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Diversification is a key to Rosedale’s continuing success

Season-long plan helps to maintain the farm's business
The rich soil in Connecticut River towns like Simsbury once supported dozens of farms raising tobacco, fruit and vegetables. Today, however, few farms are left, the victims of relentless local development. One survivor is Rosedale Farms, a popular stop for area residents looking for the season’s finest fruits and vegetables.  (CONTINUED BELOW)
Marshall Epstein and
son-in-law John

Rosedale Farms

Simsbury

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Once one of many farms, Rosedale survives suburbanization

In 1920, my grandfather Morris Epstein came from New York and was here for about seven years before he unfortunately fell off a silo while doing some work. My father, his two sisters and his mother continued farming. And from that point on he part-time farmed, raising tobacco, having chickens and cows.

My father established a pretty good milk route in Hartford in the 1940s. And then he realized that that was short-lived in terms of making any money, So he went to vegetables in the late ‘40s early ‘50s. When my sister was born and I was born, to add to farm income, he got a job at Pratt and Whitney, second-shift. So he worked almost 30 years at Pratt and Whitney.

The farm grew as Simsbury grew.  Simsbury was a really small town. On this street alone, there were farms sprinkled all throughout the street. As the town kept growing what happens is most of the farms get sold because they’re the ones that are getting sold out for more building lots.

We’re the last man standing but were able to keep growing. The original farm is only 42 acres. Now the farm is about 110 acres. I grew to love the farm and the things it represented and the things that we could do. After college, I worked for Cigna for a few years, then Society for Savings. I was very fortunate. I was able to start teaching at American International College up in Springfield. So, if you look for a lifestyle, a college-professor-and-farmer kind of works out pretty well with regards to the timing. I took over in 1983. And the next generation now has been able to continue.

A family affair with help from local teens

My wife’s involved, she does the wine bar and the flowers and does a lot of the different administrative work.  We have three daughters, my oldest daughter lives in town with her husband and two children.   They come out on weekends and help, her husband comes out on the weekend.  He’s in advertising, so when he has free time he comes and helps out.  And, my  middle daughter, she’s a teacher so she has summers off.  She’s actually working today in West Hartford with my other daughter, manning our farm stand over there.  My middle daughter Lisa and her husband John have become involved with the farm, and John is now the senior manager. And, then my youngest daughter is a senior in school, she’s just finishing up at University of Montana.

September’s the worst month, because we don’t hire migrant workers. Our philosophy is to enrich the community, so we involve basically high school and college kids. They go back to school, so we get kind of a skeleton crew in September. So, that becomes really hairy.

Our labor force, mostly consists of kids from Simsbury, either Simsbury High or they go to the colleges in the area. Basically, they can start farming at age 14, so we have some of those types of labor, picking beans and strawberries and that type of thing, and then when they get to be 15, 16 and older they come to work in the fields and also on the farm markets.

The average kid, once they start with us, averages five or six years. They’ll go all through high school and into college until they get an internship or something.

Experience and the zen of farming

The thing that I really enjoy about farming is the aspect of beginning the season, the excitement of a new season -- try to improve on the year before. But we have a great marketplace, we enjoy our customers, and I think we have a product that is really unique, and I like that type of position to be in, I really try to get the best type of sweet corn and different types of tomatoes and heirlooms, and my wife does a ton of cut flowers.

You really got to be easy-going in this business because the weather’s just relentless. It’s never right. Today is a hot day, but we really don’t mind this. We’d rather have it hot because we can irrigate. It’s when it’s 65 or 70 and it rains for 2 weeks, then things don’t grow -- not so great, really.

This is one of those types of jobs that I think experience really helps you, and what to expect. And you know you take almost as a rhythm each season. I think most farmers are very aware of that and that’s only through experience. So, for a young person to be successful I think you know, unless you’ve made a lot of money somewhere else and you really enjoy this -- that’s why you see a lot of new wineries -- people who have made it in something else and have a passion to enjoy wine and say, “You know, what’s a million dollars? I’ve made this money, this is a great way to do something.”

A cooperative family effort keeps the farm going

Tip Davis from the Simsbury land trust, I’m known him over the years.  And, they really wanted to get more involved and he felt very ambitious that there was a couple cornerstones of Rosedale and Tall Meadow, two working farms that they’d really like to save.  About two years ago the process  began and we were very fortunate. Yeah, we probably could have got twice as much at some point down the line, but then, there wouldn’t be a farm.  So, this is something that really, we felt was important that the amount of money was worthwhile for us now, and would give us a cushion or whatever.  And have a succession planned. 

So, this will always be a farm and people can enjoy it. We’re putting a trail in and putting a bridge across some of the brooks so people can walk all the way to the river.  So, yeah, this I think is a win-win for everyone, for everybody. There will never be any homes here and there will always be a farm, whether we farm it or we sell to someone else. 

What’s difficult is it’s a small business.  We need chemicals and the fertilizers and just all the different little things that any small business owner has to deal with.  Insurance and taxes and everything else.  Every year you’ve got to ante up a little more.  All our costs go up two or three fold in the last 10 years, yet our pricing has, you know, goes 10 or 15% higher, so you are constantly struggling with just the mechanics of running a business. 

So, it’s cash flow.  I mean we start spending money in February and we don’t get a dime until early June.  So, you’ve got four months and everything is sitting out here, you know, a big investment before you get anything.  You could have hail, you could have storms, you could have drought.

How to run a successful farming business

Well, I think what’s happening is there’s so few farms that it’s become almost entertainment.  People want to visit the farm.  You better give them a darn good reason to come visit.. Yes, you have to have great vegetables and fruits.  But also, we just put in a corn maze.  Last year we started pick your own pumpkins. We’ve also added a few other products inside that are more fun-orientated -- having a wine bar, wine tasting on weekends, for instance.

I think to be successful you have to have a season-long plan.  Certain types of lands can produce certain types of crops and you have to be familiar with what you can, what you can potentially raise.  We’re real sandy so we’ve gone with high tech, we have a lot of drip irrigation so we can feed it constantly to river bottom, which is very rich in texture, so it doesn’t need quite as much but can have a variety of different products that we can raise. 

And what we have done is we start in June with strawberries and peas. to get us going in the season.  As we go along, July and August, your typical fruits and vegetables.  You might see raspberries, corn is our big product.  Sweet corn takes a lot of acres to maintain that because you get one or two years and that’s it. It doesn’t replenish itself.  Summer squash, zucchini, string beans and cucumbers and pickles and peppers.  Carrots, basil, dill. Melons, water melon, yellow water melon.  All types of tomatoes – cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, purple ones.

So we raise the whole gamut for the summer months and then the fall, we now have entertainment with a corn maze and we have pick your own pumpkins and we have put in a few Christmas trees to extend the season all the way. And the grapes for the wine that we can sell probably all the way through the summer.  So, it’s having a combination of having something in season the whole time that you are open. 

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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