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Starting an organic farm on a dare

The lack of a local fresh food market spurred action.

Long, bountiful rows of vegetables stripe a gentle hill tucked behind a scenic barn. Fresh droplets of autumn dew glisten on tomatoes still clinging to the vine. A pair of farm managers can be heard singing harmonies as they weed a fennel crop that will soon garnish the fish entrée at an organic boutique restaurant.

This may sound like a fantasy farm, but it’s a scene firmly rooted in reality – and driven by one couple’s desire to spread the word about the importance of organic farming. 

Bill and Lesley King didn’t start out as farmers. In fact, they were more familiar with Wall Street than agriculture, but the lack of a fresh food market in their otherwise idyllic Old Greenwich, Connecticut, spurred them to take action. The lack of a farmers market seemed particularly ironic considering fertile land was scarcely an hour away.

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Bill started with a small plot in their suburban backyard and his raised beds brought fresh food to the table for his family of six. But the agricultural experiment just reaffirmed his hunger to spread the joy of fresh produce to his neighbors. So the Kings went searching for and nabbed nearby land in Washington, Connecticut. 

The couple started farming in 2008 and called the property Back 40 Farm, a historical term dating back to the Homestead Act that seemed especially appropriate for a pair who had each recently turned 40. Before long they were bringing their first crops to the newly minted Old Greenwich Farmers Market that they cofounded, attracting fellow farmers from the Washington area to follow suit.

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As they experimented with various crops, Bill and Lesley noticed that although crops like organic fennel and parsley might not stir the farmers market crowd, they made a world of difference when cooking. To showcase the possibilities of these less familiar crops, they opened Back 40 Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant in Greenwich, where they maintain dual residence.

Reception was so good they opened another restaurant in Greenwich that same year in addition to Back 40 Mercantile, which sells conscientiously crafted products, as well as their own herbs and honey. 

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From the beginning, it became apparent that Bill and Lesley needed help making all this magic happen. They decided to partner with farmers who shared their mission and commitment, while also keeping a firm grip on economic reality.

They hired Alexis Barbalinardo and Enya Cunningham, both Vassar College graduates, to manage the farm. In her capacity as farm manager, Alexis does more than just monitor the weather reports, check for tomato hornworm, and juggle buckets of cut flowers (another wildly popular crop produced at Back 40 Farm). She tallies the bottom line to farm smartly and keep the dream fruitful, so Bill and Lesley can focus on the restaurants. Together, they keep it all running smoothly. 

women-walking

As Lesley says while gathering food to bring home to her own kitchen, “Farming is a collaboration of neighbors helping one another. It’s a difficult business, but caring is engrained in its culture.”

This team cares about bringing fresh produce to the masses – and they’ve figured out a successful plan for doing just that.

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