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.
Urban Oaks, situated at 225 Oak Street in New Britain, is today an organically certified, not-for-profit corporation. The CSA component sells the equivalent of 55 full CSA shares, with two seasons each year: the summer season, 12 weeks running July-October, and the winter Buy-In Club, which does include some quality produce purchased by the farm, and runs from January-March. But there's much more ...
The farm furnishes produce to numerous high-end local restaurants, including Le Farm, ON20, It's Only Natural, Bloodroot Vegetarian Restaurant and ZINC. The restaurant sales account for over half of the farm's income. One restaurant, Rizzuto's of West Hartford, will only buy their tomatoes in season from Urban Oaks due to their superlative selection of organic heirloom types.
Most of the farm, about 4 acres, is devoted to outdoor cash crops. The fields are beautifully filled with developing veggie plants spring through fall. Every imaginable crop can be seen: tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, salad greens, onions, garlic. Here, nature has been lovingly enticed to bestow her abundance. But don't expect a still life: This is a working farm, right down to the tractor parked near the refrigerator shed. And every working farm has its share of rough edges — including a few weeds. Still, the garden presents a stunning contrast, nestled as it is among liquor stores and gloomy three-story apartment buildings. “We're the farm in the ‘hood,” Mike exclaims with a smile, and you can tell he's proud when he says it.
But step into one of the large greenhouses and you are transported as far from the immediate urban surroundings as you are from New England's parsimonious climate. They are so much more than mere engines of year-round production, though they are that too. The greenhouses, in total covering one-half acre, are an environment in their own right, almost like entering a separate world. And in the greenhouses, Mike Kandefer really opens up. His eyes get bright as he describes the trials and accomplishments — sheer drama of a lifetime of passionate dedication.
He speaks fondly of his fig trees, bearing their luscious crops as they have for years, wholly within the greenhouse's protective confines. Mike beams as he describes cultivating his figs (a crop which can't survive Connecticut winters unprotected). He grows Italian White and Turkish Brown cultivars. The trees are cut back in autumn, to keep the trees productive, but only to about 4-5 feet in height. Still, he's not coy when he boasts of the rarity of fresh figs as a market crop. “We get 8 dollars a pound for them” in season, he proudly proclaims.
If local figs are rare in New England, how about grapefruits? Yes, they're here, several large trees reaching to the ceiling, which must be about 15 feet high at the roof's peak. They yield hundreds of pounds of fruit annually, in December and January. The trees were grown from seed Mike brought in from the Caribbean. And he looks like a kid with a new toy when he points out avocado and Meyer lemon saplings. And, while the farm does sell herbs all season long, the rosemary hedge, evocative of an English garden or Mediterranean villa, is sheer play.
Yet the greenhouses, for all their allure to a died-in-the-wool plantsman, are in fact a major piece of Urban Oaks' productivity and, therefore, its income. For one thing, here is where starter plants are produced in the spring. More than 100 tomato varieties and scores of peppers, eggplant and other seedlings are produced here annually, not just to plant in Urban Oaks' own fields, but also for sale to the public. Salad greens, the farm's specialty, are produced here all winter long, and peppers are harvested until Thanksgiving or Christmas. Summer to fall, the greenhouses provide cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs and other warm-season crops when outdoor conditions aren't right.
Nor does all this ground under glass come with a huge carbon footprint. When the greenhouses were renovated, the old-style single-layer glass was removed in favor of modern double-walled Lexan-type glazing. That, coupled with thrifty management, enables year-round production. Winter lows are held at 41 degrees F, with the thermostat cranked up to a modest 55 F minimum during daylight hours. “I learned a long time ago that nothing grows if you let the daytime temperature drop below 55 degrees,” Mike explains.
Things haven't always gone smoothly for Urban Oaks. A sad milestone was reached in November, 2007, when co-founder Tony Norris passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Norris had done the majority of grant writing and administrative tasks, leaving most of the day-to-day farm operations to Mike. When Norris died, Mike had to assume these administrative chores as well, and he found himself pulled farther and farther away from his passion — farming. Then came a shake-up in the board of directors. And, bad harvests, which can strike any farm, created financial problems.
In recent years however, things have returned to an even keel. And the farm, throughout its ups and downs, has remained true to its original goal: “to better the lives of the people in the neighborhood.” The store, which serves as the pick-up depot for the CSA customers, is also open to the public. Produce is available at retail during Friday and Saturday hours. Local, low-income consumers get the benefit of organic food, too often available only to the more affluent, because the Urban Oaks store is set up to accept SNAP and WIC payments in lieu of cash.
There's also a strong educational outreach, which helps to educate future generations of consumers to appreciate the merits of organic and local food production. According to board member Linda Glick, the farm's Education Committee chair, they have always done some educational outreach but about two years ago, Urban Oaks was approached by a local school, the then-troubled Smalley Academy. The farm set up year-round programs, working primarily with 4th-grade students. The kids work at the farm twice weekly, doing everything from experiments to feeding the rabbits, with plenty of hand-on horticultural practice worked in. The students learn the rewards of hard work, and get a deep insight into where food comes from, and what the process involves.
The farm has worked with other schools as well, and Linda anticipates growth for the outreach program in the future. “Now we're getting requests from others schools as well,” says Glick. And, in August, the farm is getting a full-time person from FoodCorps, which is part of the Clinton-era AmeriCorps program. This position is all about nutrition education, and getting locally-grown produce into schools.
Urban Oaks Organic Farm also puts on two annual events. In spring they put on their Green Faire. Held in May, the event boasts a wide range of alternative, sustainable activities and vendors, music, artists and food. It's a seasonal highlight that showcases the farm as well, since they offer organic, heirloom starter plants, produced on-site by staff and volunteers.
In late summer, they put on their Tomato-To-mah-to Event, in conjunction with Upper Forty Farm of Cromwell, Connecticut. This event revolves around tomatoes: Both farms are renowned for their tomato production. This event is limited to 200 participants each year (tickets are available through Urban Oaks' website). Admission gets you into a tomato sampling — innovative, artisanal dishes created by 10 or more chefs, from the combined tomato harvest of both farms. The raw tomato tasting comes as a delightful bonus!
All this success takes hard work. The farm currently runs about eight full-time paid positions, reduced to about five during the slow season. Mike estimates that the paid help does about 80 percent of the work, while volunteers pick up the slack. Many of the volunteers are young, and they gain valuable work experience in an area of high unemployment. The board of directors, of course, are also strictly volunteers.
And the farm is receiving some well-deserved recognition. It received Yankee magazine's Best of New England award in 2010 for its quality fresh veggies, and was voted among the top 20 “America's Favorite Farmers' Markets” by American Farmland Trust.
The achievements have been many: notable environmental remediation, local organic food production, education. Urban Oaks Organic Farm has literally catalyzed the revitalization of its community. And isn't that what urban farming is all about?
Randel A. Agrella lives, works and gardens in Central Connecticut, where he also manages historic Comstock, Ferre and Co. An heirloom seed saver since 1982, he offers heirloom plants in season on his website, www.abundantacres.net. His articles have appeared in Heirloom Gardener since 2005.
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