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City Organic Farmer Gives Back to the Community
'Picky farmer' grows satisfaction for himself and food for others

The state’s horticultural business is the most profitable part of agriculture, so it is not unusual to see old farmland once used for growing edible crops now being utilized to grow flowers, shrubs and other non-edible plants. The history of Urban Oaks, however, has turned that typical story around by 180 degrees.

Through careful planning and hard work, the land that once supported a longtime horticultural business is now occupied by an organic vegetable  farm, situated right in the middle of New Britain. This unusual  twist to the typical storyline is the latest chapter in New Britain native Tony Norris’s long love affair with food and gardening.  (CONTINUED BELOW)
Tony Norris (left) & Mike Kandefer
Urban Oaks Organic Farm
New Britain

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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 garden. 

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 Caterers there.

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 farm stand. 

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 is. 

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 nutrition. 

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.

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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