Planting a new seed: Aitkenheads to return to Wakeman Town Farm
Staples High School environmental science teacher Mike Aitkenhead -- forced to vacate the Wakeman Town Farm & Sustainability Center last month when Green Village Initiative abruptly ended its lease with the town -- is returning to his roots as the first program director of the teaching farm.
The town wants him back.
Contract details were being worked out this week on the heels of a third fundraiser expected to provide the funds to have Aitkenhead, his wife and two children resume residence on the farm.
"My family and I really appreciate the support we've gotten from the town," he said.
"It seems like the community has really gotten behind this new effort and it looks like things are really falling into place."
There have been two fundraisers so far. The first, a backyard cocktail party, netted $9,000 of the $20,000 to $25,000 for farm maintenance, home improvement and programs the Aitkenheads develop.
The second fundraiser, a pop-up store at the Cross Highway home of Andrea Matthewson, took place last Sunday. And Wakeman Farm transition team member Christy Colasurdo said she's confident the pancake breakfast and farmer market planned at the farm this Sunday, Oct. 2, from 9 a.m. to noon, will meet the goal.
Two Nigerian dwarf goats, chickens and an Angora rabbit -- typical of the animals that will soon reside at the farm -- will also be on hand for the Sunday event.
"It's really a celebration that we have a town farm," said Liz Milwe, a founding member of GVI, a founding member of GVI who left the organization when it became clear the Aikenheads would not be staying as the resident family at Wakeman Town Farm.
In August, an internal rift among the GVI's future direction prompted several board members to resign, and the group then decided to end its seven-year, $1-a-year lease to manage the 2.2-acre town property.
"The Ambler Farm has a teacher in residence as well as runs educational programming and a camp," said Sherry Jagerson, a former GVI member who is now on the Wakeman Farm transition team.
Under terms of the new contract, the Aitkenheads will run a middle school apprenticeship program, a high school internship program during the summer, as well as an internship program for seniors during the fourth quarter of the academic year. In addition, there will be a young farmer summer camp for children in kindergarten to second grade and from third to fifth grades.
When GVI ran the farm, there was an apprenticeship program for middle schoolers or anything geared toward those in the elementary grades.
Selectman Shelly Kassen attributed Aitkenhead and his wife's return to the farm to strong public support.
"The public loved having them there," she said, and added the couple will return as soon as the agreements are "written and properly structured."
The Aitkenheads, along with their children, ages 1 and 3, will once again live rent-free in a house on the property in exchange for managing the farm. In addition, they will be compensated for the programming they develop and offer, according to Wakeman Farm transition team member Elizabeth Beller, who said there were really never any other candidates for the job "because they've already demonstrated they are great at this work."
"They have the right temperament for this," she said. "These are two people that are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy and live more in the public eye than most would be willing to do."
The contract does give the Aitkenheads some time to themselves, including Sundays and Mondays, and one week at the start of summer and one week at the end of the season.
Beller said the couple feels comfortable returning to the town farm, "because they know they have the community behind them."
Colasurdo, whose 11-year-old son Charlie is interested in farming, said she joined the transition team "to make sure this was still a viable farm, a place where kids could go to learn about sustainable living and get some hands-on farming experience."
"I couldn't say no," she said of her involvement. Since the farm under GVI's stewardship had no programs specifically for middle school- or elementary-age school children, Charlie was forced to quench his thirst for farming at the Ambler Farm, where he volunteers as a junior apprentice.
Charlie is anxious for the new Wakeman Farm & Sustainability Center to begin. "In Westport, I'll be able to go to it all the time," he said. "It's going to be a lot of fun." He hopes to help design gardens and work with the animals.
A cadre of volunteers is expected to help the Aitkenheads with the farming enterprise.
"People want to be a part of the effort," said Jagerson. She added the team members have different reasons for wanting to pitch in, but "personally, I feel myself, it's such an opportunity for the town and the Aitkenheads have so much to offer."
She added: "The time is right. It's not something that's frivolous, especially at a time when people are interested in learning how to be more self-reliant, be closer to the Earth, take care of the Earth, that's what this is all about."
In addition to Aitkenheads' impending return to the farm, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff plans to appoint a permanent committee to serve as an advisory board for the farm, and that committee will make recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Department for regulations, according to Milwe.
Nearly 40 acres of farmland were sold by the Wakeman family to the town in 1970. While most of the site has since been developed as playing fields, Isaac and Pearl Wakeman were allowed to continue living on a 2.2-acre slice of the property until their deaths. Pearl Wakeman, the latter of the two to die, passed away in 2009, clearing the way for the farm project to begin.
Tickets for this Sunday's pancake breakfast and farmer market are $5. Those who may not be able to attend, but would like to contribute, can mail a tax-deductible donation payable to Town of Westport/Wakeman Town Farm, c/o Elizabeth Beller, 4 West Ambler Road, Westport, CT 06880. For more information about the farm, check www.wakemantownfarm.org.