The Real Farmer Brown

 
Wychwood Farm on the Stonington-North Stonington border was once home to a dairy farm, a peach orchard and turkeys. These days only the turkeys remain, except for one season, when the author worked his own field.

Wychwood Farm on the Stonington-North Stonington border was once home to a dairy farm, a peach orchard and turkeys. These days only the turkeys remain, except for one season, when the author worked his own field.

Dan O’Conner

I’d grown to enjoy the field I borrowed from Farmer Brown. For nearly six months, I’d worked half an acre of his 600 on the Stonington-North Stonington border. I was surprised that the late-October tomatoes were still ripening on their atrophied vines. With Halloween only days away, the jalapeño and green peppers still flourished in the chilly Connecticut air. The few bees aloft were frantic. I watched one burrow deeply into a withering snapdragon blossom, as if it were trying on a new winter coat.

Reaching to pick a pepper, I heard a flat pop. I think I cried out as a bird fell to the ground a few yards from where I stood. In the shadow of an empty concrete silo, a common pigeon lay still in the grass. The bird was intact except for a sloppy red smudge marking the spot where a small-caliber slug had entered its body.  

Surrounded by thigh-high jalapeño plants, I paused while my heartbeat steadied. At the end of the field I could see a few brilliant orange pumpkins. Against the monotony of the scavenged field they looked exposed and unwanted. In the opposite corner, brown corn stalks stood ragged at angles. The bush beans had also come and gone, along with our last 50 pounds of tomatillos. I’d traded them a couple of weeks earlier for a Mexican birthday dinner for my friend, Debbie.

From a distance, I could hear the whining of George C. Brown’s old golf cart. Gliding over the hill, he wore a baseball cap, olive green, embroidered with a turkey graphic and the words “Wychwood Farm.” Beneath his conservative mustache, Farmer Brown seemed to be grinning. Perhaps it was a squint. His yellow fleece brightened the moment, like the sunflowers that had grown at the edge of the field earlier in the season.

I first met Farmer Brown on May 20, 2010. For as long as I’d had a family of my own, I’d been buying his delicious and celebrated Thanksgiving turkeys. I called him on the phone that morning and told him I was in the midst of a career change. I explained that I’d been in the food business for over 30 years, even started a couple of respected New England food brands—Mystic Chips, for one. “Now I’d like to learn to farm,” I declared in person as I handed him a bag of my potato chips.

Unimpressed, he popped the bag open, asking why, if I was so successful, did I want to get into farming?

“Um . . . I’ve always had a green thumb?”

Feeling the silence, I said I wanted to be able to tell customers and consumers that this time around I had been involved in every aspect of my new product’s birth. Farmer Brown told me I could run a little farm stand in front of his old dairy barn. Then he loaned me a field he’d just harrowed—about a half-acre, he figured.

When it came time to plan my crop list, I sought Farmer Brown’s practical counsel. Since I had a trademark for a new chocolate confection that listed popcorn as an ingredient, I decided to plant popping corn. It would be fun, I reasoned, to launch the treat from a farm stand, giving it an authentic story, a unique personality of its own.

How much corn should I plant, and how closely should I space it? I asked. He responded with a simple rhyme his father had taught him:

    One for the Blackbird;
    Two for the Crow;
    Three for the Cutworm;
    Four to Grow!

Farmer Brown advised me to rent a rototiller because the field needed a good tilling before planting could begin. With a sly grin, he told me that in addition to aerating the soil, there was a crop of “Stonington potatoes” that needed to be harvested before the plants could go in. Stonington got its name for good reason, he said, pointing to the thousands of rocks of varying shapes and sizes all around us.

For nearly a week, Debbie and I worked the field. I was dragged, tugged and rattled by a mammoth red Troy-Bilt rototiller. Debbie picked the “potatoes,” smooth round stones of about 10 pounds each. When we finished, we didn’t even want to walk on the field, it looked that good. I had actually begun building a stone wall in an area between where the corn and pumpkin seeds would eventually be sown.

When it came time to plant, Farmer Brown told me that it would likely be unnecessary to water the plants because it had been a wet spring. His land, especially the field I was farming, enjoyed a high water table. Feeling the power of my new role as self-appointed farmer apprentice, I easily bought into my mentor’s hydrologic logic, concurring that watering my plants would spoil them, resulting in shallow, weak roots.

But as soon as I put my young tomato plants in the ground, the spring rains ended. After transplanting 150, I went home for dinner. I returned at dusk to find every plant drooping. An eerie twilight filtered through the trees. Dusty columns of light gave that corner of the field an enchanted, melancholy aura. I knew then that every tomato plant would be dead by morning.

With the sun setting, I raced to a supermarket, five miles down Route 2. There I bought 45 gallons of store-brand spring water. Back at the farm, I loaded the wheelbarrow with the plastic jugs, wheeled them down the concrete walkway and onto the field.

Starting with the Romas, I knelt before each plant, gently supporting the shoot tip atop my forefinger. Then I watered straight down the stem. How similar each young plant looks, I thought, as I fed the cherry tomato vines, then the beefsteaks. By the time I finished with the last Brandywine, it was nearly dark. Walking away, I noticed that the first plants I’d watered had started to rebound.

The next day, I found Farmer Brown studying my field. In a change of strategy, he explained that the dry weather would now make it necessary to water the plants. Hinting sarcasm, he told me that a steady diet of bottled spring water might get expensive. I looked away, smugly believing that my heroics were justified. Then he took me under the barn, a rambling space filled with rusted iron cattle stanchions, broken barn doors and a muck pit that had long ago dried. Inside a dark utility room was a tangle of pipes and ancient tanks. He showed me a hose fitting and told me there’d be water after lunch. When I returned, there was water, along with a promise that the flow would last as long as I didn’t waste it.

With the gift of water, nearly every plant flourished. Farmer Brown told me that the tomatoes were coming in nicely—nice and green, nice and full. I was 52 years old, yet with each of his compliments, I felt more like a 9-year-old with a sunburned nose, up high with my grandpa on his vintage red tractor. I was enjoying the ride.

The days grew longer, the soil warmer, and I began to experience a powerful personal transformation. Old running shoes became green ankle-high muck boots. A wide straw hat replaced the logo caps I’d collected from sailing regattas. My fingers turned black from soil and chlorophyll.

One day, Farmer Brown told me I looked like a Chinese laborer, which I accepted as a compliment. To show my mettle, I popped a couple of pinstriped Colorado potato beetles between my thumb and forefinger. I found beauty and value in insects as well as plants, so it was hard to destroy them. I was thrilled, however, when I discovered that a number of insect-devouring toads had made an appearance. I quickly placed stone and bark shelters around the field to encourage them to stay.

My greatest fear was deer, and when they would stage their first raid. In this recurring nightmare, I saw everything from an overhead angle—full moonlight, fireflies, a dozen shadowy deer feasting silently on my tender young plants. I could hear them whispering in delight at the absence of chlorine in the well water. After the ravenous ruminants devoured their last plant, they dropped their black pellets and clicked across Route 201, to the next garden buffet.

 

In spite of my vivid, neurotic fantasies, I fell in love with farming. Spending the rest of my life on Farmer Brown’s land occupied my thoughts in the field. In the evening, I kept a blog called “Some Country for Old Ben,” devoted mostly to the idea of producing my own beer from scratch. I wrote business-development outlines that detailed a demonstration hop yard, a barley field and thoughts on making a special “barn brew.”

But whenever I broached the subject of working together, Farmer Brown countered that he was winding things down. He assured me that a farm like his, especially in Connecticut, was more valuable to a developer than to a farmer. It was hard to bite my tongue, and I never enjoyed those conversations because I was sure I had the background, the energy and intelligence to succeed. I was hoping to convince Farmer Brown that his life experience—and a small starter portion of his family’s magical land—would lead us all to the development of a smart and popular farming attraction. I always slunk away from our chats feeling like an exuberant, eccentric sharecropper—a dreamer, with lots of ideas and no money to back them up.

I decided I’d show Farmer Brown what great vegetables I could grow, and dove into creating a spectacular produce stand. I started hauling in wooden pallets, piling them in front of the barn. These would be stacked waist-high, and then covered with baskets of produce, bags of corn and an ocean of pumpkins. Then, as I was delivering the last dozen pallets, Farmer Brown steamed out of his house, waving his arms. I’d finally succeeded in driving him to distraction.  

“Get those out of here!” he ordered.

“I don’t understand . . .” I began. But it wasn’t worth arguing. He’d likely imagined a folding table and a shade umbrella when he agreed to give me a spot for a farm stand. My vision was way too ambitious.

He told me that he’d really never wanted a farm stand, that he’d tried it in the past. As he spoke, I began to look around and see the farm as it really was. The lack of paint, the rotting sills, the missing windows and doors—after 178 years, the land and the elements were getting the upper hand. The Colonial pastures were filling with young trees, and the frost-heaved walls seemed to whisper: “Shhhh! Listen, Ben! This is a good family and you’re their guest—that’s all. They like your tomato plants, but they’re not looking to adopt you.”

Eventually, Farmer Brown agreed to let me finish out the growing season on his land, but that would be it. I got busy developing a produce route, using old Mystic Chips customers as my contact base. As the crops came in, I delivered fresh basil and dill to The Spa at Norwich Inn. Soon, I had hundreds of pounds of pickling cucumbers and, when the tomatoes arrived, I sold every last one to nearby restaurants and resorts, like the Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I.

A few weeks after the pallet incident, Farmer Brown drove his golf cart down to my field. We hadn’t spoken since; I’d been avoiding confrontation.

“Want some corn?” he asked.

“Hey, where’ve you been?” I responded with a smile. I told him I could use half-a-dozen ears, and he gave me a big bagful. I picked a few fat jalapeño peppers, which he accepted. At that wonderful moment, I learned how easily differences settle with laughter and the simplest of field crops. I felt welcome again, and hopeful that our friendship could survive beyond one short season.

As September’s days grew shorter, my visits to Wychwood Farm became less frequent. When I did go, I often crossed Route 201 and looked across a field to Farmer Brown’s poultry barn. Through the open doors, I could see the turkeys milling about, eating their way to market weight. They called out to one another in garbled gobbles. As a gesture of thanks for lending me his land, I’d offered to help Farmer Brown process the turkeys the week before Thanksgiving . . . so I kept my distance from the doomed birds. I guess I’d learned another fact of farming: A strong heart will never break if you can keep it guarded.

As I considered the lifeless pigeon in the field, I knew that, in his own way, Farmer Brown had marked my season’s finale. His gunfire had sounded a salute to summer’s passage. He picked the bird up and went to lay it atop the old stone wall. I imagined the red-tailed hawks, soaring above, pleased with the offering on the granite altar below.

Then he turned and asked when I’d be finished for the season. He wanted to harrow the field, allow the soil to work on the weeds and the plants I’d carefully cultivated. A few days later, I pulled up 150 faded tomato stakes and gathered the hoses. The next day, in less than an hour, he returned the field to order.

About a week after Thanksgiving, I returned to Wychwood Farm to collect the rest of my belongings. The high clouds couldn’t hold their shapes any better than so many family farmers can hold on to their land. Under a windy, deep blue sky, my old box truck felt light and unsteady. I pulled up to the prefab cow barn where I’d been storing my tools since mid-May.

Fumbling and grabbing my wool cap from the wind, I blew into the barn. The corrugated metal roof strained and rattled, and I wondered for a moment if this was the day it would fly free. Empty gallon water jugs, frozen dribbles inside, scattered as I grasped at them with numb fingers. I gathered the small tools by their worn handles. This building, that once might have been home to a hundred cows or more, now looked dingy, dry and lifeless. But I knew better . . . that it had become a warehouse, stacked lovingly with a season’s harvest of hay—and the life and lessons of a good farmer.

Interested in a fresh Wychwood Farm turkey for Thanksgiving? Call (860) 536-9632 to make an appointment.

The Real Farmer Brown

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