This week begins a new, semi-weekly series in the Westport Shorelines, "Profiles in Farming." Deanna Levanti, a member of the Westport Agricultural Commission, will talk with Westport-area farmers …
This week begins a new, semi-weekly series in the Westport Shorelines, "Profiles in Farming." Deanna Levanti, a member of the Westport Agricultural Commission, will talk with Westport-area farmers who work in one of the town's oldest and most important industries. Levanti has farmed in Westport since 2015, growing produce, herbs, flowers and seed on eight acres with her husband Bill Braun and son Bernie. The stories behind farmers' lives here have long interested her and in her bi-weekly interviews, she hopes to give readers a glimpse into the life of those who farm here, and to increase awareness on the realities of farming in today's climate and economy. She hopes also to provide a brief moment of connection between those who grow our food, and those who enjoy the fruits of their labor. This week, she interviews Hannah Wolbach of Skinny Dip Farm.
When did you start your farm?
We started this farm in 2011. “We” being me and my husband Ben.
What do you grow?
We grow super diverse, Certified Organic vegetables; pretty much anything that grows in this climate, we grow it. We also grow cut flowers, herbs, some fruit, and raise pastured chicken.
How many acres do you manage?
As far as active growing space goes, we crop four to five acres of leased land in Westport, and one and a half acres at our home farm in Little Compton. We own our land in Little Compton, where our home is, and lease the land in Westport under a 10-year lease.
Where do you market and who do you sell to?
We sell once a week at the Westport Farmers’ Market and a farmers’ market in Plymouth in the summertime and do a small CSA plus online orders for local pick-up. We also sell to about 10 to 15 restaurants, caterers, and small food stores. In the winter, local online sales make up almost all of our sales.
Tell me about labor and management of your farm. How do you and Ben divide the labor, and who works with you?
Ben manages Westport and I manage the home farm during the main growing season, then in the winter we are both in Little Compton. We have, at this point, four full-time and three part-time people and will go down to about three full-time employees this winter. We have moved towards having more full-time people who we compensate a little more, as opposed to a bunch of part-timers who we pay less, partially in response to the increased minimum wage, and partially to help Ben and I share of the responsibility. For example, one of our full-time employees is the flower manager. We are learning how to hand off responsibility. But it’s nice to be able to hire people who have experience so that we’re not doing so much “on the job training.” The farming we do requires skill and knowledge, and it’s not just the labor aspect of it, but also it’s important that our employees are able to identify a pest or disease issue and alert us so that we can do something about it. It’s very difficult — increasingly difficult — to find qualified help, even before COVID. Worker housing has been an issue in this region.
How did you get into farming? Did you grow up on a farm?
I got a summer job on a farm when I was 16 and I liked it. I grew up in the suburbs and was one of those weird kids who always liked being outside more than inside. I would rather be outside and dirty than inside playing video games. I liked that the work was tangibly rewarding and I liked seeing the accomplishment at the end of the day. It was important to me to have a positive impact on the world around me, the environment and the people. Mostly I liked the physical nature of the work and being outdoors.
When did you know that you want to continue farming?
It wasn’t until after I had worked on a farm for some years that I really knew I wanted to farm. I knew I would constantly learning, always improving, having that positive impact doing meaningful work. By then I had met enough farmers that I considered it a real option. I didn’t know any farmers growing up.
How did you gain the skills you needed to run a successful business?
I did an apprenticeship at age 20 on Riverbank Farm in western Connecticut. That’s where I really learned how to make decisions on the farm. Where do we focus our energy, why do we do different jobs, how do we prioritize … why we do what we do.
Tell me some of the details of the apprenticeship arrangement. Where did you stay?
I lived in a room in the barn that was basically a bed, a bath, and a little stove top in a little room in the barn. This later became a communal kitchen for apprentices who were moved to stay outside in platform tents. My second year I stayed in a platform tent.
So I worked as an apprentice for two years, and then I was hired on as the assistant manager for a year, where I got to practice all those skills I was learning and put them into action.
That’s really neat that were able to have your first management experience in that same environment in which you were learning, with the same farm mentors. So then what was next after that? There still a good stretch of time after before Skinny Dip Farm started in 2011.
After that I took an opportunity to manage a ¾ acre school garden out in California. I was responsible for all the planning and management of growing food for the cafeteria. I had wanted to try out educational gardening. So I was responsible for growing the food and also for doing programming. I realized then that I much preferred production farming.
It was there that Ben and I met. He was developing activities and teaching the kids. From there we moved forward together, knowing that we wanted to farm. We knew that we weren’t ready to start our own farm yet and that we weren’t sure where we wanted to put down roots. We also knew we would need to save some money for start-up costs. So we began looking for farm manager jobs in places we thought we might enjoy, kind of all over the country.
We landed at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset, MA, where we spent five years managing the farm operation. There we were able to learn how to really run a farm. We learned how to work together. We were able to make mistakes — and there were many! — without being sole bearer of the financial burden. We figured out some ideas for our own farm based on our experience at Holly Hill. For example, we liked that it was a community hub and we knew that we would like to build a similar model on our farm one day. We learned a lot about crop planning to keep up supply for busy farm stand. We learned that we did not want a busy farm stand at our house, we didn’t want to rely on volunteers, and we didn’t want to have apprentices who shared our living space. We had on-farm housing and were paid fairly well, so we saved up our money for future start up costs.
After four years we felt we were ready to move on and start our farm, but it took another year for it to happen. We were looking for land through New England Land Link and Land for Good, but it turned out to be word of mouth that made the connection for us to the land that we still lease. Actually it was through one of our apprentices, Phoebe Poole, whose Dad Allen knew Eva…She somehow met the (previous) landowners of the land we farm in Westport, I think it was at a wedding. The property, which is under APR, (Agricultural Preservation Restriction) has since changed hands but we maintain our lease with the current landowners.
Our first couple years farming in Westport were crazy. Starting a farm is crazy! I’m glad I don’t have to do it again…knowing how to farm is one thing, starting a farm is entirely another thing. That first year was just nuts. We didn’t have anything! We would find ourselves at Home Depot after working a 12 hour day, looking to buy bins to harvest into, or for a bucket to spread fertilizer with.
We joined farmers markets to connect with new customers. We were going from this magic market at Holly Hill Farm where we could sell every single thing we grew, to having to get out there and find customers. It’s hard to make money at a farmers’ market as a new farmer. It takes time to build a customer base.
Now we don’t have to look for customers, and we are able to be choosy about which new wholesale accounts we take on. In the winter time we don’t have to go to farmers market anymore, we rely entirely on online ordering and pick-up at our home farm. This was a positive change that was the result of a marketing pivot during COVID.
Tell me about any recent innovations on your farm, or something about your farm that you’re proud of.
Well we are really a year round farm at this point, focusing on growing both salad and cooking greens that can withstand freezing, and selling storage vegetables like root crops, winter squash, and allia, throughout the winter. There has been a learning curve. We’ve added infrastructure to expand our winter growing space, including four high tunnels, three caterpillar tunnels, and various low tunnels. We’ve worked on crop and variety selection of make it possible, for example adding cut chicories to our greens mix has increased our ability to grow salad greens all winter; chicories pick up where lettuce drops off. There’s great market opportunity in the winter, and it helps us keep our employees around until next season so we don’t have to start over again.
I’m proud that we have developed a good market close to home and that we don’t have to pack up and drive to one of the nearby cities to sell our produce. We had to put in the time but it’s grown to be a better market that we ever thought it could be. That was a strength that shown through during COVID.
What are some of the challenges facing your farm?
Draught has been more severe and frequent; then when it rains it rains all at once. It’s scary. Our land in Little Compton is very dry. We put in a well a few years back and are actively looking at solutions to increase our irrigating capacity, like possibly water storage. Also critter pressure has been extreme, especially the deer in Westport. They just come right through the fence when we’re not there, and because we don’t live there, we’re not there at the times when they are.
Name one advantage you have experienced as a farmer.
We had no debt and had money saved up from working a Farm Managers at Holly Hill where we had housing and were salaried. I think about my employees who have $50,000 to 100,000 in student debt and wonder how they will ever be able to start their own operations. We have leveraged many grant opportunities to fund infrastructure development both on our home farm and on the land we lease. We have installed wells, high tunnels, fencing, and purchased equipment. We have also had some farm angels, for an example an individual we met through a customer who offered a personal, low interest loan and forgave the remaining balance before it was paid off.
What is your favorite tool or piece of equipment?
I have many, but I would say the co-linear hoe. You can weed a lot quickly, and it’s a tool that’s used while standing upright so it’s good on the back (I also love our tray popper, wheel hoe, and silage tarps).
What else would like people to know about the farm?
There is a lot involved in growing food. The costs have all gone up including materials and labor, and the price of produce reflects that. Nobody’s getting rich farming. I could make more money doing…anything else! And to be fair, my employees could make more money doing anything else. But when it comes down to it, I want to grow food for people. And that’s why I am still farming.