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An Organic Farm That Serves Both Suburb and City
Holcomb Farm combines community agriculture with charity

It is difficult to become a farmer in Connecticut if youíre not born into a land-owning farm family. Renting protected farmland (where development rights have been sold) is one way. That still requires an often-daunting amount of working capital.

Managing someone elseís farm is another way. After graduating from Cornell with an agricultural degree, Sam Hammer followed that path. He apprenticed at several farms, learning the real-world requirements of successful farming, before he landed a job managing Holcomb Farm, a CSA in West Granby. (CONTINUED BELOW)

Sam Hammer

Manager, Holcomb Farm

West Granby

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A unique agricultural resource

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is basically a marketing concept from the perspective of a farmer. The CSA is only one program of the farm.  They might have a farm stand, they might do wholesale, and market through a CSA.  Most CSAs are sole proprietorships and most are for-profit farms.

Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture is a pretty unique farm.  Itís not just a CSA; itís also a charitable farm.  About 60 percent of our produce is earmarked for the CSA, which is a program in which household members sign up for an annual membership.  They pay an annual fee to join the farm and then come to the farm once a week through the growing season.

The other part of what we do is we partner with social services agencies in Hartford and we provide between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of fresh produce every year to people in Hartford who wouldnít otherwise have access to fresh, organic produce. 

We grow about 35 different crops -- tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, lots of greens, lots of herbs, cantaloupe, pumpkins, winter squash, carrots, beets, turnips -- It goes on and on.

Weíre in our twelfth season and weíre pretty established as this point.  Thereís a good market for our CSA and weíve built up the farm enough to be in a pretty strong position right now.

I think CSA is here to stay in places like Connecticut that are heavily populated and fairly affluent.  And, I see a tremendous need among folks who live around here in suburbia to come out and see what a farm is all about.  CSA is perfect for that. And, weíre right here in the middle of the suburbs so we have access to a great market. 

Our biggest customer demographic is young families with children who say they want to show their kids where their food comes from.  And, they also want pure, organic produce for their children.

There are so many things that go into bringing a successful product to market and bringing a successful experience for our customers. When we really pull it off, when we have a great crop, the customers are really happy. Itís extremely satisfying.

I think the other aspect of the CSA, which is pretty important in terms of connecting people, is introducing them to the idea of eating with the seasons.  We have strawberries in June, tomatoes in August, and winter squash in the fall.  And, the idea that certain things are available during certain seasons also sort of grounds people and connects people to agricultural rhythms. 

In a big-picture sense, itís about preserving the stateís identity, visual identity, and the historical connection to our past.  Thereís also the environmental benefit of open space, and then thereís the educational benefit of connecting people to farms. Itís making people more aware of nutrition, of environmental preservation, of local economies and local communities.  That happens through community farms.  And, then thereís a whole host of financial benefits to municipalities as well.  Weíre losing our farms and CSA is all about connecting people to farmland and to fresh produce.

How to become a working farmer

This is my ninth season farming and my third season here at Holcomb Farm.  I got into farming through my student farm at Cornell University. Then after that experience I got a couple summer jobs working on organic farms. I just stuck with it and went from farm to farm over the years and gained experience until I was lucky enough to get a couple management positions.

I had no resources and no agricultural background.  But, I just bounced around and gained experience through apprenticeships, where you basically work for substandard wages in exchange for learning how to farm. I learned a lot from some great farmers over the years.  And that combined with new opportunities for salaried farm managers, and community farms such as this one, I was able to make a career out of it. 

Now here at this farm, we also host apprentices and a lot of them do aspire to become farmers, one way or another.

I have a year-round assistant manager. He was an apprentice for a couple of years and I was able to offer him a year round job.  And, we also have four apprentices who work here from April through November, about 50 hours a week. They do the bulk of the work.  We also have some volunteers, either our CSA members or other folks in the community, and occasional part time help.

I think the other place where youíre going to see a lot of new farmers is in part-time farmers because the resources required to capitalize a farm are pretty significant.  Itís just a matter of matching not only the land, but also the capital and other sort of business expertise.  Most people who are able to start a farming business are going to bring resources from a previous career, or they are going to do it part time.  Our neighbors right down the road, theyíre professional carpenters but they run an amazing farm on a part-time basis.  And, I think youíre going to see a lot more of that.

At this point I canít imagine doing anything else.  I can imagine staying here for quite a while.  I love my job because I get to wear a lot of hats, Iím a marketer and a manager and grower and a mechanic and an equipment operator.  And, I get the satisfaction sort of seeing a product from the very beginning to where it goes home with people.  And, thatís pretty meaningful to me. And, I enjoy the cyclical rhythms of a farm. Each season has its own tasks. Each year I try to do a little bit better and a little bit better. Itís a never-ending project.

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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