Field Day

Field Day

The fall festival at Woodbridge’s Townline Farm last Sunday was one of those golden October occasions that remind us why we love the season. Coming as it did after two rather dispiritingly rainy weekends, it brought local families out in droves for lawn games, live music, food (a Nibbles n’ Noms taco truck and Ashley’s Ice Cream bicycle stand, which saw brisk sales of pumpkin ice cream with candy-corn topping) and, of course, pastoral pursuits.

The biggest draws of the day were Townline’s signature attractions: a tractor-pulled wagon ride through the back fields of the farm, where visitors can see its cows and maple-sugaring shack, and the property’s 2.5-acre corn maze, cut in a design that prominently features a central maple leaf. The maze welcomed hundreds of explorers in the fest’s three-hour span, while the line for the wagon rides got so long that farm co-owner Cristian Mortali had to bring in a second tractor driven by co-owner (and fiancée) Rachel Holden’s father, who owns Buttermilk Lane Farm in Orange. In Mortali’s words, “This event was jammin’.”

Townline is a passion project for Orange natives Mortali, 26, and Holden, 29, two of that rare breed of young farmers who only have part-time hours to spare. (Mortali works for the Connecticut Department of Transportation; Holden teaches food science at Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford.) Accompanied by their exuberant farm puppy, eight-month-old retriever Harvey—named in honor of International Harvester tractors—they’ve built the property, which they acquired in 2021, cornstalk by cornstalk. Fortunately, the work is almost second nature to the couple. Mortali has worked on farms since he was 13 years old and studied animal science and dairy and livestock management at the University of Connecticut’s Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture. Holden, meanwhile, grew up working at her family’s farm and studied food science and agricultural education at UConn.

Now in its third season, the corn maze is a metaphor for Townline’s broader evolution. At first, the couple kept the design simple—lots of right-angle turns—but in year two, they figured out how to mow a circle. This year’s maple leaf design is their most ambitious, but they devised it in an old-fashioned way: by first mapping it out on graph paper and then figuring out how many rows to cut in which direction.

While some farmers might rely on the aid of a GPS, “Rachel will literally walk into the cornfield, I’ll follow her on the mower, and she’ll tell me, “We’re going up five rows and over seven,’” Mortali says. Though the maze is small by current standards, certain built-in challenges, like educational games for kids to complete as well as some odd twists and turns, keep it diverting—though on occasion, Holden notes, a visitor will panic and break out of the maze before reaching the exit (with, one suspects, visions of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in their heads).

There’s been a farm at this location since the 1660s, when the Baldwin family—ancestors of Roger Sherman Baldwin, the famed New Havener, US Senator and defense attorney for the rebels of La Amistad—bought the 86-acre plot of land from the Paugussett Indians. Originally known as the Hayfield, the farm’s entrance sits at the juncture of the town’s only two officially designated scenic roads, Baldwin and Greenway.

The Hayfield remained in the Baldwin family until 1947, when it was sold to another Woodbridge family, the Hitchcocks, who ran it as a dairy farm through 1980 and retained ownership until 2021. Somewhere along its 300-year-plus timeline, the property’s next-door neighbors acquired and relocated its barn, and it was established that most of the site’s acreage—including the cornfield—crosses Woodbridge’s border into the town of Derby (which explains the farm’s name change).

In addition to agritourism, Townline now boasts other growing ambitions: producing a mix of spring/summer flowers and vegetables for sale (including potatoes—in several varieties—zucchini, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes), offering pumpkins and gourds in the fall and harvesting maple syrup in late winter/early spring. Its pumpkins are the “stacking” variety, which are flatter and more colorful than the classic jack-o’-lantern style and are perfect for the current trend of creating pumpkin towers on one’s front porch. Traditionalists can also find rounder pumpkins for sale, courtesy of a farmer friend of Holden and Mortali’s in upstate New York. Mortali finds that kids are especially fond of the multifarious small gourds the farm produces, though fans of agricultural esoterica may be even more taken with its larger and aptly named “Speckled Swan” gourds.

Meantime, Townline is establishing a reputation as a cattle farm. Introduced last October, its herd consists of animals bought from other local farmers as well as French Charolais cows, a breed of taurine beef cattle introduced in the United States in the 1930s. Pure white in color, these bovine are huge and quite docile. “I love cows,” Mortali says. “They’re like big dogs and such beautiful animals to watch. And they can take over and sustain themselves on land that would otherwise go wasted, while casting nutrients back into that ground with their manure.” Though the herd is currently small—eight in total with two calves—Mortali hopes to double that by next spring.

Some of that herd will then be sent to Stafford Springs to be slaughtered, for USDA grass-fed, grain-finished beef products sold in retail-sized portions, from porterhouses, T-bones and filets to ground beef and suet. Specialties you might not find at your local Stop & Shop include kidney, tongue, oxtail (for stew), even bones for making soup. “We don’t like to see anything on an animal go to waste,” Mortali says. “If somebody can use it, we’ll sell it.” He and Holden are also raising goats and egg-laying chickens and hope to introduce pigs to the farm in a couple of years.

Right now, they plan to finish off the fall tourism season on the final weekend of October, weather permitting, by inviting kids to tour the corn maze in costume. Don’t expect any jump scares: “We don’t like the spooky stuff,” Mortali says. They’re also looking forward to the maple sugar harvest season, which peaks in March and may feature tours of the sugar shack, a 1940s cabin rebuilt with Townline lumber. Last year, they tapped 125 trees and produced 23 gallons of syrup; this year, they plan to increase yield by tapping 25 more. This is another two-handed operation, with Holden boiling the sap in the shack and finishing it off on a home-kitchen stovetop. With a smile, Mortali concludes, “Really, she does everything.”

Townline Farm
902 Baldwin Rd, Woodbridge (map)
Fri 4-6:30pm, Sat & Sun noon-6:30pm

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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