From the Field: Miracle in New Milford

 

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Let me just say that Mark Mankin could stunt-double for Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m not sure what he would think of that comparison, but I mean it in the best possible way. He’s big in a ball-capped, deep-voiced, blond kind of way—just the kind of guy you’d want as executive director of the New Milford Youth Agency, the guy who oversees 23 programs ranging from latchkey support through substance abuse and confidential counseling through rehabilitating juvenile offenders. He’s also the de facto head farmer here at the 126-acre Sullivan Farm, one of the six farms that now produce for New Milford Hospital.

“Years ago, we took a different road from traditional counseling,” explains Mankin. “We started this program with six or seven really angry 17- and 18-year-old males. It was brutal, pulling them apart in these massive fights. But most of the kids were able to get through college. Now we mostly take kids who have an interest in agriculture, soil conservation—that kind of thing.”

Today the farm property is picture-perfect, with large tended fields and an army of massive trees set against the rock cuts and verdant hills of the Berkshires. When the youth-agency folks arrived years ago, though, the place hadn’t been farmed in over a decade and was mostly brush. A friend of Mankin’s with a tree spade spent a week helping them move dozens of 30-foot trees in from around town. The barn was also completely destroyed, so the group had to put on a new roof, new siding and all new windows. The result, Mankin says, is a tremendous sense of ownership: “It’s not ‘the’ farm, it’s ‘our’ farm.”

Mankin is temporarily distracted by a rather small kid driving past on a rather large John Deere tractor. Kids grow up fast on a farm. He seems to watch in disbelief, then jokes, “Where’s the big tractor?”

The driver, a teen with short brown hair, shrugs and yells over the engine: “It’s in the back. I parked it in the back.”

“Oh, okay. I was just, you know . . . silly me.”

The conversation comes back to weather and climate change, which Mankin says has hurt the maple syrup operation, but also gives them three crops of tomatoes a season, along with watermelons. If he had his way, they’d start planting peanuts; he learned about peanut farming from an episode of the TV program “Guess How It’s Done.” Which cues me to ask about his background in farming.

“I grew up out in Colorado, and we did a lot of haying there,” he says. “That’s the only reason we grow horse hay here at the farm, which is very difficult to do. Anyway, I knew how to drive the tractors, drive the baler. The vegetable part of it we literally did by trial and error, a lot of reading and talking to other farmers. And each staff member brings a little knowledge.”

The kid from the tractor hops off, and he and his twin brother walk out with us for a tour of the garden. “We’re drowning in tomatoes,” Mankin says. I’m not sure if this is a complaint or a boast. “We’re doing almost 400 pounds a week,” he adds. “Last year we had blight and you couldn’t get a tomato; this year, look at this! We haven’t picked in two days because of the weather. This is a two-day accumulation of redness. It’s wild!”

We wander amongst the heirloom tomato varieties. There’s broccoli, which is on its third cutting. Three different kinds of pumpkins. Squash. Green peppers. Potatoes: red New Orleans, and blues, Kennebecs and Yukon Golds. Lettuce, cabbage, radicchio, Chinese cabbage, beans, Savoy cabbage, carrots, beets. Bizarre little peppers. Radishes. Arugula. Cresses—all kinds of cresses. All this is done with their own mulch and a fish emulsion; no chemical additives are used.

“Oh, look at the watermelons, guys! We just put those in as a joke—what, four weeks ago?” The melons are roughly the size of softballs. “We had South Carolina weather this year, so it was a watermelon year. These are Sweet Babies. And here’s some eggplant.”

Walking in a garden like this puts me at such ease. It’s my own contention that hospitals and other places of healing have much to gain by looking to farmers and the fields, and giving food back its rightful place at the table.

We wander back toward the barn, and before getting in my car, I buy a pint of bright red cherry tomatoes. I wave goodbye and pull back out onto the country road leading in and out of New Milford.

I pop the tomatoes one by one into my mouth and smile. Perhaps this is the taste of ridiculously tall trees, the Housatonic River, tobacco sheds, Victorian houses with deep verandas—a place of refuge post-9/11. Food is how we embody the places we live. Maybe one day, with examples like this in New Milford, medicine will remember that.
 

From the Field: Miracle in New Milford

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