Wilton's Millstone Farm helps feed the hungry

WILTON — This was going to be a watershed year for Millstone Farm. It still is, just not the way originally intended.

In a letter to its CSA (community-supported agriculture) members, the farm announced it is cutting back on membership this season and instead devoting the bulk of its efforts towards growing food for the Open Door Shelter in Norwalk and Person-to-Person’s Norwalk food bank.

In a letter to its members on April 9, that cited increased food insecurity resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm said “we have decided to use our resources to address these challenges in the most meaningful, actionable way possible — through direct food donation. We are in the process of developing partnerships with local shelters to provide food to the organizations on the front line of this battle. Our produce will go directly into the kitchen for meal preparation and in some cases will be available for families to pick up from shelters for meal preparation at home.”

Farm manager Drew Duckworth told Hearst Connecticut Media the decision lay with the farm’s owners, Volckert and Eliane van Reesema.

“They definitely want to use the farm as a benefit to the community in need,” he said.

The plan for this year was to increase CSA membership, increase its farm market presence, and increase supplies to local restaurants. Last year, CSA membership stood at 40. These are people who pay up front to share in a farm’s harvest over the course of a season. Membership was supposed to grow to 75, but that is on hold, for this year, at least.

With so many people suddenly out of work, shelters and food pantries are facing greater demands.

“Food distributions are one of the most, I think, visible and emotional proofs of this pandemic,” said Paul Shipman, spokesman for the Connecticut Food Bank, which provides commodities to pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and more. “We are working hard to meet (the increased need) and, clearly, it’s a challenge.”

At the Open Door Shelter in Norwalk, Executive Director Michele Conderino said “30 percent more people have come to Open Doors for help with food and we expect that number will continue to increase as this crisis continues. It’s also hard to know how long people will be able to keep donating, so that’s also something that many organizations are worried about.”

Right now, the shelter serves approximately 250 meals a day to people dealing with hunger or homelessness.

“The pantry is open five days a week; we’re seeing up to 25 households in a day, some with three or more generations under one roof,” she said.

Duckworth has been in discussion with Open Doors and made the farm’s first delivery last week.

“We gave them 55 pounds of greens,” he said. Unfortunately, they couldn’t store it all so he dropped some off at Person to Person, which said they would be willing to take what the farm could give.

With harvesting taking place on Mondays, Duckworth plans to make deliveries every Tuesday.

Millstone Farm encompasses 71 acres, with three acres devoted to crops. Due to the change in course, there’s been a change in which crops are being grown this year.

“It’s causing us to be more efficient,” Duckworth said of the plan to supply shelters. They are still planting a diversity of crops, but instead of the usual 20, they have scaled back to 15.

In the greenhouse they are harvesting spinach, chard, kale, arugula, bok choy and maché. The farm will also plant staples such as tomatoes, eggplant, corn, beans, celery, beets and carrots.

“We are not a large-scale tractor farm,” Duckworth said. “We have a high turnover when harvesting, the next day reseeding or transplanting. We rotate through crops quickly, optimizing on acreage.”

Duckworth said those at the shelter “were thrilled” to receive the produce. “They are used to getting day-old bread products and canned vegetables. … They haven’t worked with a farm before willing to provide food on a weekly basis.”

“I got really excited to see where it’s going and to work with the chef directly,” Duckworth said. “That’s going to be the better way to work it out. I figure it will be a fun collaboration. What are people in need really wanting? Do they want the greens to go home and make a salad? What does this community in need want?”

Conderino confirmed fresh produce isn’t donated nearly as often as canned food or baked goods, and sometimes the produce that is donated is past its peak.

“In the past, there have been wonderful donations during farmers’ market season from local farmers who bring in fresh produce donations after the market closes for the day,” she said. “The team at Open Doors also works to raise the funds to provide some fresh produce as part of our food programs, but it isn’t as much as we’d like to have available for people.”

She called the donations from Millstone Farm “an incredible gift to the people we serve.

“It can be difficult for low-income households to get fresh food, so generous donations of fresh produce from a local farm are truly appreciated. People who come to Open Doors are able to get more nutritious fresh food because of Millstone Farm,” Conderino said.

Since Open Doors has both a kitchen and pantry, the food from the farm will be included in meals the chef there prepares. It will also be added to pantry bags that are part of the shelter’s takeout program.

The shelter has not had any food shortages, but is keeping a close watch on staples like rice, pasta sauce and fruits and vegetables. Donations may be made at http://weblink.donorperfect.com/opendoorshelter. Information is available at info@opendoorshelter.org or by calling 203-866-1057.

Duckworth, who at one time had a career as a wilderness guide, joined Millstone Farm a year ago.

“I think this was a quick shift in reaction to the coronavirus but as we discussed it more and saw the need, it’s been interesting to see the reaction,” he said.

“It’s fulfilling to grow food for people who need it. I would like to incorporate it in the coming years as well. We would like to increase the CSA, go to the farmers market, and increase food going to restaurants as well as continue with the shelters.

“Everything we want to do is still there, just on hold for a year. This is a good thing to do. Let’s have it as more of a focus this year and then we can make this work in the long term.”