by Sally Colby
Acreage that had been farmed continuously for more than 200 years is now home to a thriving vegetable farm, thanks to brothers Daniel, Quincy and Patrick Horan.
“My older brother Daniel started farming in 1990 on what was our grandparents’ country house property,” said Patrick. “He was fresh out of college and started a small organic vegetable farm, and Quincy and I helped during summer vacation.”
The half-acre vegetable plot Daniel started has grown to 25 acres of certified organic vegetable production. Waldingfield Farm, in Washington, CT, has a 200-member CSA and an on-farm market. The farm also sells to chefs and has a strong presence at five farmers markets between Brooklyn, NY, and New Haven, CT, as well as some markets closer to home.
With more than 60 acres of tillable soil, Patrick said one of the main benefits is ample acreage to help maintain healthy crops. “Rotation is a huge part of managing pests and disease,” he said. “We use a biodynamic approach as well. We try to figure out what grows best around what we see in the fields. We try to be as harmonious as possible.”
Patrick said the farm built its reputation in the mid-1990s when Quincy returned from college with new ideas. “When we started out, salad mix was the big thing,” said Patrick. “Mesclun mix was popular, and that was before all the indoor growing started. The chefs we worked with are the ones who requested Asian greens such as bok choi, mizuna and tatsoi.” The Horans were also growing tomatoes, but found it difficult to sell those locally because most people grew their own tomatoes at home and profit came from selling large quantities.
The farm grew quickly between 1995 and 2000 when the brothers expanded production, starting with the addition of 10 acres of tomatoes to the several acres of vegetables. “We did it with classics like Brandywine, Green Zebra, Striped German and others that chefs told us they wanted,” said Patrick. “We grew a lot of tomatoes for about 10 years, and while it’s nice to have 80 different varieties of tomatoes, we’re an inventory-based business and I need tomatoes that are heavy and taste great.”
The Horans decided to focus on 15 to 20 tomato varieties that do well in the region. “One thing we noticed in late 2000 was that the weather was changing, disease was rampant and late blight was coming earlier and earlier,” said Patrick. “In 2009, when late blight took out the whole Eastern Seaboard’s tomato crop, we realized we were too heavily leveraged with tomatoes.” Despite this year’s drought, Patrick is mindful that the Northeast is still humid in summer, and spore-driven diseases that hit tomatoes hard means selecting the most disease-tolerant varieties.
Three high tunnels allow the Horans to grow year-round, and they’ll soon add two more 100-foot tunnels through an NRCS grant. Among the 1,500 tomatoes grown in tunnels are blight-resistant Margold and Marbonne, which Patrick said have an heirloom texture and flavor and are meant to be grown in tunnels. They also grow a lot of Cherry Bomb, SunGold and Sunpeach. The 15,000 to 20,000 tomato plants grown outdoors provide an ample supply for the season, with surplus tomatoes going into Waldingfield Farm’s line of preserved tomato products including pasta sauce, crushed tomatoes and bloody Mary mix, all made by a custom processor in New Haven.
The tunnels where tomatoes thrive in summer are emptied at the end of the season before a cover crop of winter rye, vetch and red clover is grown in the aisles. After soil is amended with compost, winter crops are established. Patrick plants chard, kale, spinach and other hardy crops to sustain the winter market through April. “January is the only month plants don’t grow well because there isn’t enough light,” he said. “But the plants are mature enough by Christmas and we can pick a lot each week.”
Although the high tunnels are not heated in winter, southeast exposure helps preserve sunlight. “There aren’t enough hours of darkness for the ground to freeze, and we use hay or cover crop bedding to keep plants warm,” said Patrick. “Once the sunlight hits it during the day, it can be 25º outside and it’ll be 45º or 50º in the tunnels in the middle of winter.”
Busy farmers markets have proven that fresh local greens in the middle winter in New England are a hot commodity. “We keep storage crops in the barns in cold rooms, and there’s enough to get through winter,” said Patrick, adding that he’ll take 15 to 20 items to winter markets. “This year’s harvest yielded plenty of winter squash and root crops. We’ll have carrots, celeriac, potatoes, beets, turnip and daikon through winter.”
Like other farmers that rely on fresh market sales, Patrick and Quincy had to redesign their business model to adapt to COVID-19. As they regrouped and brainstormed new ideas, the brothers worked with local bakers, cheesemakers and other food artisans for products to add to their fresh produce. “People came here for a local shopping experience and supported artisans and a wide array of food purveyors,” said Patrick. “As summer progressed and fields started providing more food, people were coming here to buy fresh produce.”
Patrick said that when he and his brothers started farming in the early 1990s, they didn’t expect to be farming as a career. “Connecticut is a tiny state for agriculture,” he said, “and the majority of the state’s farms are not large. We were viewed as a curiosity because we were determined to stick with our plan.”
With their customers in mind, Patrick and Quincy are dedicated to promoting an understanding of how food is produced. “We live in a convenience-driven world, and Saturday morning isn’t always an easy time to get to a farmers market,” said Patrick. “We try to cater some of our business to all markets. There’s a lot of ignorance about how food is produced, but it’s no fault of the consumer – it’s because they don’t have a connection to food. We’ve accomplished a lot this year. Markets were strong, and we knew it was important to nail it because the consumer can be fickle and may not come back if they didn’t get tomatoes every week. Many people told us ‘This is my favorite errand of the week.’”
As challenging as it was to deal with COVID-19, Patrick said the pandemic opened new opportunities for marketing. “We realized over the past six months that a group of people we’ve never seen before started to come to our farm stand and go to markets,” he said. “That has been a long time coming. People want a much more direct connection – they want to go to the farm if they can. In the more urban markets like Brooklyn, it isn’t a transactional affair – people want to have conversations with farmers who produce food. It’s been eye-opening and gratifying.”
Visit Waldingfield Farm at waldingfieldfarm.com.