Farming operations have changed drastically over the last 100 years: mechanization, scale, specialized markets, and modified crops. But while acres of farmland under production across the nation continues to decline, Massaro Community Farm is a shining example of why we’ve seen a 22% growth in farms and farmers in Connecticut in recent years.
We know from census records that John and Mary Massaro arrived in Woodbridge, CT in 1916 to take up dairy farming, similar to many small farming neighbors of the region. The property, now 57 acres, was originally just over 100 acres and supported a herd of dairy cows, a large contingent of chickens, a vegetable garden and fruit trees. The family would regularly take its dairy products and eggs to market in New Haven and as far away as Bridgeport.
Mary Massaro worked tirelessly with two of her three sons to maintain the farm, even after her husband passed away in a car accident on Christmas Eve in 1947. Sadly, like many family-owned farms, the operation began to see its demise as the decades wore on. As neither John Jr. nor Tony Massaro had children of their own, young members of the community often helped by bringing the cows in from the fields, emptying manure buckets and collecting eggs. Some, like Ansonia Middle School Principal Terry Goldson, still live nearby, saying they came by to annoy John Jr., who would promptly put them to work.
In spite of financial hardship, John Jr. and Tony Massaro remained committed to seeing their family farm survive. It was only through fellow resident and family friend that John Jr. was persuaded prior to his death to deed the remaining acreage to the Town of Woodbridge under a conservation easement so that it would be protected from future development.
By 2008, following the death of the remaining son, John Jr., the property had become vacant and run down, the buildings uninhabitable and the fields overgrown from lack of use. It was then that a group of concerned residents of the town approached its Board of Selectmen to seek approval to renovate the property.
“Some of the structures were collapsing, and there was a real concern for public safety,” said town resident and fireman Steve Budda. “We thought people would enter some of the buildings and get trapped or seriously hurt.ˮ
Following a feasibility study in 2008, the newly-formed board of Massaro Community Farm, Inc. began its fundraising efforts to revive the property. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro provided strong support which helped secure a USDA grant that covered significant costs of the renovations. In spite of a nationwide financial recession, this small group of concerned residents raised enough funds to make the necessary infrastructure improvements – house renovations, installation of deer fencing and a greenhouse, and purchase of equipment – to allow farming to begin again.
“The town was seriously considering an alternate proposal to use the land for athletic fields and park land,” said town resident and founding board member Maria Kayne. “It was only after a teenager spoke up at a selectmen’s meeting, saying that today’s youth needs to know where its food comes from that the Board of Selectmen voted to approve the proposal to go forward with reviving the farming operation.”
In 2010, Steve Munno was recruited to be the farm manager. Munno, originally from Long Island, NY, is a graduate of Wesleyan University, and of the UC Santa Cruz famed Ecological Horticultural program. Prior to coming to Massaro, Munno managed a 400-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture model) at the Food Project in Massachusetts. Munno has been key to the farm’s revival and success. The Massaro Community Farm operation currently grows enough vegetables on 8 acres to support a 200-member CSA as well as two seasonal farmer’s markets. The farm also supplies vegetables and its signature organic strawberries to several restaurants that feature locally-grown produce, including Zinc, Caseus, Heirloom and Miya’s.
In addition to reviving the farming operation, the founding board members felt it was important to maintain the legacy that a farm be an active member of the community in which it exists. To that end, the primary pillar of the nonprofit farm’s mission is to donate at least 10 percent of its weekly harvest to local hunger relief agencies. Recipients have included BH Care and The Salvation Army in Ansonia, Jewish Family Services and Columbus House in New Haven, and CT Food Bank. The farm has donated more than 33,000 pounds of food to these agencies since 2010. The farm also holds several big events each year, including a plant sale each spring (featuring a Maypole Dance), an annual farm-to-table dinner each Labor Day weekend that routinely sells out, and a Family Fun Day each fall.
While one of the primary reasons of reviving the farm was to create an inclusive space where people could explore nature and observe a working farm, one area that has seen surprising growth is farm-based education. Since 2012, the farm has been hosting farm field trips as well as adult workshops on topics related to organic and care. The farm maintains a close partnership with the CT Beekeeper’s Association, who lead workshops on backyard beekeeping each year. As honeybees have been threatened by CCD, or colony collapse disorder, interest in backyard beekeeping has grown exponentially and these workshops routinely overflow with interest. An additional advantage of housing an apiary on the property is that the farm now sells its own honey each fall. Last year, Massaro Farm harvested just over 200 lbs of honey, which was available for purchase at the weekly Edgewood Park Farmer’s Market, along with other value-added products including green salsa, marinara sauce and crushed tomatoes.
“It’s important to get kids outside so that they are seeing it as a realm of wonder. MCF is a model at the forefront of the community,” said naturalist and current board member Louisa Cunningham.
Subscriptions to Massaro’s seasonal CSA have been selling out each year, thanks to the expert leadership of Farmer Steve. In its short tenure as an organic vegetable operation, Massaro has gained a reputation for providing an abundant and diverse selection of produce to its subscribers. Subscriptions to the farm’s 2016 subscription for organic produce are now available for purchase. A 20-week subscription is $695 for the season; and a fruit option may be purchased for an additional $90.
Since the fall of 2012, the farm has also hosted a FoodCorps service member. FoodCorps, a relatively new branch of AmeriCorps service, places service members in communities where they see a need for improved nutrition education. Having a FoodCorps service member at the farm has been a tremendous tool for the farm to connect with the wider community. The farm’s FoodCorps service members have helped install four school gardens, introduced countless students to the farm’s fresh vegetables, and helped bring thousands of students to the farm. In April 2014, Massaro’s FoodCorps service member, Eileen Garcia, was one of only six service members chosen nationally to plant in the White House Garden in celebration of Earth Day.
“The unique business model at Massaro Community Farm affirms that by using a multi-pronged approach, small farms can survive and thrive in today’s economy,” said Executive Director Caty Poole. She says there’s something unique about Connecticut that lends its support to community farms like Massaro, a factor she didn’t find while living in New Jersey. “But as important as it is to protect small, diverse farms, we also need the community to succeed, which is why we work so hard to develop partnerships in the community.”
Massaro Farm is grateful for the support of its many volunteers and friends as it continues to fulfill its mission: Keep Farming, Feed People, Build Community. For more information about the farm, please contact the farm office, or visit our website – www.MassaroFarm.org – where you can sign up to receive the farm newsletter, download the Annual Report, and view a list of special offerings taking place throughout the year in celebration of its centennial.