SIMSBURY, Connecticut — Ben Harris knelt in the dirt under the mid-morning sun and pulled weeds. If left unchecked the thin blades would quickly overtake the nine rows of newly emerging potato plants.
Covering two-and-a-half acres, the Root Down Farm is one of several Jewish farms dotting this small New England state — a concentration that reflects the state’s past as much as it represents the future.
Although Harris is the first in his family to work the soil, other farms such as the Himmelstein Homestead and the Freund Dairy Farm go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when waves of European Jewish immigrants arrived on American shores. Yet, no matter their origin story, these farms embody the recent emphasis on eating locally and sustainably, combined with a strong sense of Judaism.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics, Harris once wrote political speeches for the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. He also worked as a reporter for JTA. So it’s not an overstatement to say that just a few years ago no one, not even Harris, imagined one day he’d be driving a rusted out, blue and white pick up truck with a broken passenger side door. And yet, here he is, fretting over his carrot crop and wondering if he’s thinned it too much or too little.
“I found I like my hands in the dirt. I like putting food in people’s mouths. Farming filled this gap for me,” he said.
It wasn’t a sudden eureka moment that turned the Shabbat-observant Harris on to farming.
Several years ago after reporting on a food scandal, the reporter’s interest was piqued and he found himself reporting on more stories having to do with food, food production and farming. Still, the West Hartford resident wasn’t quite ready to trade his pen for a farm. That came later — 450 pages later.
“I read ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and it blew my mind,” Harris said of Michael Pollen’s 2007 book. “I’m not an activist and I’ve covered a lot of issues as a journalist, but none of them galvanized me the way that [book] did. I can’t say exactly why it changed me, but it did. I was looking for something more meaningful to do.”
After doing an apprenticeship in Manchester, Vermont with a “hippie Jewish couple who worked me hard, taught me a lot and hosted these epic Shabbat dinners,” he leased two acres in Coventry, Connecticut.
When that lease wasn’t renewed he moved here to Simsbury where he and his one employee, Henry, raise 35 crops. Aside from selling to a CSA, they also sell to the once-a-week farmer’s market in Coventry.
Jewish farmers make their way to Connecticut
In 1891, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy German Jewish philanthropist, founded the Baron de Hirsch Fund. At first the fund only helped Jewish farm colonies in New Jersey. Then in 1894 he founded the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College from which many a Connecticut farmer graduated.
Over time, these Jewish graduates left for towns in rural Connecticut such as Lebanon and Hebron where land was inexpensive, according to the Jewish Historical Society of Hartford. Many of these early farmers bought farms from non-Jewish families who had decided cities offered a brighter economic future.
The 103-year-old Himmelstein Homestead Farm in Lebanon is one such historic farm. Indeed it’s reported to be the oldest Jewish family-owned farm in the state, and the only active Jewish farm to remain.
Three generations of Himmelsteins have worked the dairy farm since 1903 when Louis Himmelstein arrived. He had fled the pogroms of Russia in the 1890s, first coming to New York and then to Connecticut. Today his grandson Frank Himmelstein runs the nearly 160-acre farm and original family homestead, which are permanently preserved through a grant from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Farmland Preservation Program.
“It’s Time to Slow Down,” reads a sign nailed to a tree at the entrance to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat in Falls Village. The sign isn’t just a gentle reminder to drive carefully, it encapsulates the guiding principle for the farmers and fellows working the 10 acres of the Adamah Farm Project, which is part of the retreat.
It’s what attracted Adamah fellow and Tufts University student Noah Weinberg, who is finishing a three-month fellowship on the farm.
“It’s a very intentional, earth-based and spiritual community. I think there’s something really special about working with your hands,” Weinberg said, taking a break from trellising cucumber plants. “What we’re doing here is important not just for the earth but for the Jewish renewal movement. For us the guiding principal here — the balance of kevah and kavanah, routine and intention, is so strong.”
Certified organic, the farm practices crop rotation, cover cropping, composting, and drip irrigation. It grows more than 40 kinds of vegetables, as well as blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, sage, echinacea, French sorrel, and Jerusalem artichoke.
Additionally the farm has six dairy goats and 10 young bucks which they use for cheese making and to feed Isabella Freedman community.
The farm composts more than 100 pounds of food scraps daily, using it to feed about 30 laying hens. Aside from feeding retreat center guests in the strictly kosher dining hall, Adamah sells to CSA members in West Hartford and Falls Village. It also sells pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
It was Adamah’s commitment to organic farming and Judaism that drew Rebecca Bloomfield. Today Bloomfield is the farm’s associate director, but she first came as a fellow in 2005.
“I had Googled organic farming and Judaism,” she said. “I had become a little disconnected with Judaism and part of me was craving that. A lot of the principles of organic farming connect with Jewish principles.”
‘A lot of the principles of organic farming connect with Jewish principles’
Adamah practices a version of shmita, where land is left to lie fallow every seven years. Of course the farm can’t fully stop operations every seven years. Instead, a portion of the land is taken out of rotation every seven years.
Come sundown Friday, everything on the farm stops. Whatever didn’t get planted stays unplanted. Weeds may poke through the dirt, but they won’t be picked.
“It’s amazing to walk around here on Shabbat. The shift from creating and growing to just noticing and being is palpable,” Bloomfield said.
Harris of the Root Down Farm echoed that sentiment. With the onset of Shabbat he finds himself trying to stop worrying about the crops for 24 hours.
“There is this image of a farmer alone on his tractor, that farming would be the gentle life, that it would be more grounded,” he said. “But you do stay up late worrying about crops, or whether the kale looks good. On Shabbat you realize a lot of this is out of your hands and that is in a way peaceful.”
Situated in rural East Canaan, Freund’s Dairy Farm couldn’t be further from the Bronx birthplace of its founder Eugene Freund. Three generations of Freunds have worked the dairy farm.
According to family lore, Freund went to Cornell University to study veterinary medicine. But he was drafted into the US Army in 1940 and served as a battlefield medic in the Pacific Theater. When he returned home, he felt too much distance between academia and the war. As the story goes, Freund was visiting a war buddy in East Canaan and while there he fell off a truck he was riding. Esther, the nurse, became his wife. They decided to put down roots and in 1949 they started the farm with 12 cows. They opened a corn stand in 1950.
“He wasn’t looking into being a farmer, he had an interest in animals, but there wasn’t this drive to go to a rural place,” said his granddaughter Amanda Freund, who is now the farm’s director of sales and marketing.
Later, two of their five children, their sons Matthew and Benjamin, took over the farm. Today the farm has 300 cows, and is one of 1,200 family farms in New England and New York that are part of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative which started in 1992 when Cabot in Vermont, Agri-mark in Massachusetts, and Freund’s Dairy Farm merged.
Amanda Freund and her siblings Isaac and Rachel also work on the farm. Rachel is the herdswoman and takes care of all the farm’s cows. Isaac started CowPots in 2006 as a way to manage the 100 pounds of manure the dairy cows produce a day. The biodegradable, plantable pots come filled with various seeds.
The new generation
It wasn’t a given that Freund would come to work on the dairy farm. After studying business and international agriculture she worked for an unnamed congresswoman, did a stint at the US Farm Bureau, and then served with the Peace Corps in Zambia.
“I spent a lot of time running away from the farm,” she said. “I remember a call with my dad while I was in a mud hut in Africa. He said ‘So, are you coming back to run the farm?’”
All the Freund children got bat or bar-mitzvahed and went to religious school in Torrington, a 30-minute drive south. Now the family worships at Hevreh in Great Barrington, just over the state line in Massachusetts.
Come Shabbat they often cook “Grandma Esther’s traditional chicken recipe,” Freund said, adding that they don’t strictly observe the sabbath. “The cows have to be fed 365 days a year, so there isn’t a day of rest per se. Saturday morning comes and the cows still need to get fed.”
Because it’s important for farms to diversify in a state where land is scarce, Amanda’s mother Theresa started the Freund’s Farm Market & Bakery. She offers seasonal fruits and vegetables, local products as well as her own canned and jammed products. And she does year round farm-to-table catering, much of it for Hevreh.
“It’s a great way for her to contribute to the Jewish community,” Freund said.
Back at Adamah, fellow Lilly Pearlman wipes the sweat from her brow. A fiddler who once crisscrossed the country with a band, Pearlman reflected on what brought her here, working inside a greenhouse on a clear blue day.
Originally from Portland, Maine, Pearlman said she liked how Adamah promotes a sense of Jewish return to the land.
“I was seeking a Jewish experience and a community experience that was connected to land and to place. Here where everything is running on the Jewish agricultural calendar felt like a real ideal to me. I think I really needed to have this grounded moment — literally.”
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