Woodstock Farms in Woodstock, CT
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
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Woodstock, CT - Woodstock Farm’s market crew stands out amid their neighbors -- a handful of bright, smiling young adults in matching blue shirts, headed up by the relentlessly friendly Amy Vinal. Piling up squash or chatting with customers (often simultaneously), Amy clearly enjoys all parts of her work with an infectiousness that rubs off on her children, relatives, and neighbors that work for her at the Hope High and Woonsocket markets. One visit to the Woodstock market, in their own back yard, quickly explains where she herself picked up her enthusiasm; her parents Ken and Sonja Healey take care of the markets close to home with the same warmth and attention. That line of progression, watching and learning, is not lost on Amy as she works with the next generation at their stand: “They love working at the market!” And those kinds of skills – working with a variety of people, attention to detail, and appreciation for the goodness in things – will stand them in good stead whatever they do with their lives.
Much of what Rick and Amy Vinal know of farming came to them with the transmission of the farm from Amy’s parents. When Amy was a child, Ken and Sonja had a dairy farm nearby, but the relentless pace of milking and feeding a herd wore them down and they made the painful choice to sell the farm, herd, and beautiful old farmhouse and look for something else. When the current farm came on the market a couple years later, with fertile fields for crops, they gladly seized the opportunity to get back on a farm. Amy’s teenage years onward, she worked alongside her parents and sisters, and after she and Rick got married they decided to take over the farm when her parents retired. Rick had been a student in chemical engineering and worked on the farm, especially the orchards, and had come to love the farm as well as the farmers’ daughter. The farm seemed like a good opportunity to support themselves, and they knew from experience that it was a good place to have a family.
So it was that they assumed ownership of the farm in 1985, after a transition process of 2 or 3 years. Ken and Sonja gradually handed over the fields, and in ’85 they sold the house itself to the next generation – but that isn’t to say that they left the farm. Decades later they are part of the farm work team, along with other members of the extended family. Ken’s specialty is sorting crops after harvest, pulling out those with blemishes to be fed to a neighbor’s cows, and piling the rest into baskets or boxes for the markets. Sonja likes to be in the fields, and is responsible for tending the self-service roadside stand, stocking it and keeping an eye on the cash box. Both of them take care of the market stand in the four markets that are close to home, which are also a nice chance to see their friends. Their quasi-retirement also allows them to travel to visit their other children, whose lives have taken them as far from home as the Philippines and Alaska. Rick’s sister chips in with the accounting, and his father helps with mechanical repairs on farm equipment. Rick and Amy’s own children always had the option of working as they grew up, but they were very careful not to force it on them lest it seem burdensome. Amy thinks their daughter Holly, a pre-med student at Uconn Storrs, has the strongest connection to the farm and farming, but her future plans will take her elsewhere.
In the meantime, though, Holly and her grandfather came up with a compromise to get her through one of the big obstacles to student life – income. They converted a swath of one of the fields to growing flowers, which they sell in bouquets. Every Friday afternoon Ken drives to Storrs to pick her up. They swing by the UConn dairy bar for a couple cones, and drive home to harvest baskets of exuberant zinnias and other flowers. After dinner with the family, she and Amy spend the evening making bouquets together. Amy really looks forward to those Friday nights. “For three hours, we have one another’s undivided attention,” she says fondly. “Our hands may be busy, but we can talk all we want.” Holly goes back to school, and Amy takes the flowers to the Hope High market to sell the next morning. Not only is it rewarding and heartening for the family that Holly is still involved and gets to see her family regularly, but Amy thinks its another one of those good life lessons – that you can succeed if you work hard and you find your niche.
The flexibility of field crops has allowed other adaptations through the years, to suit the family’s needs and preferences, as well as market demands. When they took over the farm, for example, Amy had one request (more like a demand, really) – no more potatoes! Every other crop has its ups and downs, but she dreaded potato harvest, day after day, all day, digging up tubers. They chose to grow a wide variety of crops to suit their sales venues, but also having such a variety makes the work manageable without the monotony of potato harvest. Even the nuisance of picking summer squash becomes palatable if you only do it for a couple hours at a time. Crops range from regular ole veggies to some exceptional specialties – succulent but plain-Jane canning tomatoes grow in a jungle in open-sided greenhouses, and field-grown heirloom varieties present shoppers with enticing choices for salads. Crisp peas, juicy strawberries, sweet corn, and tangy tomatillos jostle with other crops across the growing season.
Through the years, wholesale sales have declined in importance, although they still do sell their late-season corn wholesale because they are better protected from frost than many of their competitors. They have expanded their farmers markets into Providence, starting with the first Downcity market and other sites before settling on Hope High. A few years ago they had some criticism for selling in RI because their farm is in Connecticut – though Providence is their nearest city, closer than many farms in South County are, and are very near the border. Luckily, they found a solution that also helped out a friend -- she had a blueberry farm in RI that was too much for her to handle, so the Vinals lease her fields, making them RI farmers as well (not to mention adding blueberries to their offerings). They have increased the greenhouses, so that flowers and bedding crops now account for nearly a third of the farm’s income, and they still sell hay. Like many diversified farms, they grow some things counter to poorly economic logic; they have gladiolas because they are so pretty, but they’re lucky if they even pay for themselves. But they add to the pleasure of the whole undertaking, so in a way, it does pay to grow them after all.
It isn’t always easy to remember that, even in a farming family that has always placed the health of family life on par with the farm’s. Many farm tasks are made lighter by working together, chatting and telling stories to take one another’s minds off the work. From Amy’s account of her harvest-time story-telling, it seems the kids may tease her about it, but she can tell they also really enjoy it. But merely being around each other off and on all day doesn’t always mean that people have time to talk about the stuff of life. Several years back, Rick and Amy started stopping for a coffee on their way home from a weekly delivery, and it made them realize how rare it was for just the two of them to sit down with just one another, and no distractions. That regular coffee stop is now a fixed part of the schedule, lasting longer than the weekly deliveries.
Rick and Amy once agreed to keep farming as long as their kids were in school, and that big decision is looming in the next few years. Amy is content that things worked out the way they did for her and her family, and the farm has been good to them. But for a young couple today to invest in a farm like that, she thinks it’s no longer possible to do it the way they did, both working on the farm. When they eventually pass on the farm, it’ll have to be to a family where one person works off the farm, to ensure the family has access to health insurance as much as a steady income. Amy may be one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, but the realism of the increasing challenges to family farming can’t help but creep into the conversation.