Uprooted: GVI management of Wakeman Farm ends
Under the guidance of Green Village Initiative, the 2.2-acre Wakeman Town Farm was supposed to be a center cultivating hands-on guidance for those interested in local, organic food production, energy conservation and responsible land stewardship. At the height of the summer, the working farm had more than 20 interns.
However, several weeks after an internal rift prompted several GVI board members to resign, the group announced Sunday that it is ending its $1-a-year lease with the town and that the town-owned farm will be returned to municipal management.
As GVI abruptly withdraws from the enterprise -- lately known as the Wakeman Farm & Sustainability Center -- comes confirmation from Michael Aitkenhead, a Staples High School environmental science teacher, that his contract to manage and live at the farm has ended. Aitkenhead, who moved to the farm a year ago this month with his wife and two young children, said Monday afternoon that he's now in the midst of moving back to his house that had been on the market.
While GVI initially had a seven-year lease to run the farm, GVI Chairman Dan Levinson said the group's programs are growing so quickly that it is best to leave the farm under town control.
"I think it's best for the town and best for us because it frees us up to do so much more," Levinson said Monday. "With the school gardens, I think we've done 20-something gardens in Westport, Weston, Ridgefield and Bridgeport, we're the spark, we build the garden, but then they (the school communities) take it over. I think that this is probably a good model for the town farms as well."
Five of the 25-member GVI Board of Directors stepped down several weeks ago in the midst of the dispute over management of the farm. Marty Yellin, Cathy Talmadge, Sherry Jaegerson, Liz Milwe and Peter Wormser reportedly called it quits after finding out GVI leaders offered Aitkenhead a new contract without the full board's knowledge.
However, Levinson said Monday that was "completely untrue."
"There were a lot of rumors," he said, adding that everything was "100 percent done by the book." Details of that new pact were never revealed, and Aitkenhead said his old 18-month contract officially ended June 30.
Levinson said the five board members who walked away will likely "stay with the farm."
Aitkenhead, when asked if he and his family would be willing to live on the farm with the town overseeing things, said, "We'd be interested in exploring that possibility. We've enjoyed our time here."
He added, "Teaching environmental science, I've always been interested in sustainable living and so this allowed me and my family to practice what I preach.
"While we entered with that mindset, I think what we love the most was the community and the relationships we've built and the support we've had throughout our time here and since."
As GVI funded Aitkenhead's position on the farm, among various improvements, the town would need to invest some capital to keep things going. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said he is willing to consider that.
"The town plans a private fundraising effort to fund the continued operation of the farm and I will be appointing a board to oversee its operation," he said.
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.
The Wakeman Farm project was a partnership between the town and GVI not only to revive farming on the historic property, but to open an agricultural education center for the community, according to Levinson. The goal, he said, was to educate people to take steps to use and grow more food locally and to live in a more environmentally sustainable way. Although GVI got its start in Westport in the aftermath of a successful effort to ban plastic bags at local check-out lines, it also has a presence in Ridgefield, Darien, Weston and Bridgeport, with local GVI managers in each municipality.
A future project is an urban garden in the Park City, details of which are currently being hammered out.
"The mayor's offered a space for that," Levinson said. Also, GVI has completed nine school gardens in Bridgeport, with work to take place on four more in September. That will cover nearly half of Bridgeport's schools. The rest of the garden project will take place in 2012.
"There is a huge demand for what we do," said Levinson. "We can either spend a lot of time on one farm or build 10 farms."