His love of food is part of his family tradition
You have to love what you are doing. I gave up office jobs. I
like farming because I’m outdoors. I grew up in a food family
where dinnertime was sacred, food was very important and you
knew where your food came from. My father had connections in
farms all over the place for the food we ate. We had a huge
I love food. I really enjoy finding new varieties in things, new
tastes and new flavors, being creative with that.
This is also the town I grew up in. It’s my community, so I
appreciate doing something here. This community has given a lot
to me, so I am giving something back. That’s a lot. Not many
people get that much satisfaction out of their job. I feel I’m
really honored that I get that much satisfaction.
We’re in the heart of a working-class neighborhood in New
Britain, Connecticut, on the site of a former wholesale florist
that was known as Sandelli’s Greenhouses. This was an anchor
business in this neighborhood for 75 years. It closed in 1991.
The place was really a mess. There were trees, shrubs growing
everywhere through the greenhouses.
We were farming on leased land in Bolton, Connecticut, and
although we were very friendly with the owners there, because of
what they were going to be doing with their land, we knew we had
to move eventually. We started talking about this project in
1997, and in 1999 we moved our organic farm from Bolton and
planted our first crops in April. We’ve been planting here
since. We plant on two and a half acres of land and we have
50,000 square feet of greenhouse space. We were able to salvage
the greenhouses with the help of the state.
We’re a year-round operation as well as an urban working farm.
There are a lot of cities that have agricultural products or
projects. They’re usually youth gardens or community gardens or
school-to-garden programs. This is only the functional working
farm, and it’s certified organic.
We deliver wholesale from Hartford to Westport year round. We do
a farm stand on the weekends. We’ve been certified organic since
1990 from our old farm but also from the first day we set foot
on this property. We’re also a specialty grower. We grow a lot
of specialty crops. We have 4,000 tomato plants in the ground,
110 varieties, mostly heirloom. We have 30 varieties of herbs,
18 varieties of basil.
A lot of restaurants and consumers rely on us for unusual
varieties, ethnic varieties, great-tasting things, great-looking
things. And that is part of the job we really enjoy. We love
doing this. We love finding the unusual, finding the different –
different flavor, different texture, different taste.
Our wholesale customers are retail stores and restaurants. We
supply the two Wild Oats in West Hartford and Westport. We do
restaurants like the Pond House, the Polytechnic Club, Timothy’s
in the Hartford area. In New Haven we do Scoozi’s. We do
Bloodroot in Bridgeport. We do Bricks in Cheshire, Jordan
We really focus on small businesses where the owner works in the
business every day. So we give them the ingredients, the
tomatoes, the shapes, the sizes, the colors and they create
their works of art from that. And I really like our role in
their creative process. That is where we really match up well.
These are also very picky chefs, and I like picky chefs because
I’m a picky farmer.
On our previous farm we didn’t retail at all. We figured here in
the city we need to be accessible to people. We are probably one
of the few places where you get people from the suburbs
interested in specialty food mixing with people from the
neighborhood who are interested in foods that are part of their
culture. So we have a wide variety of people who shop at our
Of course, our biggest business is in the summer when we have
the widest crops available. But I can tell you that in the dead
of winter in February we have a whole crew of people that show
up at the farm stand because they know that this is the only
place in the state of Connecticut that they are getting fresh
collards, fresh kale, fresh chard, all these leafy greens that
are so good for us and that so many nutritionists and doctors
talk about. You know this is a prime thing to eat. So there it
The value of local food fuels new possibilities for farmers
When I was a kid growing up in New Britain, you could drive just
outside the city limits, and there were six farms you could go
to and buy farm fresh produce. They’re all gone. They’re all
gone. So, we’re here in the city providing people with fresh
farm grown, certified organic on top.
People want local and certified organic. And if they can’t find
local and certified organic, they’ll take local and responsibly
farmed. And that means you know your farmer. A good friend of
mine ran into the CEO of Wild Oats at a conference in Colorado,
and they had done an extensive customer survey and they found
exactly that. People said first they want local and organic, but
if it’s a choice between local and responsibly farmed or shipped
in and organic, they will take the local.
They want farm fresh because they know when you buy something
farm fresh, and it’s been picked a day or two before you eat it,
it has a whole different flavor, a whole different texture. And
when you get that flavor, that means you are getting the
I think that we have gotten away from eating seasonally. Before,
people could bring produce in seasonally so normally in the
winter you are eating root crops and that is it. You better
like it -- you know what I mean? Or grain and bread and stuff.
Obviously, we expanded our diet. We needed to expand our diet;
so there is some benefit
to eating fresh produce from California or Florida. But that’s
still a shlep. If we could produce it locally, it would be a lot
better. Still, we have to do it cost effectively. That is what
we are experimenting with: We are kind of getting it cost
effectively now, but that is what we initially have to deal with
as well – maybe bring some non-seasonal produce in, some fresh
greens, because they are really good for you. But people also
need to start thinking about doing seasonally.
Getting support for expansion and stabilization
New Britain is an older industrial town fighting to re-establish
an identity. The city has generally been supportive of our
efforts, but I don’t think the city really, truly, understands
the reputation we have outside of New Britain. I think having a
certified organic farm that delivers quality produce to high-end
restaurants is a nice identity. It’s gonna take people awhile to
kind of adjust to the fact that New Britain can be that.
We have gotten the support from the state level. Funds are
available to towns and cities to try and revamp their
infrastructures, so the state actually paid for the renovation
of all the greenhouses used year-round to help produce income
for the farm.
Right now we are heating these greenhouses with natural gas, and
it is expensive. It does work out in terms of production we get
but it took us a year before we really kind of got the
production angle down to what really works well and what’s
cost-effective. I do hope to find some funding or some
university that can do some research for us on alternative
energy so that we can use more. We are using a lot of solar.
We are entering what I call our kind of expansion and
stabilization. Our farm is well-established, our customer base
held with us. We are fine there. We need additional land, and
there is land across the street that we are in negotiation for
with the city right now.
I am looking
at the next five years of expanding our customer base both
wholesale and retail. And expanding a lot of the specialty
crops. We are getting some more perennial crops like
raspberries, currants, asparagus, things like that. We need
extra land, too. I think that would ensure Urban Oaks’ survival
well into the century.