Bringing Organic Farming to Urban New England

Urban Oaks Organic Farm CSA thrives in New Britain, Connecticut, and provides fresh, organic produce and extensive farming knowledge to the industrial city.

| Winter 2012/2013

Head a couple of towns west from the affluent, Colonial perfection of meticulously manicured Wethersfied, Connecticut, and you come to New Britain, once known as The Hardware Capital of the World, and still occasionally referred to as “Hardware City.” A gritty reminder of America's once-thriving industrial heyday, New Britain seems typical of many northeastern towns: dormant factories, forbidding old apartment buildings, down-on-their-luck neighborhoods that have seen better days.

In this unlikely environment, Urban Oaks Organic Farm CSA glistens like a gem, an oasis in the post-industrial landscape. Sprawling across about 4-1/2 acres, it's the largest urban organic farm in New England.

This land wasn't always the exemplar of sustainable, urban organic farming that it is today. Back in 1983, a commercial florist/greenhouse operation, Sandelli Greenhouses, closed down, and the property, unable to attract new owners, went derelict. Fourteen old-style greenhouses stood abandoned, exposed to the ravages of the elements and urban teenagers, and weeds (including volunteer trees) were about the only things growing.

So in 1998 Ken Malinowski, from the city Office of Community Development, approached Mike Kandefer, who was to become the co-founder and currently the general manager of Urban Oaks Farm. At that time, Mike, a lifelong Connecticut farmer, had been operating Aux Fine Herbes for a decade. He recalls: “Before this, I was farming in the country, and shipping everything into the city ... When I saw the property, I said ‘No way!’” The ramshackle, neglected property presented a formidable clean-up job alone, never mind farming.

Government agencies agreed, so they sweetened the pot with a half-million dollar rehabilitation grant. Mike and his long-time partner, Tony Norris, rose to the challenge. “We started cleaning up the property in 1998,” Mike says, adding, in apparent understatement, that the property was “pretty well thrashed when we got here.” They hauled out hundreds of tractor trailers full of debris. They refurbished five of the greenhouses, dismantling the remainder. The city helped in as many ways as it could, and not just with funding: Former mayor Lucian Pawlak came by to help cut trees. The first crop was harvested in 1999, although the cleanup wasn’t fully completed until 2002.

The retail store, built of brick with attractive flower beds between the parking lot and sidewalks, came later. Originally a gas station, the underground tanks were removed with financial support from the  Environmental Protection Agency. Then came a sweeping renovation, and the store opened its doors in 2008.

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