Cristian Mortali is a young man with a vision: He is looking to be a cattle farmer, like his mentor, Jim Zeoli, and preferably near his hometown of Orange. By purchasing the 83 acres that straddle the Woodbridge/Derby/Orange town line, he took the first step toward making that dream a reality.
A year ago, motorists who drove up Baldwin Road to get to Route 34 noticed a sturdy fence going up along the road frontage, followed by a farmstand in the summertime. In the fall a corn maze and tractor rides attracted quite a bit of attention. A big sign announced Townline Farm.
He couldn’t do it alone. Mortali, 25, has the help and support of his parents, Joe and Karen, who are working along with him. Joe Mortali likes the big farm tractor and has been carving walking trails throughout the property. Karen was manning the vegetable tent in the summer.
Cristian’s girlfriend, Rachel Holden, is also immersed in the care of the land. Rachel grew up on a farm in Orange, and teaches agriculture at Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford. Together they were collecting the sap from maple trees these last few weeks, hauling large containers back to the truck. The evaporator is set up in the back of Rachel’s house. “It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” she said.
Like for most local farmers, the farming work starts after the regular work is done. For the 25-year-old Mortali that is a full-time job with Orange Public Works Department. But after 3 p.m. he is out, tapping trees, cutting trees, hauling sap.
Mortali praised the state’s Farm Preservation Program for making the dream possible. “It gives people like me the chance to do what they want to do,” he said. He had been working on Jim Zeoli’s farm for years. At first, he was terrified of the cows, he said, until he got to bottle feed a calf. He continued to work in the barns at UConn. “I always wanted my own place,” he said. There is a resurgence of young people who want to work the land, but it is difficult to find land, he said.
Several years ago, the Woodbridge Land Trust had started fundraising to buy the development rights from the previous owners of the property, the bulk of which is actually located in Derby, and was zoned industrial. For the Woodbridge Land Trust, it was one way to prevent a large industrial development from setting up shop in the backyard of one of the most scenic spots in Woodbridge. For the state, it meant preserving some 35-40 acres of farmland soils, which would have been lost otherwise.
“There are woodlands, wetlands and pasture lands here, as well as crop lands, Mortali said. He can build a barn and a house, per the easement, but he can’t sell a part of it to be developed.
His next plan is to build a cattle barn and buy the first heads of livestock, just a few to start, which he will purchase from area farmers. The big fence along Bradley Road serves to keep out the deer, who have been roaming freely here for some 50 years. But it also serves as a second layer of protection to prevent the livestock from straying. Down the road he plans to sell beef along with the vegetables.
This summer he is looking to set up a bigger tent for the vegetables, and he and Rachel have been looking through seed catalogues to get started on new crops. Oh yes, and they will be selling maple syrup. In a few months, look out for the flag to go up at the gate that will indicate that the farmstand is open.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent