Sunny Valley Preserve Manager Wayne Woodard
By Cara Chancellor
The year after high school often gets young adults thinking seriously about their future careers. But recent graduate Felice Martin has known what she wanted to do since age 12, when she and her five younger siblings combined their summer earnings to build a small barn.
“We really wanted to raise farm animals,” she explains. “I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a farmer.”
Martin’s dream became reality in January, when at the age of 19 she signed a lease to become the newest tenant of Drumlin Hill Farm, part of The Nature Conservancy’s Sunny Valley Preserve in New Milford, Connecticut.
Sunny Valley’s 2,050 acres include five working farms and nearly 1,400 acres of natural land. American kestrels hunt over the meadows, visitors hike on 12 miles of trails and shady woodlands thrive adjacent to sunny fields of hay and vegetables. Seventy-five acres are set aside to provide habitat for grassland birds.
Preserve Manager Wayne Woodard spends much of his time tending these lands, but he also serves as a liaison to the farmers, encouraging adherence to National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agricultural guidelines — best practices that help prevent soil erosion and increase wildlife habitat and efficient water use.
“Sunny Valley is a great demonstration of how natural and working lands can be maintained side-by-side for people and nature,” says Woodard. “Our goal here is to manage real farms, with real farmers producing food for surrounding communities.”
Woodard also helps select new tenants.
“We chose Felice for two reasons,” he says. “The most important is that she has a strong, workable plan for the farm. But it’s also great to give a young farmer the opportunity to get started.”
Martin’s plan for Drumlin Hill calls for 50 acres of hay production in her first year, followed by a gradual introduction of vegetables, berries and livestock in 2013. She also plans to start her own community-supported agriculture (CSA), or “farm share,” program.
The growing popularity of local food and CSAs shows an increasing awareness that the distance our food travels and how it is grown, raised and harvested matters to the environment. All over the world, the Conservancy is working to promote nature-friendly agricultural and ranching practices. Sunny Valley and young farmers like Felice are a small but vital part of that big picture.
While she gears up for her first planting season at Drumlin Hill Farm, Martin’s days are filled with feeding and tending to her animals, readying her new equipment shed and milk barn and repairing machinery.
“We bought a new hay tedder a couple months ago, we bought a new white tractor last fall and we’re getting pigs this Saturday. So far, everything’s going great,” she says.
Soon, Martin will have to add wedding planning to the mix of tasks. She recently got engaged to Dan Weed, the son of another Sunny Valley tenant.
“He has the same goals I do, and we’re both about simple, natural, local,” she says.
Martin and Weed are part of new trend of younger farmers that the USDA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture and other organizations are hoping will grow. While just getting started herself, Martin already is thinking ahead about her farm’s potential to reach the next generation.
“Someday, I hope kids can just come up here and learn something about farming. We’re doing what we love, and hopefully we can change other people’s lives in a positive way, too.”
For Woodard, it was that spark that convinced him to bring Martin on board.
“This girl wants to farm,” he says. “She wants to do it more than anything in the world. And we’re going to let her.”September 27, 2012
Cara Chancellor is a writer for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.