The Land of Kings

The Waltons have nothing on the King family. The farmstead that began as a dream of open space and fresh air has turned into a robust family business that is helping to shift our consumption paradigm and create a gentler, healthier world. Seven years ago, when Lesley and Bill King purchased the first fifty acres of what would grow into their now seventy-five-acre farm in Washington, Connecticut, they never dreamed that they would be sitting atop a sustainable food empire. They describe themselves as “accidental farmers.” But their accident has been great fortune for Greenwich residents—out of the farm has come the Old Greenwich Farmer’s Market, Back 40 Mercantile, Back 40 Kitchen and soon-to-be-opened Mill Street Bar and Table. Thanks to the Kings, finding locally grown organic products in town is easier than ever.

They named the farm Back 40 as a nod to an old farming term from the Homestead Acts in the late 1800s meaning “back side of a farm.” It’s also defined as a remote and uncultivated piece of land that you love and don’t labor over. (“I’m going out to the back forty to watch the sunset.”) But for Lesley and Bill, it also had a personal meaning. They bought the land when they turned forty, with the dream of spending the back forty of their lives there.

IT’S A FAMILY THING
Originally, the farm was simply meant to serve as a weekend getaway for the Old Greenwich family; a place for their four young children, who were newborn to age ten at the time, to run free, play in the fields and skin their knees. Lesley hoped the farm “would be a place where we could ground ourselves. A place to slow down from the hectic pace of Fairfield County and New York City, and focus on family and friends and enjoy being outdoors.” She points out that they don’t have a TV at the farm, in the hopes of fully unplugging. “It has changed our relationships when we are at the farm. We do more together—everything from exploring to building things to playing games,” she explains.

Though the family still lives in Old Greenwich full-time, and Lesley and Bill continue with their corporate lives, they’ve managed to make the farm a part of their daily lives. A team of four farmers works the land, but on most weekends you’ll find the King children and their cousins helping out. And pop into the farm’s offshoot, Back 40 Mercantile in Old Greenwich (“What’s In Store,” page 169) and you’ll likely find a family member behind the counter.

PLANTING THE SEED
The weekend getaway was initially home to nothing more than a few tomato plants, until the Kings discovered a milk jug full of old farming receipts during a renovation of a barn on the property. Among them were handwritten invoices: a monthly telephone bill totaling $13, a receipt for whitewashing the barn for $12, and a property tax receipt that was less than the cost of a good salad at Whole Foods. It was then the family realized that the land had a tradition, a lineage, and they were a part of it. But turning a tomato garden into a commercial organic farm is no small feat.

When Lesley’s brother Jeff dared the couple to try to grow some “real” crops, the couple enlisted the help of a commercial farmer named John Kimberly, who helped them plant 500 tomato plants, 100 squash, 100 zucchini and 100 pepper plants. The plants went wild. The property had not been a working farm since the late 1700s, so the soil was perfect and waiting to be productive again. They produced thousands of pounds of vegetables that year. Not knowing what to do with the bounty, the couple donated the harvest to Neighbor to Neighbor. The next three years would provide a real education for Lesley and Bill, and in 2014 the farm produced over 17,000 pounds of produce, and the hard-working hens laid over 10,000 eggs. The farm still donates to local food pantries, including Neighbor to Neighbor.

The decision to grow exclusively organic produce was a natural choice because three of their four children have food allergies, and Lesley and Bill believe that pesticide-grown products contributed to their illnesses. In addition to the children’s food allergies, Lesley’s brother Warren was fighting cancer, which also made the couple look at the food they were eating and the effects of the Big Ag food system. They were shocked to learn that the vast majority of food in the U.S. is grown with Monsanto-produced chemicals like Roundup (glyphosate) and other controversial pesticides. In fact, America spreads 280-million pounds of glyphosate on crops a year.

NURTURING THE DREAM
Not long after they bought the land, Lesley and Bill dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in nearby Tarrytown. Blue Hill is one of the most successful farm-to-table restaurants in the Northeast; it sits on the grounds of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a working farm and educational center. Lesley became fascinated with the restaurant’s approach to food. “There is only one menu, it’s a farmer’s feast. And the server goes into great detail explaining each of the ingredients, the history and how they are grown, so you really gain a sense of what you are eating,” says Lesley.

“We ended up developing a relationship with Stone Barns,” says Bill, who now sits on the board. Each year the couple hires one or two of their graduating apprentices to work at Back 40 (when GREENWICH magazine visited, all of the farmers were women). The Kings teach the farmers business skills, and the farmers teach them farming.

The Kings also voraciously read stacks of books on the subject of organic farming and the philosophy of sustainability. One of the authors that most inspired them to go organic was Michael Pollan, award-winning author and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. They also credit Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—her story of living off the land for a year—as part of the inspiration behind their approach to farming and their dogged determination to not only grow healthy food, but to make the world a better place.

BRINGING IT HOME
All four King children and their cousins have chores that local kids haven’t been responsible for in decades. Planting, harvesting, and yes, mucking out. Ten-year-old Moira loves picking fresh vegetables and then preparing dinner on the porch for whatever crowd has gathered that weekend. Their youngest son, Brendan, however, is slightly less impressed with farm life. As with any seven-year-old, his opinions waver. There are days he refuses to leave the fields because “we are not done here” and days he “is just sick of all these chickens.” (And there are a lot of chickens for him to be sick of—245 in total.)

But the family’s efforts have paid off. The Kings say they have noticed a ground shift in their customers’ approach to food at the OG Farmer’s Market. In the early days, people weren’t as invested in buying organic and were simply looking for whatever was fresh. Now they are savvy consumers and are willing to wait for organic foods that are in season.

It was a result of conversations had at the market that the idea for the mercantile and the restaurants grew. Lesley was hearing that more and more, local residents were hungry for access to organic products and sustainably sourced goods. “I wish everyone realized that all their food choices—and purchases in general—make a huge difference for their health and the legacy of the world we leave to our children and grandchildren,” says Bill. “We often believe that our actions alone won’t have an impact.”

The project that started out as a “family garden” to help connect the Kings to the land has become quite the movement, creating an extensive network of farmers and community friends and cultivating the next generation. The King’s fifteen-year-old son, Liam, would like to live on the farm full-time—a decision that is clearly no accident.

 

 

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