An update by Will O’Meara:
As we expected our first season at Hungry Reaper Farm has been filled with the full spectrum of emotions. Spring was marked by an adrenaline-fueled race to build our secondhand hoop house in March and April as well as adjusting our plans for a season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. We knew our plans to host our friends and community for workdays and potluck dinners were out the window but remained optimistic that we could provide our community with the food they need and stay healthy in the process.
We were thrilled to sell out our 50-member CSA and to provide about 20% of our members with a no/low-cost CSA share thanks to the generosity of our members and their purchases at the higher end of our sliding scale. We could not have anticipated the success of the sliding scale, and hope to maintain the same level of subsidized CSA shares in the future as we scale up. We found a great partner in New Morning Market, who has stocked our produce all season long. The produce department has been incredibly flexible, fair, and enthusiastic and we have learned a ton about wholesaling our produce. We are excited to expand this end of our business in the years to come. Finally, we were lucky to get a spot in the newly revived Farmers Market of Black Rock in Bridgeport, CT. With farmers market protocols and customer/farmer safety at top of mind, we were unsure about the success of this market. Luckily we found a supportive community in Bridgeport that was relieved the market had returned. As the market season winds down, we will miss our wonderful regulars and look forward to returning next spring.
On a slightly less cheery note, we were met with some unexpected challenges that forced us to adapt and readjust our plans. In late July, we were informed that the landowner we were leasing from was being forced to sell their land for reasons largely out of their control. This news came in the midst of negotiations to create a longer-term land tenure option for us on this piece of land and came as an unpleasant surprise. Although we had a feeling our time on this land would be temporary, we had hoped to have at least a few seasons there to get our farm up and running before finding a permanent home. This news came as the drought that has plagued our region this year was ramping up and our well we were using for irrigation ran dry. As a result, August was mentally and physically draining. It was challenging to watch crops languish without water and germination rates drop off through one of the most hectic times in the season, all the while looking for new land to farm while continuing to put in long days of work on the land we will soon leave.
We adjusted our crop plan and doubled down on what we knew could withstand our dry, hot summer and took great solace when our bumper tomato crop started to come in. Seeing the volume that was quickly ripening and that our retail and wholesale markets couldn’t keep up, we started looking for a co-packer to process our excess tomatoes for a value-added product. When the first place we turned was booked solid, we were thrilled to be put in touch with Premier Packaging in Waterbury by a farmer friend of ours. They got us onto their calendar with relatively short notice and processed 750 pounds of tomatoes to make our Crushed Heirloom Tomatoes in mid-September. Though we didn’t plan to take on value-added products in our first season, we were glad to be forced into this position by great yields and will now have a small income stream in the offseason.
Though a handful of crop failures due to weeds and drought, losing our lease, and struggling to find balance in our first season seemed to set the tone in July and August, the change of seasons has brought immense gratitude for the overall success of our first season. We often thought that starting our farm would mean leaving the state of Connecticut in search of affordable land or a more supportive environment for independent farms. While those factors may weigh on our decisions in the long run, we can’t imagine starting our farm anywhere else. This season would have been impossible without our friends and family that lent us their time and their ears, fellow farmers who lent us equipment and both formal and informal mentorship, and organizations like NCTFA and CT NOFA that provided us with our incredible network of fellow farmers. For the future, we are looking forward to finalizing our new lease up the road from our current home, working with our mentor Rachel Berg of Four Root Farm to tweak our production and business plans, and continuing to grow delicious food for our community.