New Britain, Conn. Farm Seeks to Improve Neighborhood with Sustainable Urban Agriculture
October 10, 2013 | Abbie Stutzer
Urban Oaks Organic Farm resides in North Oak, a low-income area in New Britain, Conn. Urban Oaks was started to help improve the food-insecure neighborhood. “In our neighborhood, which used to be infested with crime and drugs and violence, it’s much less,” Elizabeth Aaronsohn, an active volunteer at Urban Oaks Organic Farm and Farm board member, said.
Mike Kandefer and Tony Norris (deceased, 2007) were originally herb farmers in Bolton, Conn., but when the city of New Britain, Conn., asked Kandefer and Norris to takeover an old, abandoned 3-1/2-acre flower farm (now known as Urban Oaks), the duo jumped at the chance. “The city put in $100,000. Lots of volunteers helped clean up the space. That was 15 years ago,” said Aaronsohn.
The farm grows greens in its seven greenhouses in the winter (harvest lettuces, salad greens, kales, swiss chard, spinach, arugula, collards, escarole, endive, and herbs), as well as vegetables (sweet peppers, hot peppers, frying peppers, Italian and Asian eggplant, garlic, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, figs, okra, etc.) in the summer. All seedlings are started in the greenhouses and moved to the farm when the plantings are ready.
The Farm also responds to what its customers request (The Farm supplies produce to approximately 20, mostly high-end, restaurants, and runs a farm stand that’s open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays.) “We have experimented with unusual vegetables, even the Asian one called, ‘bitter melon,’ for a year or two, because one of our workers was from Thailand,” Aaronsohn said.
Currently, the farm is quite proud of its 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. “They aren’t picture-perfect gorgeous. We hope it’s OK with our customers,” Aaronsohn said.
One of the goals of the Farm is to educate people in the community about produce, and about eating seasonally. “Sometimes, especially with people who are used to getting their (tomatoes) in cellophane packages year round, [they] at first wonder why they can’t have strawberries, or tomatoes, year round. They don’t know about seasons. Part of our mission is to educate people about seasons and about waiting.”
The Farm also imports some of its produce, such as fruit and out-of-season vegetables, from Albert’s Organics and Mike’s Organics. “They get their stuff mostly from New York State,” Aaronsohn said. “We bring in lettuce and beets, and stuff that we don’t grow (or that’s out of season) that we know our customers want.”
The Farm rents its land from a landlord, and uses organic growing methods, such as composting, and organic pest control. “We try as hard as we can to rotate crops we don’t use chemicals — we are GMO free,” Aaronsohn said. “The farm is beautiful, the fields are serene, and the work is happening and people are enjoying food.”
Although the Farm recently received $15,000 from the city, it needs additional funding to become economically viable. “We are short-staffed because we can’t afford to pay any more than the few people we can hire,” Aaronsohn said. “We don’t ever have enough volunteers, but somehow we produce beautiful greens, and more!”
Currently, the Farm’s fiduciary is a human resources agency (HRA), but the Farm is working toward becoming a 501(c)(3). The HRA also helps the Farm secure workers. “We have had several kids from the program for the last several weeks,” Aaronsohn said. “We’re so glad to have them. HRA is paying them a stipend and bringing them lunch, which is such a good deal for us.” The Farm also finds workers through Connecticut Work, an agency that helps reintroduce formerly incarcerated people to the workforce.
If the Farm is able to secure more grant money, it plans on hiring more people. In fact, Aaronsohn is currently writing a grant to help fund the hiring of a farm business manager to take the place of the Farm’s volunteer CPA. “The commitment to the farm has to be such a serious commitment that you work there many more hours than you get paid for, and we are trying to hire people who feel that way,” Aaronsohn said. “We want to pay people a decent wage but we want them to respect the food, customers and the land, and that’s not always easy.”