Farming for Foodshare is a win-win at Varney Farm

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
South Windsor - posted Wed., Aug. 3, 2011
Sandy Varney in the Varney Farm eggplant field. The first pickings were ready in late July.  Photos by Annie Gentile.
Sandy Varney in the Varney Farm eggplant field. The first pickings were ready in late July. Photos by Annie Gentile.

When Jim and Sandy Varney first purchased property at 760 Pleasant Valley Road in South Windsor in 1994, it was the barn and more than 6 acres of land that attracted them, but not so much the idea of farming it. They soon learned, however, that they could enjoy a reduced tax burden simply by keeping the land under cultivation.

“It seems a shame to let land go fallow, especially when there are so many people going hungry,” said Sandy Varney. “We started leasing the land for $1 a year to local farmers and we had a series of farmers who used the land for a year or two each, with varying degrees of success,” she said. “The last farmer [we leased to] was in 2005, and he planted almost the entire field with eggplant. It was amazingly successful,” she said. “They were prolific plants, some that grew as high as my chin. [The farmer] sold them at the regional market in Hartford.”

y August or September of that year, however, the market had become inundated with crops. With the price of fresh produce dropping off, Varney said the farmer had reached his harvesting limit.

“He told us, ‘It’s all yours,’” said Varney.

Varney said they called everyone they knew to come and pick eggplant - including one friend who worked at a group home who came in and took an entire truckload - but there was still plenty left over.

“Then someone suggested I call Foodshare,” said Varney. In no time at all, the regional food bank - which serves more than 128,000 hungry residents in 42 towns in Hartford and Tolland counties - enlisted volunteers from the nearby Korean Presbyterian Church and in two to three hours, the volunteers picked more than 2,000 pounds of eggplant, she said.

Since then, the Varneys have opened their farm to raising crops for Foodshare each season, increasing the planting area and tonnage harvested each year.

“In 2007, we planted close to an acre of eggplant, peppers and squash,” said Varney. “Anybody can do this. Foodshare makes all the arrangements with volunteers and scheduling them. Jim provides supervision, and I do a few publicity and speaking engagements.”

Varney said they do use chemical fertilizer at the farm, but not chemical pesticides. She said they have learned that pulverized lyme placed in burlap sacks and shaken over the plants helps keep away the crawling pests. As for irrigation, Varney said they remain at the mercy of Mother Nature.

One of three area farms that raises crops specifically for Foodshare - the other two are Auer Farm in Bloomfield and the town-owned Simsbury Community Garden - Varney Farm has welcomed volunteers from corporate groups, faith-based organizations, youth organizations, and individuals. As a team captain with Mass Mutual, Varney also recruits volunteers on their annual “Day of Caring” to harvest crops at the farm.

“I love to see families that come with their kids,” she said, adding that once volunteers come a few times and become familiar with the routine, they allow them to simply call ahead of time to find out which section needs to be hoed or fertilized, and let them go their own way. “It’s easier for volunteers if they are allowed to be spontaneous,” she said.

John Weedon, Foodshare’s volunteer coordinator, said the agency is in need of volunteers at all three farms.

“The gardens provide fresh vegetables to our partner agencies, and without volunteers, we would be unable to plant and harvest squash, eggplant, lettuce, and so on,” said Weedon. He added that interested individuals and groups can contact him at 860-286-9999.

“It’s a great way to get dirty and make a difference,” Weedon said.

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