CT NOFA is teaming up with the New CT Farmers Alliance (NCTFA) and Solid Ground 2  (UCONN Extension) to announce a new learning opportunity for beginner and advanced beginner farmers beginning in January, 2021.

Farmer Circles are peer-to-peer learning communities for farmers interested in sharing obstacles and strategies in a small, semi-structured, supportive environment. Each project year, farmers will join a circle focused on a topic or issue that interests them and explore this topic together. In addition to digging into a particular topic together, these circles will provide CT farmers with a social network that they can rely on to counter the stresses and risks of farming. The facilitator of each group will receive a stipend and have the chance to develop their skills as a group leader as they work with NCTFA and NOFA to create a successful learning environment.

Potential topics include:

  • Cooperative farming
  • Getting clear on farm financials
  • Farm equipment problem solving/management
  • Food sovereignty reading group
  • Accessing new markets
  • Finding and maintaining a strong farm crew
  • Self care for farmers
  • Crop planning
  • Regional affinity groups
  • BIPOC affinity groups
  • Queer affinity groups

Each circle will have about 5-8 members, and will choose their own preferred meeting style, whether in-person in a living room, barn, through field walks, or via video calls.

Farmer Circles are self governed groups, meaning that members will determine their time commitment and frequency of meetings. They will meet for at least 12 hours total over the year.

Each circle will choose one of their members as facilitator. This person will be point person to communicate with the Farmer Circle planning crew and will receive a stipend of $800.

Each circle will also have some funds to hire an expert advisor to join in on one of their meetings and provide practical expertise.

At the end of the year, all the circles will come together at the Build Your Network, Grow Our Future, an annual gathering, to share lessons learned and continue building an even broader network for all farmers involved. Though circles will formally meet for one year with support, they may choose to continue meeting on their own outside of defined year-long commitment.

Farmer Circles Planning Team:

  • NCTFA – coordinator & steering committee members
  • CT NOFA – co-coordinator
  • UConn Extension representatives
  • Representative of Young Farmer Committee
  • Advisory and Outreach team

Please reach out to info@ctnofa.org or newctfarmers@gmail.com with any questions or comments regarding this project.

This program is supported by the generosity of our members, donors and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2020-70017-32733 

Click here to register as a farmer circle participant or apply to be a facilitator.

 

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.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Stephanie Berluti, one of two farmers in our 2020 Journey Person program at her farm, South Haven Farm, in Orange, CT.

Stephanie officially started South Haven Farm in early 2020 where she grows crops including kale, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, collards, swiss chard, and flowers on a ½ acre of land using organic methods. She will also be starting microgreens for the fall and winter. While she is not yet USDA certified, Stephanie knows this is the direction she wants to take and is using her knowledge of organic practices from her farming experience while she begins the process of organic certification.

Stephanie spent the last 6 years traveling around the country and learning to grow in different climates and soil types culminating with the CT NOFA Journey Person program and the beginning of South Haven Farm.

“Having the opportunity to be a part of CT NOFA’s journeyperson program has given me a leg up in my first year of running my own operation, both financially and mentally. I was able to use my stipend to expand my cultivation tool kit by purchasing a garden tiller and a high-quality wheel hoe. The stipend allowed me to higher quality tools at a greater cost that will last ions longer than the cheaper version that I would probably hate and replace within my first few years”.

She began her farming career as an apprentice at Serenbe Farms outside of Atlanta, GA, then spent a season farming by the beach on Martha’s Vineyard at North Tabor Farm. Stephanie then honed her market garden farming skills at Steadfast Farm in Phoenix, AZ as their assistant farm manager. Finally, in 2018, Stephanie returned to Connecticut where she is currently the NY/CT gardener for Green City Growers (based in Boston) where she manages the 30 Rock Chef’s Garden for the Rainbow Room in NYC. However, due to COVID all of those sites were placed on hold this year.

These diverse farming experiences were invaluable in starting her own farm operation. “I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to begin a project like this without the knowledge I gained from those farms”. It wasn’t only knowledge of growing practices that were valuable for Stephanie, but also business practices and consumer engagement. “I learned a lot from the different ways these farms marketed and sold their products. In Atlanta, since I worked on a farm located in an Agri-hood (planned community based around a farm) we focused more on direct to consumer sales and building personal relationships with families in the community through educational programs and events. At Steadfast Farm in Arizona, I was able to engage more with the local culinary scene around the Phoenix Valley and learn how to balance the needs of each sales sector. Learning how different farms around the country sold and marketed their products has been really helpful with my own business plan here in Connecticut”.

In her first year of operation, Stephanie is using this time to learn and experiment. “One of the biggest challenges for me this year was self-management. Being a one-woman operation with other professional commitments outside of the farm was definitely a learning curve. Prioritizing administrative tasks vs boots-on-the-ground farm work can be pretty difficult. I still have a way to go in learning how to balance the fieldwork with the office work, forcing myself to catch up on necessary paperwork even though there are beds that need to be weeded. ”

One element that proved to be particularly challenging this year was the weather. As the climate continues to change and become more and more unpredictable, farmers find themselves having to adapt to more severe weather events. “For me, this was a huge wake-up call in how I have to adapt my growing practices. During the storm a few weeks ago, I lost what was the beginning of my greenhouse and the ongoing drought has really forced me to think about my water use and how I am going to irrigate my crops for the future. I am already thinking about ways I can be more resilient on my farm in the face of climate change. I don’t think there is a single farmer that is unaffected by this issue and, as a community, we really need to come up with aggressive adaptation strategies”.

While learning what works and doesn’t’ work on her farm, Stephanie also had to balance the challenges of starting a new farm during the backdrop of a global pandemic. “Trying to start a farm during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented its own set of unique challenges to what I knew was already going to be a difficult endeavor, mainly having to reset my entire business plan to account for the disappearance of my potential wholesale customers and shift to direct to consumer sales. I wasn’t planning on opening an onsite store until year 2 as my original focus was on wholesale. I was lucky to have had some director to consumer sales to build off of”.

As farmers know all too well during these times – balancing the demand for fresh, local produce, and the importance of keeping your farm safe and healthy is no easy task and has given this industry a lot of uncertainty. Farmer-to-farmer mentorship is a central part of the Journey Person program model.  Stephanie has been working with her mentor Yoko Takemura at Assawaga Farm throughout the growing season.  Especially this year, when the pandemic limited face-to-face interactions, having a friend on the phone who has a similar scale and scope of farming operation can be invaluable.

Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm

“Speaking with my mentor, Yoko of Assawaga Farm, and discussing how they were changing up their marketing techniques in response to COVID gave me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone and approach new venues for sales. Knowing that I could text/call my mentor with questions added a nice sense of security and comfort during such an uncertain time”.

Despite these challenges during the first year of operation, Stephanie has enjoyed the process and is looking forward to the opportunities in the coming years. She has recently built a barn where she plans on hosting small to mid-sized events once it is safe to do so. “I think it is important to have other areas of cash flow on the farm when this pandemic is over. I’m very lucky to have the resources and support to put up this structure that can be used for not only cold storage for my crops but also to host events. I want this farm to serve my community with both nutritious foods and as a gathering place”.

Follow Stephanie and South Haven Farm on Instagram, Facebook, and on her website