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Tag Archives: Wakeman Town Farm
With his varied interests — education; food sources; working with plants, animals, schools and community — Corey Thomas had a vague idea of his “dream job.”
But until he interviewed for the position of director at Wakeman Town Farm, he had no idea such a job existed.
It does. And — beginning this past Monday — the young farmer is living the dream.
Thomas steps into the position held for its first 7 years by Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead. They stepped down in June to pursue other adventures. He is a beloved environmental science teacher at Staples High School; she’s now a curriculum specialist with the Melissa & Doug toy company.
The new farm director is a worthy successor to the couple who planted the seeds that grew the Town Farm from abstract concept to thriving, robust community center.
Growing up in Westbrook, Connecticut, Thomas wanted to be a veterinarian. But as a student in the University of Connecticut, his focus gradually shifted from animals to people. International aid and agricultural development intrigued him, but most positions were in management.
“I wanted boots on the ground,” Thomas says. “I realized the best way to impact people is through education.”
The combination of agriculture and education grew more compelling. “There’s so much unawareness, misinformation and disconnectedness about where our food comes from,” Thomas explains. “Educating people is a direct way to address that.”
Thomas earned his master’s degree from UConn in curriculum and instruction, with a concentration in agriculture education. A few months ago, a professor told him that Westport was looking for a farmer.
“I was blown away by the space,” Thomas says of his first visit to the Cross Highway facility. “It’s very rare to see a farming operation like this, with beds, animals, a large space, and people with a real vision. It was clear Mike and Carrie had done a great job with volunteers, and the community was really invested in it.
“This was exactly what I was looking for. I was amazed I’d never heard of it.”
Thomas and his partner Rachel recently moved into the now-renovated space. He’s already begun taking inventory, reaching out to volunteers, planning student programs, and using crop planning software to move forward.
The new farmer loves many things about Wakeman Town Farm — particularly the new teaching kitchen.
Yet his biggest surprise does not involve plants or animals. It’s the people.
“Everyone in Westport seems thrilled and passionate about the farm,” Thomas says. “They know all about it, and they’re connected to it.”
Corey Thomas will have no problem keeping the town down on the farm.
(For information on Wakeman Town Farm — including Tim’s Kitchen and classroom space, cooking classes, teen pizza nights, private parties, a fall beer dinner, the anniversary party and more — click here.)
How does the Wakeman Town Farm’s garden grow?
With a ton of help from the Westport Garden Club.
WTF has received a $5,000 gift from the WGC — the club’s largest single donation in its 93-year history. Funds will help create perennial gardens, at the newly renovated and enhanced property.
The grant was made possible by the Garden Club’s annual plant sale. This year’s event — one of Westport’s favorite springtime rituals — takes place on Friday (May 12, Saugatuck Congregational Church, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.).
After the sale, the club plans to donate any remaining plants to the Town Farm. Members will also help plant and tend the new gardens.
Among many other activities, they plant, weed, prune and mulch sites like the Compo Beach entry and marina; Adams Academy; the Earthplace entrance; the Library’s winter garden near Jesup Green; various cemeteries, and the Nevada Hitchcock Memorial Garden at the Cross Highway/Weston Road intersection.
An astonishing array of plants are available on Friday. Among the most popular: “perkies.” These perennials come from local gardens, and thrive in our quirky Connecticut climate.
The Westport Garden Club plant sale is on, rain or shine. Exactly what you’d expect from this intrepid group, who do so much to “grow” our town.
Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead are synonymous with Wakeman Town Farm.
Their official title was “stewards.” But they’ve really been shepherds, leading the town-owned facility from a fledgling farm into a flourishing year-round center for environmental education, community events — and plenty of produce.
Yet after 7 years as the public faces of the Town Farm — and inspirations to Westporters of all ages — they’re leaving Cross Highway.
Mike’s contract is up in June. He and Carrie have decided to concentrate on growing something else: their family. They have 2 young children, who have grown up at Wakeman Town Farm.
Mike will continue as a beloved environmental science teacher at Staples High School — just down the hill from WTF.
He and Carrie promise to stay part of the farm. They’ll serve on the advisory board, and will teach and participate in events there throughout the year.
“Farm life takes a tremendous commitment of both time and energy,” Mike explains.
“We’re so proud of the work we’ve done to build the farm into what it is today. But as it grows and expands, it’s time for my wife and me to pass on the torch so that we can enjoy more time with our own 2 amazing young children.”
“We’re excited to see the farm embark on its next great and exciting chapter. We look forward to watching it grow and flourish under the guidance of its dedicated committee of volunteers.”
Mike calls his family’s time at WTF “an amazing adventure and incredibly rewarding experience.” He credits the farm with enriching his family’s life immensely.
“We’re forever grateful for all the love we’ve received from this incredibly supportive community.”
WTF co-chairs Liz Milwe and Christy Colasurdo praise the Aitkenheads profusely.
“We are very sad to see them go. Yet we recognize that running an operation like Wakeman Town Farm is a tremendous undertaking in every sense of the word.
“Both Mike and Carrie poured their hearts into making the farm a magical community resource. We are devoted to continuing the great work they started.”
The chairs call Mike “the Pied Piper of teens.” They promise that the junior apprentice and senior internship programs he started will continue.
Carrie’s forte was working with younger children, through programs like Mommy and Me and summer camps. The popular summer camp will also continue, beginning July 10.
“As the Aitkenhead family steps down, we cannot overstate their immense impact on the farm,” the co-chairs say.
The Aitkenheads leave just as the farmhouse has been renovated. A search is underway for their replacement.
To everything there is a season. Thanks, Mike and Carrie, for all the seasons you gave, to all of us!
Back in the day, when a farmer needed help his neighbors rallied round.
In 2016, Westporters do the same for Wakeman Town Farm.
The working farm that offers educational programs, hands-on workshops and Community-Supported Agriculture — among many other sustainability efforts — was the site last night of an old-fashioned barn-raising.
Nearly 250 people gathered for the 7th annual Harvest Fest, to “raise the roof.” The Cross Highway property needs new shingles, interior and exterior renovations, and a new kitchen classroom, to better serve its stewards — the Aitkenhead family — and the 10,000 students and adults who pass through the farm every year.
Robin Tauck pledged a major gift. Others gave plenty too — including $100 “shingles.”
Area purveyors like Greens Farms Liquors, Rothbard Ale + Larder and AMG Catering donated appetizers and libations for the cocktail hour. DaPietro’s, Harvest Wine Bar, Wave Hill Breads and Saugatuck Sweets were among those providing fantastic, locally sourced dinners.
It was all served and poured by big-name volunteers: heads of non-profits like Bill Harmer (Westport Library), Tony McDowell (Earthplace), Jeff Wieser (Homes With Hope) and Sue Gold (Westport Historical Society).
Staples students — many from the Environmental Studies courses — pitched in too.
The WTF roof is a lot closer to be raised, thanks to last night. But you can still help — 2016-style. Click here to contribute any amount.
Growing up in Westport, Gabby Wimer accomplished a lot. At Staples High School she was a 4-year varsity swimmer and water polo player. She played violin, and sang in the choir.
She spent 8 years swimming with the Y’s Water Rats, and helped out with Amnesty International.
But she never took Staples’ popular Environmental Science course. And she had nothing to do with Wakeman Town Farm.
Gabby always figured she’d go pre-med in college. And she was fascinated by the history of medicine.
The University of Chicago seemed a perfect fit. She majored in the history of medicine and global health. She did volunteer work in Rwanda.
Like many students, she had no idea where it would all lead. Then, as a senior, Gabby was chatting with 2 friends who had done global health work, in Nigeria and Guatemala.
They identified common problems — and vowed to take action.
They competed for the Hult Prize: up to $1 million, plus mentorship, for start-up enterprises that tackle grave issues faced by billions of people.
The larval form of a beetle — once thought of as a pest — can be baked or fried, for human consumption as a healthful snack food. Mealworms don’t need much water and eat almost anything, so raising them can help improve nutrition in areas that desperately need it.
The women made it to the Hult Prize regional finals, in Boston. They won $20,000 in seed funding, from 3 organizations, including the Clinton Global Initiative University Resolution Project.
In September, Gabby heads to Guatemala. Right now, she’s studying the best ways to farm mealworms in that country.
She’s set up 2 mealworm plots at Wakeman Town Farm. She and steward Mike Aitkenhead are experimenting with different foods found in Guatemala. Banana peels work particularly well.
She’s also testing different ways to produce mealworm powder — roasted in an oven, for example, or barbecued — along with the best grinding methods (food processor, mortar and pestle). Gabby’s colleagues are concocting recipes with tortillas and oatmeal.
The women’s organization is called MealFlour. The goal is for families in Guatemala — a country with the 4th-highest rate of malnutrition in the world — to learn how to build mealworm farms using recycled materials. The mealworms are then dried and ground into a flour that’s more than twice as protein-efficient as beef.
It’s a win-win: Along with nutritional benefits, MealFlour creates jobs. And mealworm farms are small: just one square foot.
“I always wanted to do global health work. But I never knew about mealworms,” Gabby says.
“This is perfect for me. It combines science, sustainable agriculture and public health.”
At first, she admits, “my friends were weirded out. But now they think it’s cool.”
Perhaps they were convinced by Gabby’s delicious mealworm cookies. They taste good, she says.
And — as she and her generation know — bringing sustainable agriculture and public health to areas of the globe that desperately need it is a recipe for success.
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The next time you see a kid hunched over a smartphone screen, oblivious to the world, don’t assume he or she is idly Snapchatting, sexting or searching for Pokemon.
If the teenager is James O’Brien, he might be listening to a TED Talk.
And learning how to reimagine agriculture.
Not long ago James — a rising Staples High School senior, Oprhenians singer and Staples Players stage star — stumbled on a TED Talk about African farmers. Caleb Harper — director of MIT Labs’ Open Agriculture Initiative — talked about changing the world food system by connecting growers with technology. His goal is to grow delicious, nutrient-dense food, indoors anywhere in the world.
James learned that a shipping container-sized computerized device can help preserve agricultural knowledge, and maximize the effects of air and water on crops and plants.
He was especially intrigued to discover that a smaller device is available, for anyone to build and learn from.
James knew nothing about farming. He has not taken Environmental Studies at Staples.
But he downloaded the designs. When school was out in June, he went to work.
James now grows lettuce — in a tiny bit of water, not soil. Software monitors every aspect of growth. Every time he looks in his box, James learns about chemistry, physics and circuitry. (He now knows, for example, that lettuce grows best with 16 hours of light, followed by 2 hours of darkness. The device controls those hours.)
Inspired by his lettuce — it grows much more quickly in water than in soil — he’s passing his knowledge on.
He’s shown his device to students at Mike Aitkenhead’s Wakeman Town Farm summer camp, talking with them about the importance of sustainability.
James has also started Workshop Garden Technologies. His goal is to use the Open Agriculture Initiative’s Food Computer platform to educate and inspire coming generations.
“I want to create a space for kids to tinker and experiment like I did,” he says.
Meanwhile, his lettuce thrives.
Next up: strawberries, beans or tomatoes.
“There are lots of possibilities,” says Westport’s newest — and most innovative — farmer.
(For more information on James O’Brien’s Workshop Garden Technologies, click here or email email@example.com)
Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!
Since its inception just a few years ago, Wakeman Town Farm has become an important, respected — even beloved — Westport institution.
Students visit for school programs, events, tours and camps. They learn first hand what it means to grow organic produce, from seed to plate. Many volunteer, discovering a passion for animals, gardening or sustainable agriculture.
Adults take classes too, and join the WTF CSA.
Running a farm takes work — everyone knows that.
It also takes money.
Despite its name, Wakeman Town Farm is not funded by the town. Westport leases the property to WTF; directors raise money to pay for all operating costs, including animal feed and care, maintenance and snow plowing.
Now they’re soliciting capital for a bigger project. WTF hopes to build a year-round classroom and kitchen. That’s the key to becoming a self-sustaining entity, operating 12 months a year with cooking classes, films, book signings, intimate chef’s dinners, community meetings and homesteading workshops.
The current classroom lacks insulation, severely limiting program options. For instance, this year 80 mothers flocked to the first “Mommy and Me” sessions. Despite its appeal, the program could not continue during colder months.
WTF’s annual fundraiser is Saturday, September 12 (6 p.m., at the farm). “Harvest Fest” includes live music; seasonal menus created by local chefs using artisinal cheeses, produce and meats sourced from small Connecticut farmers; signature drinks and wine pairings, and a fantastic auction offering unique experiences in dining and travel (like a 3-night Rome trip with a special Vatican visit, and a luxury suite at the Barclay’s Center with food and drinks for a party of 24).
How you gonna keep Westport’s kids (and adults) down on the farm?
You can start by heading to Saturday’s Harvest Fest.
(Click here for Harvest Fest tickets — or if you can’t attend, to donate to Wakeman Town Farm.)