Fairfield County is full of trailblazing women, particularly in the culinary world. Which is why, with 2018 being proclaimed the Year of the Woman, we felt compelled to honor the pioneers among us.
Our new series, “It’s A Woman’s World’ is devoted to Fairfield County female influencers who’ve forged their own paths, often in food-related fields long dominated by men.
Whether farming the land, bringing healthy food to the masses, feeding an entrepreneurial spirit or injecting feminism with food, these groundbreaking ladies have set a new definition of women’s work, creating new paths and setting examples for those who follow.
How'd they do it? Read on. This week, we feature Annie Farrell, a pioneer in sustainable farming, and farmer at Millstone Farm in Wilton CT. Stay tuned to see who’s next. And feel free to send suggestions for your candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Farrell, Farmer, Millstone Farm (www.millstonefarm.org)
Why She’s A Pioneer: It’s hard to know where to start as this Westchester resident, who began her farming career in the 70s, is behind so many “firsts.” The NYC-born Farrell, whose mother was a “Lord & Taylor lady,” was the first grower of organic specialty produce to supply Manhattan’s restaurants from her farm in the Catskills when mesclun, specialty vegetables, and edible flowers were a foreign concept (they were grown in France, but not in the U.S. and not organically, she says).
She was also the first to help farmers create sustainable systems and grow and market specialty crops and livestock so they could diversify and move beyond dairy, which was on a steep decline in upstate New York.
Long story short: she’s been touting the benefits of organic, sustainable farming as well as issues of food security and climate change way before it was part of our vernacular.
In the early 90’s, she joined Cabbage Hill Farm in Mount Kisco, where her work included developing and refining a revolutionary aquaponics system as well as preserving rare breeds of farm animals. “The owners gave me the ability to do things outside the box and so I did,’ she says. That led to another milestone: as co-founder of The Flying Pig, one of Westchester’s first local-food restaurants. She also initiated creating an Agriculture District in Westchester County.
All in all, her accomplishments are too numerous to count. In the 40-plus-years she’s been spewing her agricultural wisdom – first learning from the old-timers on her farm in Bovina back in the ‘70s -- she’s designed, consulted, resurrected and worked with a variety of high-profile farms and gardens, attracting an avid following of celebrities, chefs, and farmers along the way. Among her fans: Dave Matthews, Nell Newman, Bobby Kennedy, Willie Nelson and Nelson Rockefeller.
More accolades: She helped turn Rockefeller’s now famed Pocantico Hills estate, Stone Barns, into a working organic farm and restaurant. And she was determined to bring Farm Aid to metropolitan areas such as NYC and Camden, and was able to participate in that effort.
Along the way, she served as CEO of Stafford Enterprises, a USDA slaughter facility in Connecticut whose design was based on Temple Grandin’s plans for humane animal treatment. And, she started the New England Livestock Alliance (NELA), sharing genetics for heirloom breeds of livestock that thrive without grain.
In addition, she spent three years helping Lisa Schwartz at Rainbeau Ridge Farm in Bedford Hills, an award-winning goat chess dairy, CSA, and educational forum for children.
At Millstone Farm in Wilton, where she’s been since 2005, she continues to do what she does best – create a sustainable farm and then build on it with educational programs and community events. Her goal remains, as it’s always been, to challenge and educate the public about how we think about food and what we need to do to preserve and value the land.
“What was once lunatic fringe then became cutting edge, then became mainstream has turned into greenwashing,” she warns. “I’m sick of labels like organic, sustainable, and heirloom – you’re either doing it or you’re not. That’s why buying from a CSA is important so you know the farmer and you know the farm and you know what you’re getting.”
On Being A Woman In A “Man’s World:” It’s been tough, says Farrell, especially in the beginning when the farmers around her – they were all men—looked at her like she was crazy. Once she showed them that she was a real worker not afraid to get her hands dirty, however, nothing else mattered. Her experience in the Catskills, she says, was invaluable as she won their trust – and their knowledge.
She admits, however, that there’s always been an unconscious prejudice among men which they may not even mean to, or realize, but when they talk about machinery and things that pertain to the farm, they simply defer to other men. That has changed, she says, and she feels fortunate to be able to collaborate with so many other women farmers like Patti Popp [of Sport Hill Farm], Nancy Kohlberg [of Cabbage Hill Farm], Dina Brewser [of The Hickories] and Lisa Schwartz [of Rainbeau Ridge] so when there’s a problem, for example, with a pig birthing or something else, they call and lean on each other for advice. Says Farrell: “It’s the women that change the world.”
What’s Next: To continue to advise and inform farmers just like the “old-timers” in Bovina taught her. “It’s about reaching into the past to preserve the future,” she says.