WE BOUGHT A FARM??! After a taxing six months of searching, and an even more taxing two months of paperwork, we're now on the other side (the fun side!) of the biggest commitment we've ever made to each other and to our business. It brings us immeasurable joy to be able to say: we now own a 13 acre farm in East Haddam, Connecticut. On paper it belongs to us, and in our hearts we belong to it. We're pinching ourselves.
WHERE WE WERE
Over the last few years Aaron, Caitlin, and Rachel have had the invaluable opportunity to grow the beginnings of our business on land that we didn't own, and that was very, very inexpensive to rent. While we'll always be thankful for the first three debt-free years we had at Darling Farm, we outgrew it quickly and there wasn't enough acreage to bring Elise to the team. We were incomplete without her, and we needed space to grow. Farming on ambiguously public land, and not being together every day, took its toll on us.
A year ago today we were just four farmers and best friends with the crazy idea that it is possible (that it must be possible) to build a small-scale organic vegetable farm that is both sustainable and profitable on land that we ourselves own. The idea gained momentum slowly as we realized how strongly we each believed in our shared vision, and in each other. We let the idea build, talked about it, kept farming, educated ourselves, had doubts. Deciding to enter the real estate market was daunting - with no idea what we could afford, or if we could afford anything, or who we could trust, or what we needed, we were nervous and fragile. We dipped our toes in, nervously looked at the first property, lost momentum. It took practice, but we got the hang of it.
We looked everywhere, we obsessively trolled real estate listings, we fell in love over and over again. We peered inside of ourselves to look for what we wanted, we aligned and realigned our priorities, weighing countless variables against each other and against our options. We got really good at Connecticut town geography. We made impossible spreadsheets, trying to quantify and qualify the intangible feeling of each place. We had the world’s most patient real estate agent (thank you, Georgia - we owe you) who was willing to drop everything and drive all over the state of Connecticut at a moments notice when we thought we’d found the one. She never once told us we were crazy. We looked at almost 20 farms over the course of six months (in the middle of the summer season, when the last thing in the universe we had was time to take an afternoon off and drive three hours round-trip to see a farm). Of those 20 there were four that we seriously considered. Of those four one was too small, one was too suburban, and one was way, way too expensive. (We bought the fourth one.)
Every new visit took it out of us. It was exhausting to imagine every alternative future – would we be happy and fulfilled here? Would this particular piece of land support the type of operation we’re going to create? Each one of us felt emotional about something different, everyone projected different things onto the same property, and sometimes it felt like we were getting further from knowing what we needed. We talked and talked and talked ourselves in circles.
Here’s what we knew: We needed a minimum of five acres of flat open field with moderately healthy soil and a manageable number of rocks. We needed quiet. We needed some impossible combination of productive existing infrastructure and a blank slate on which to draw our perfect farm. We needed reasonable proximity to New Haven, to our loyal customers, and to our beloved market. We needed an old farmhouse that spoke to the architect among us. We needed zoning that would allow for the construction of two more houses in the near future, without being located in the middle of a suburban development market. We needed some woods, big trees for shade and shelter, and plenty of room for perennial gardens. We needed space to experiment and space to play.
We also knew that we loved each other as family, that no one of us could do it without the other three, and that we all shared a common vision of what we wanted for our farm.
Here’s what we didn't know: Would we know it when we saw it?
We did. Though I can't offer any empirical evidence of this, I think we knew it the moment we stepped out of the car. Two days after we visited we heard that were other people interested, and decided over the course of a five minute freak-out that we were going to make an offer. It was that easy.
WHERE WE ARE
Famous last words. That easy decision has been followed by three months of grueling paperwork and daily bureaucratic hoop-jumping, an administrative black hole that we were completely sucked into. Turns out that buying a 322 year old house is a lot harder than buying a new house, and that buying property with four people is way more than twice as complicated as buying property as a married unit. We've got more lawyers, LLCs, and operating agreements than might seem possible. We've learned legal terminology that we hope to quickly forget. No shit, we have executed contracts that enabled us to execute other contracts. We spent two weeks writing a 30-page business plan in excruciating detail to get our loans approved, which they were. We tested the soils, took an auger to the fields, and made educated guesses about rockiness and drainage. We survived a house inspection that lasted five hours during which we poked and prodded at every crumbling wall and every loose floorboard. We considered "it's going to be a lot of work, but the toilet flushes and it's probably not going to fall over anytime soon" to be an enthusiastic thumbs up.
So, where is it? The new farm is on a narrow winding road high up in the hills of East Haddam - northeast of New Haven, southeast of Hartford, and a half hour from anywhere. It's 13 acres of quiet field in the middle of deep woods, and has been fallow, though well-loved, for years. We have a small shady pond with a tiny island, an old orchard of overgrown apple trees and grape vines and blueberry bushes, an ancient but watertight barn, and two big, flat fields separated by the most beautiful tree line. It's not perfect, but it's perfect for us.
There are three USGS survey markers set into rocks on the perimeter of the fields, which we've taken as a point of pride because it means our family farm will always be on the map of our national geology. We've found evidence (yes, poop evidence) that we might have a black bear living nearby – she’ll be our spirit animal and we'll give her a powerful and reverent name.
The farmhouse, which was originally built in 1693 and has been added onto many times, is rambling and does not include a single right angle, has minimal insulation (if any), and still has all of the original plaster walls. It has settled dramatically away from the original brick fireplace foundation, and the floors pitch at precarious angles, but by some miracle the joists are still passable and sound. It will be a lifetime's worth of work to maintain, but we're up for it - it's easy to love, and it's the perfect adventure for a modern architect that can't stand modern houses.
And so here we are, proud and thankful owners of the little piece of planet earth on which we found exactly what we needed most. As four equal partners we each own exactly one quarter of the land and one quarter of the business, which is a fundamental principle of our business model. Though we are scaling up a little from this past year, we're only scaling up a little, and we will continue to refine our ability to grow a healthy crop of uniquely diverse and unusual vegetables. Our mission has been and will always be to increase the diversity of what people eat, and to practice a model of farming that is healthy for the environment, for the soil, for the economy, for the community, for the consumer, and for the farmer. We will honor the land by listening carefully for what it needs over decades and will employ only resilient, responsive, and restorative practices. We will honor each other’s strengths and take maximum joy from growing food. We will build a business that sustains us. We will cherish every season.
But first we have a barn floor to replace, a pond to dredge, irrigation and fencing to build, a kitchen to renovate, an orchard to bring back to life, and fields to plow - all before March, when next season's seedlings spring to life. Check back here for our recording of this whole insane process, step by step.
We're optimistic, terrified, and totally overwhelmed. We couldn't be more excited.
Aaron, Caitlin, Rachel, and Elise
Let us know if you want to be on the mailing list for updates in January about our 2015 CSA. We'll be doing a few New Haven drop-offs, and we'll be at our regular Edgewood market spot on Sundays. The rest of our market schedule is still in the works, but we'll keep you posted here and on Facebook.