Woog's World / Young-old partnership blooms on the farm
For 60 years, the old onion farm on Bayberry Lane lay fallow. It belonged to Irina Pabst, but for all those years only two things grew there: Grass and weeds.
Matt Oricchio is far younger than Irina Pabst. He's a 2010 graduate of the University of Connecticut, where he studied horticulture, animal science and ecology. That's also where he started an organic farm with three friends, including Westporter Jessica Van Vlamertynghe. They worked the land, sold their produce, and learned to love the farming life.
But after they graduated, they had to leave the UConn-owned land. Last January, Matt decided to find a new farm. Through Jessica, he learned of the Pabst property. Now 95, Irina was delighted to have young blood interested in working the one-and-a-half-acre tract.
Matt enlisted Jessica and her sister, Liz Walworth. They spent weeks planning the farm. They planted their first crops on Mother's Day -- "ridiculously late," Matt admits.
The backbone of the farm is "hearty greens salad mix," Matt says. They also grow tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and corn. Matt likes to experiment, so he's added oats and hops. "Just for fun," he explains. Matt planted millet too. "Not much is coming up, though," he points out. "We may have lost that war."
Speckled Rooster Farm -- the name comes from Matt's early fascination with hatching chicks in an incubator he built -- has been, well, a hard row to hoe. Matt points to one plot. "This was all supposed to be potatoes. But only four rows germinated. I used seed I developed, but it got too old." He shakes his head. "Rookie mistake."
With no irrigation -- they've only got a two-year lease, so hooking up to the main water line would have been prohibitively expensive -- Matt says, "tell everyone you know to pray for rain." Hand-watering is extremely time-consuming, though 55-gallon drums do help water the greens.
The hardest part by far, he says, is "Weed upon weed. ... And the worst weed is grass. You can't cut it. You have to manually remove it -- every piece, by hand."
The deer are almost as bad. "We don't know whether we're vegetable or venison farmers," Matt jokes. "The electric fence worked for a while. But then they had their way. They turned all the tomatoes from 4 feet tall, into 2 feet."
Matt does like most animals -- including those that inhabit Speckled Rooster Farm. They raise ducks and chickens for eggs. (Matt built a mobile chicken coop.)
The rabbits are for their own consumption. "Rabbit is the healthiest, most easily digestible meat," he notes. "It's the lowest in calories, and has the highest protein. Plus, rabbits are cute."
However, finding feed for the birds is difficult. "There are not a lot of feed companies around here, and the ones that are don't use certified organic feed," says Matt.
The farm is a labor of love for Matt, Jessica and Elizabeth. But, like any farm, it is labor-intensive. In addition to planting, weeding, harvesting and all the other back-breaking work, the three friends do all their own marketing and sales. They sell their goods at the Westport, Rowayton and Greenfield Hill farmers' markets, as well as restaurants like Le Farm, Sugar & Olives and Peace Tree Desserts. Economically, Matt says, "we're still trying to determine if we're dedicated or stupid. I'm not sure where we'll end up this year. I believe we'll break even. But we're not swimming in riches."
Other area farms, he says, have more land, and economies of scale. One of those is 20-acre Belta Farm, just up Bayberry Lane. Greg Belta has been "a great help," Matt says. "He's given us tons of advice."
Neighbors have been supportive too. The man across the street has a salsa garden, while residents in nearby large, modern homes are happy to have the farmers in what is essentially their front yard.
Like any good farmer, Matt looks two ways: to the sky, and ahead. "Next year, we'll start off better," he promises.
Matt has a planting calendar planned out. Yet he knows that in farming, nothing goes according to plan. Still, he says, "I'm excited. I can't imagine doing anything else."
He paused, looking at the one and a half acres that, in just three months, he has turned from field to farm.
"But it's a good thing you came early today," he tells me.
"Not late at night, when I'm all stressed out by the weeds and weather."