A New Era for Bethel’s Holbrook Farm

Jessica Ryan

Founded by John and Lynn Holbrook, Holbrook Farm in Bethel has been family run and operated for the past 40 years. The farm is small by most people’s standards. Although it is situated on 12 acres only two are used for production. From these two acres yield an abundance of produce. While not certified organic, the land is clean of pesticides and herbicides, using plants that attract beneficial insects. Weeds have a special place in the ecological mix as well.

Last week I took a trip up to the farm to meet with Jess Wong, the new manager who gave me a tour of the property. Wong was brought on to manage the property and grow the farm to a new level of productivity. A Skidmore graduate, she dabbled in marketing for a while before realizing that she missed being outdoors and working with her hands. Wong started volunteering at the farm assisting the former manager, handling minor projects and social media

Last December John told her that he wanted to retire and asked if she would run the farm and the market. Wong was elated. She had big plans for the farm which included a new greenhouse and renovating the store. But greenhouses are expensive. Enter Tony Pham and Richard Reyes of Mecha Noodle Bar, and Mezon, and their new program, Eat Justice, a movement of restaurants on a mission to transform taste and tradition to pride and progress.

Through cause partnerships, creative events and everyday food choices, Eat/Justice works to keep cultural diversity strong, increase access to healthy food and empower the talented restaurant community. When Reyes learned that Wong was trying to raise money for a new greenhouse he offered to help. Mecha Noodle partnered with the farm by donating some of the proceeds from their ramen sales. Over a period of about a month nearly $4000  was raised for the greenhouse. That’s a lot of noodle sales!

Last Winter Wong closed the store for renovations. Wander through the shop which is now open and you’ll see, in addition to items grown on the farm, a wide array often items from local vendors so that customers can continue to shop through all the seasons. Baked goods hail from Dere St., Ovens of France, Sweet and Simple, Daily Fare, and American Pie Co. Dairy products come by way of  Arethusa, Stonewall Dairy, Hastings. Meat comes from Little Farm on Main, Gourmavian and Mt. Product Smokehouse. Local honeys from Dave Blocher, Jerry Soltisiak and local maple Syrup- Taconic Distillery and Brookside Farm II, as well as greeting cards, jewelry and soap from local crafters.

Wong showed me the property and I was amazed by how much could be produced in such a small amount of space. On just two acres the farm yields a wealth of produce that includes broccoli, cauliflower, beans, peas, leeks, onions, garlic, spinach, arugula, a variety of Asian greens, escarole, dandelion greens, okra, eggplant, cucumbers, sweet peppers, hot peppers, edible flowers, collard greens, parsnips, potatoes, brussel sprouts, cabbage, Mexican sour gherkins, summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, Brazilian eggplant, Brazilian cucumber, radishes, turnips, sweet potatoes and specialty salad greens. It might be safer to say the farm grows everything but fruit and corn - items that require a lot of space to grow. They’re experimenting with locally grown flowers, and hope to offer those in their market this spring and summer.

Wander around and you’ll notice all the chickens, many of which happily roam around. There are between 500 and 600 chickens that rule the roost. I had been told that they had just enjoyed a winter’s worth of broccoli. During the wintertime the eggs are sold to some of the many restaurants that Holbrook has partnered up with but when the weather starts to warm up they’re sold at the shop and despite the many hundreds they can’t seem to lay them fast enough for their customers.

Wong told me of her big dreams for Holbrook. “I’m hoping to turn this place into a productive 4 season farm. We’ve always been a 4 season farm but I want to be able to keep the same flow of customers in the winter as I do in the summer. In addition to the funds raised by Eat/Justice she started a CSA program to raise more monies. “We had never had such a program before and so ours isn’t the traditional CSA most farmer’s markets offer. Ours is basically a gift card program. Our customers can buy gift cards and fill them with a certain dollar amount to be used at any time. They never expire and they can be refilled as often as they want.” Wong told me that the program has been very successful to date. “ We didn’t want to be tied to a CSA schedule because we’ve never done one before and it’s just too hard to incorporate into the farming plan at the moment.” This has helped her to get a jump start on everything. “I was starting to struggle as the things get expensive - even the cost of the seedlings all adds up,” she confided. “There are loan and grant options but the loan was getting difficult - I don’t have an established history yet.”

During her short few years at the farm Wong has cultivated many relationships within the food industry. Holbrook produce can be found at: Southend, Uncorked, Elm, Rowayton Seafood,  The Cottage, Meccha Noodle Bar,  Kawa Ni, The Whelk, Mill Street, Greenwich Water Club, Mezon, Stanziato’s,  Bailey’s Backyard, Schoolhouse at Cannondale, Aranci and House of Yoshida.

“John hadn’t had a manager who had worked with the restaurants and I was eager to do that. I’m a foodie and so this was important to me. I reached out to some restaurants and some reached out to me. It’s a great partnership. I love that they can help me out if I have too much of a particular product. This has helped us tremendously. We needed these restaurants to help move product that our customers weren’t coming in for.”

Wong is passionate about her customers. “The majority of people who come here are regulars and very involved with the farm and I am involved w what’s going on in their lives - I love the back and forth with the community. That’s the most important thing to maintain. I could be the best grower on the planet but if I can’t communicate w the customers and maintain the sense of community then there’s nothing.” I asked Wong if she had a message she wanted to share. She replied with the following:  

“Across America there are farmers who are older and want to retire but they have no one to pass it on to. Land is expensive; they can sell their property to developers for a lot more money… But preserving our farms is really important. It’s really important that farmers can find one another and work with one another. I feel so fortunate to have found John - I can carry on his vision and legacy - growing healthy food organically, using nature to do the work for us. We are always learning and always experimenting so that what we do can can be replicated, sustainable and feed the community. That to me is everything. It’s not just about growing food, it’s about educating and fostering a sense of community.” 

After our interview John came over to say hello and we chatted for a little while. “Do you farm?” he asked. “Unfortunately no. I have a terribly black thumb,” I replied. To which he said, “Good, we need people like you!’