NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Sol-e-Terre Farm, CT

New beginnings
With help from the Connecticut Farmland Trust, a family realizes its dream.

By Daniel Duesing

Farm-At-A-Glance

Sol-e-Terre Farm
Suffield, Connecticut

Farmers: Daniel and Bethany Duesing

First season: 2004

What they raise: Pastured poultry, pork, beef, dairy products, some mixed vegetables

Marketing strategies: Farmers’ market

February, 2005. After a two year search my wife, Bethany, and I were finally able to find some farmland that we could afford, through the assistance of the New Farmer Initiative of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. The program was set up to help match new farmers with preserved farmland.

The original idea was that towns and land trusts would jump at the idea of having organic and sustainable farmers on their land. However, in almost every case the land was actually being farmed, mostly for hay, and the farmers were not willing to give it up. Finally, we were introduced to a couple who had just inherited a small farm, nine acres total with a barn and farmhouse as well as a dilapidated and overgrown redwood greenhouse.

In March 2004, we moved in with our two daughters: Zoe, now 4, and Charlotte, 2. We had been raising pastured chickens and turkeys with my father at his place, and our plan was to expand on that and also to offer eggs and some specialty vegetables. The first project was to turn the greenhouse into a useable space. This involved removing the old glass panels, many of which were either broken or has slid out of place. In the years of neglect, the greenhouse had filled with blackberry and raspberry bushes, which I cut down and chipped for mulch. Finally, I recovered the structure with two layers of five-year greenhouse poly. We managed to get enough of the bramble roots out to prepare beds in about half of the greenhouse and plant an early crop of greens. We also established a germination box with heating cable embedded in concrete and a removable cover.

Although the land had not been farmed by the previous owners for many years, they allowed a neighbor, Bernie, to hay the pasture—about 7 1/2 acres—and use the barn. We decided to have him continue to cut the hay if he would leave us enough to keep our cows—three calves purchased in May—through the winter. He also agreed to plow and disk about an acre so that we could start our garden. The ground dried around the end of May, even though we are on a hill the soil has a high clay content and there are at least two springs on the high side of our field. So Bernie, with his big 4-wheel drive tractor and a four-gang plow, made quick work of the sod. He promised to be back in about a week to hit it with the disk harrow. Well, it poured the next week and the furrows held standing water for a week after that. By that time, hay season was beginning and we never did get the disk harrow in there. We scaled back our plans for a vegetable operation and just grew for ourselves, planting in the space in the greenhouse (tomatoes and peppers) and in some space turned by hand around the house.

By mid July, the plowed field was shoulder high with all manner of weeds that could not be found in the adjacent undisturbed land—a hard lesson in the pitfalls of tillage. We decided to try to salvage some good from the situation by rotating the cows through. They ate most of the seeds from the lambs quarters and pigweed and trampled some of the woodier growth. The second week of August, we purchased four Duroc feeder pigs and used electric fence to rotate them through the overgrown area. Finally success! They trampled and rooted and leveled off the areas they were in and we even managed to get some rye established before the cold set in.

Disaster number two was the pastured broilers. Even though we sold every one we raised and managed to make a small profit, we never were able to set up our processing facility in a way that made that part of the process bearable. In 2005 we are going to raise only enough chickens for ourselves while we focus on growing enough vegetables to make it worthwhile to go to the farmers' market every week. And we are going to continue pushing forward with the beef and the pork, possibly even two batches of pigs.