Restoration grants typically cover up to 50 percent of the cost associated with qualified farmland restoration activities.  The maximum award per project is $20,000. 

The Whitneys leveraged DoAg’s restoration funding with a separate NRCS EQIP grant that also supported a new gravel access road, enabling the Whitneys to receive 90 percent of the total cost for the irrigation.

“At first I was against it,” John said about the new access road.  But he changed his mind when NRCS explained the road would minimize erosion and protect the land. “It was well worth it.”

The partnerships with local, state, and federal government have been valuable resources to the Whitneys, who strongly support partnering with their local community and fellow farmers as well.

In 1998, Christine’s mother began leasing farmland to neighboring Kathy and Ben Caruso of Upper Forty Farm, who the Whitneys consider mentors and fellow stewards of the land. Ben, who recently passed away, and Kathy took the land through the three-year transition to organic, making it easier for Phoenix to get its own organic certification.  John and Christine continue to lease three acres to Upper Forty. For the past few years the Whitneys have also leased land to Forest City Farms, which is another certified organic farm based out of Middletown.

 “It’s a nice community,” said Christine, “You lend a helping hand when you need to.”

The Whitneys also participate in the Organic Certification Cost Share Program administered by DoAg and funded through the USDA Farm Service Agency. The cost share program offers certified organic farmers and processors an annual 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of certification, up to $750.

“Every bit helps,” Christine says of the program when asked by fellow farmers if it’s worth it.

2018 was the third year Phoenix Farm offered a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program which had 35-members and ran for 20 weeks.

John takes time off from his off-farm job as an operations manager to run the farm stand while Christine attends the Wethersfield Farmers’ Market on Thursdays during the market season.  The farm also participates in the Cromwell Farmers’ Market in the summer and the Coventry Winter Farmers’ Market. 

Christine has made the transition to working full-time on the farm. Their daughter Danielle, who recently bought the house adjacent to the farm, works on the farm part-time. Their daughter Catherine, who lives in Middlefield, also provides weekly assistance as her schedule allows.

The Whitneys continue to seek partnership opportunities as they work to further grow Phoenix Farm.  Currently under construction is a movable high tunnel on a 200-foot track, which will provide better environmental controls over various crops as they progress.  Also planned are pollinator habitat around the edges of fields, and a lean-to for housing the farm implements.

From farmland that had fallen out of production and seemed doomed to a future other than agriculture to a thriving diversified organic farm feeding and serving the local community and beyond, Phoenix has overcome challenges and built partnerships that have enabled it to flourish and plan for a bright future.

“That’s where our name came from,” explained Christine.  “We are Phoenix Farm because the farm was reborn.”