With 50 mostly small- and family-run farms within its town limits, few Connecticut towns have preserved farmland as assiduously as Easton. And without sacrificing its status as an out-of-the-way oasis amid the sprawl of suburbia, Easton now wants to put itself on the map.
Of note, the town is now actively seeking a designation as Connecticut’s Christmas Tree Capital, with attendant signage on the Merritt Parkway. Recently, Citizens for Easton — a nonprofit group that works to preserve the town’s small town characteristics — invited residents, gardening enthusiasts, budding growers and other interested observers to an event called Meet Easton’s Farmers.
The well-attended meeting provided an overview of agriculture in Easton, the challenges faced by small farmers today and the town’s potential as an agri-tourism hub.
The town’s preservation measures helped retain large tracts of open space and largely rural ambiance. Silverman’s Farm evolved from a cider mill and truck farm founded in the early 1920s into a popular destination for day-trippers from throughout the tri-state region.
“In the 1980s a lot of farms — including us — became pick-your-own places,” said Irv Silverman, the youngest son of founders Ben and Rose Silverman, who now runs the family farm.“Little kids who visit have never seen fruit growing on a tree, so visits to farms like ours are educational for today’s youngsters.”
At the much newer Shaggy Coos Farm nearby, Tim and Bernadette Brady raise beef cattle, pigs, and turkeys, and board horses. Two years ago, the couple purchased two Holstein dairy cows and began producing natural milk.
“Natural milk tastes nothing like what you buy in a supermarket,” Brady noted. To demonstrate, he brought a container to give out samples of the farm’s chocolate milk. The Bradys spent days taste-testing and fine tuning the perfect combination of milk and cocoa.
The biggest hurdle the Bradys face is the lack of a USDA-certified slaughterhouse in Connecticut. This means producers such as the Bradys must bring livestock for slaughter to New York or Massachusetts.
Sal Gilbertie, owner of Gilbertie Herb Garden in Easton, urged those interested in agriculture to choose a product “niche.” His is a third-generation greenhouse that began as a producer of cut flowers, later diversified into potted plants and arrived at its current specialty — herbs — at a time when that market was in its infancy.
“We were the only game in town when it came to herbs,” said Gilbertie. More recently, Gilbertie has diversified yet again. This time, he is specializing in micro- , petite-, and baby-greens, capitalizing on their newfound popularity and reputation for packing a nutritional punch.
“The smaller the green, the more nutritious and flavorful it is,” said Gilbertie.
Howland Blackiston raises a rather unusual crop: bees. He has been a lifelong bee enthusiast but pursued beekeeping only after moving to Easton in the 1970s. He’s the author of both “Beekeeping for Dummies” and “Building Hives for Dummies,” and created a website in 1998 devoted to backyard beekeeping.
Bees play a vital role in the pollination of food crops and have suffered of late from a well-publicized syndrome known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). “We don’t know for sure what causes CCD but some very smart people are working on it,” Blackiston noted.
Possible culprits include viruses, parasites, mites and certain pesticides. “I urge everyone to take a very good look at what you put on your plants,” Blackiston said. In particular, he urged gardeners to eschew a type of widely available pesticide known as neonicotinoids. They are toxic to bees and are banned in some European countries.
The gathering also heard from Lori Cochran-Dougall, a board member of the Fairfield County Farm Bureau. Cochran-Dougall began a program that teaches women in veterans’ rehabilitation how to cook with the assistance of award-winning farm-to-table chefs. She pointed out that cooking skills help people to be both more self-sufficient and to eat healthier diets.
Some practical advice came from Carol Hamilton, a retired teacher who is a state-certified master gardener and member of the Easton Garden Club. In recent months, the club and Hamilton’s fellow master gardeners have fielded plenty of questions about the effects of winter and spring storms on plants and trees.
“Whenever you have a question, talk to a master gardener – it’s a free resource,” Hamilton noted. “Or better yet, take the course.”