Lettuce at Massaro Community Farm

Plant Life

The iconic elements are in place: a classic white farmhouse with an apple tree and chicken coop full of clucking hens; a high-roofed red dairy barn that still houses milking stanchions and a hayloft; an acre-after-acre spread, with woods and wetlands framing fields and farmland.

But there’s far more to Massaro Community Farm than meets the eye. Established in 1916, it operated as a family farm for nearly 90 years before the Massaros deeded it to the town of Woodbridge. “A number of public hearings were held to discuss what to do,” says the farm’s executive director Caty Poole. “The options were to convert the land into sports playing fields or to preserve it as an ongoing farm.” Option B won the vote, with one caveat: going forward, the farm would be a nonprofit operation.

A community board of directors was appointed and fundraising undertaken for renovations that, among other improvements, restored the land, made the farmhouse habitable again and converted the dairy barn to run on solar energy. The board’s primary mandate for the farm, says Poole, was that it successfully “feed the community.” In 2010, all-organic farming began under the management of Steve Munno, an experienced New England cultivator who’d earned a certificate in sustainable agriculture from UC-Santa Cruz.

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Last year, Massaro’s nearly 8 acres of cultivated land produced close to 60,000 pounds of vegetables—50 different kinds, from beets and kohlrabi to carrots and rutabagas, not to mention several varieties of lettuce. You might ask: how did a nonprofit raise the capital to produce this kind of bounty? The answer is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model that’s been increasing in popularity over the last 25 years; you can get the specifics of Massaro’s program here.

“Economically, the classic approach has long been that the farmer lays out all the capital for each growing season—buying equipment, hiring workers, buying the crops to be planted—and then hopes to harvest enough sale-able food to cover his investment,” says Poole. “It’s become a very risky model, and government farm subsidies were born to make up for the resulting losses.” In the CSA model, the farmer’s risk is taken on, in part, by community subscribers who buy “shares” in each season to help meet expenses—in Massaro’s case, approximately $140,000 a year. “We start signing up subscribers as soon as the previous season ends, because January is when Steve starts buying equipment and seeds,” Poole says.

Those subscriptions, at $625 per share, have sold out over the past few years—and in return, investors have each been provided enough produce to feed a family of four every week for 20 weeks, June through October. Currently, the farm accommodates 175 to 180 subscriptions each season, though Poole hopes additional “half-subscriptions” will be offered in the future. At least 10 percent of Massaro’s annual yield is set aside for weekly donations to area food assistance programs, which have received 21,000 pounds of food from Massaro to date. Notes Poole: “We try to give them the same variety our subscribers are getting, so they aren’t dealing with three cases of bok choy they don’t know what to do with.”

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Non-subscribers also have ample opportunity to taste Massaro’s produce. It’s served at the New Haven restaurants Caseus, Miya’s Sushi, Heirloom, Zinc and Wheeler’s Market Café, and the farm maintains a consistent presence at the CitySeed Farmers’ Market in Edgewood Park every Sunday. This summer its crops will also be sold at the Bethany Farmers’ Market and Woodbridge’s monthly market. Perhaps the best way to experience Massaro’s bounty is at its “Dinner on the Farm,” a Labor Day weekend, literally farm-to-table fundraising extravaganza prepared by Zinc co-owner and chef Denise Appel.

The town of Woodbridge’s strategic plan for Massaro Farm is not just to feed people, but to provide agricultural education for all ages. An apiary installed on the farm for the purpose of studying hive collapse has proven useful in crop pollination, and has enabled the farm to offer regular workshops in backyard beekeeping, in addition to classes on organic land care, herb gardening and cooking.

Community volunteers—who, Poole emphasizes, are always welcome—have been essential to maintaining such programs, as have donations from local organizations and businesses. Area Boy and Girl Scout troops helped complete a 2-mile, fully blazed walking trail in the woods bordering the farm, which is used for guided tours and bird walks and is open daily, dawn to dusk, to anyone.

Scout troops also had a hand in building the farm’s 10-bed Learning Garden, creating cold frames for its three tabletop beds (built for disabled visitors) and turning another bed into a small butterfly hub. The Learning Garden, which also features a pergola and benches made from Massaro farm wood, is the central attraction for the numerous school groups who make field trips to the farm, as well as the annual mid-August Summer Camp at the Farm! for 5- to 9-year-olds.

One of the farm’s most critical educational programs is a result of its affiliation with the Valley Initiative to Advance Health & Learning in Schools (VITAHLS), dedicated to building better health and nutrition in the towns of Connecticut’s Lower Valley: Ansonia, Seymour, Shelton and Derby. This past school year, Massaro Farm supported FoodCorps—a new AmeriCorps program targeting communities where free and reduced lunch enrollment is highest—in its work with the Ansonia school system: teaching kids about healthy foods, building school gardens and incorporating fresh produce into school cafeteria menus.

For Poole, who spent 21 years as a New Jersey corporate paralegal and backyard organic gardener, such initiatives are the reason she came to work at Massaro. “I’ve always been really interested in ‘food justice,’ and people who are trying to create a better food supply system so that there’s greater access to good food for a broader percentage of the population,” she says.

At this farm, “good food” isn’t just about stuff that tastes nice.

Massaro Community Farm
41 Ford Rd, Woodbridge (map)
(203) 736-8618

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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