Back 40 Farm Group Small Farmers, Community Builders

By Tovah Martin / Photography By Betsy Robson & Fran Parente | September 01, 2016
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Back 40 Farm in Litchfield County

Bill and Lesley Kings’ Journey From Small Farmers to Community Builders


When Bill and Lesley King rekindled an old farm, they were pursuing a dream. But they never imagined that following that dream would lead to the development of a community network that would ultimately foster a farmers market, the opening of two restaurants, and the establishment of a mercantile shop.

As with all ventures, the Kings’ story starts small, with a modest few raised beds in Greenwich. “That was the catalyst,” recalls Lesley King. Bill came from a “hobby farm” background, spending his formative years amidst tomato plants, goats, beehives, and chickens, and that experience resonated as he and Lesley considered ways to better feed and support their community.

chicken coop
Back 40 Farm’s tomato variety
Farm Manager Alexis Barbalinardo at market
Photo 2: Back 40 Farm’s tomato variety.
Photo 3: Farm Manager Alexis Barbalinardo at market.

A RETURN TO FARMING

It was a desire to expand beyond these raised beds that led the Kings to a 55-acre former farm in Litchfield County. Fertile, scenic, and in an agriculturally minded community, they bought the Washington Depot property in 2008 and immediately began restoring the barn of the former dairy farm, followed by a house restoration in 2010.

Both Kings were just turning forty. One of their favorite songs is “40” by U2, based on Psalm 40 (their doorbell plays the chords), and “back forty” is an agricultural term referring to distant acreage on a farm. The name, “Back 40 Farm,” seemed simply to present itself.

Together with Lesley’s brother, Jeff Bischoff, the Kings set to the work of growing food. “We plowed up a quarter of an acre and planted it in one day,” Lesley recalls. When harvest time came, it was a windfall. Bushels of produce were ready simultaneously, and that’s when they began to connect with their broader community. “There is a nutritionally-based food pantry in Greenwich,” Lesley explains, “and we loaded up the minivan and delivered fresh vegetables weekly. It was really satisfying.” The pantry fed 450 families that year, and the number of recipients increased with the economic instability that the region was experiencing at the time. “It was great to see people directly benefiting from our farm,” Bill says. That positive experience set the mood that would carry the Kings forward.

Lesley and Bill King at market
interior: Back 40 Kitchen serves up delicious, local fare
Lesley King discusses Back 40 Farm’s produce
inside of Back 40 Kitchen
Photo 1: Lesley and Bill King at market.
Photo 2: interior: Back 40 Kitchen serves up delicious, local fare.
Photo 3: Lesley King discusses Back 40 Farm’s produce.

AN EXPANSION OF COMMUNITY

Following the early success of the farm, the Kings began working with friends in Old Greenwich who were starting a farmers market. Back 40 Farm became an active supporter and presence in that market, and their experience there expanded their notions of their own farm. “We were learning,” Bill remembers. “But we began to think, ‘What if we turned this into a ‘real’ farm and did it commercially?’” The Kings had the enthusiasm for it, but they weren’t sufficiently experienced in succession planting, crop rotation, green manures, and all the other technicalities of farming. They needed to form a partnership, and chance favored them. “A friend gave us a gift certificate for a dinner at Blue Hill,” Bill says of their introduction to Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY. This led to an internship program with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. In this mutually beneficial relationship, the students lend Back 40 Farm their farming knowledge and labor, while the Kings share with them their business acumen. In 2012, their first student-farmers arrived. They are now on their third set of students in this successful partnership, led by current farm manager Alexis Barbalinardo.

As the farm found its footing and the Kings’ community connections grew, so did their opportunities, and they began to think beyond the farmers market in Old Greenwich. When the café that was Organic Plan et in Greenwich began to falter, they came to its rescue and opened Back 40 Kitchen in the space. Dedicated to serving simple, locally grown, organic food prepared by chef Ian Vest and his team, the café is one outlet for the farm’s bounty of produce.

Meanwhile, another nearby storefront became available, and Lesley’s brother hatched the notion of spearheading Back 40 Mercantile, a shop with a country store ambiance. In the process of renovating their farm property, the Kings had been introduced to local artisans and craftsmen, and these connections found new purpose in this retail space, offering community-based and sustainably produced merchandise.

The Kings’ growing network continued to benefit them when they met Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony, who recommended that they link with Greenwich-based chef Geoff Lazlo, who was searching for an opportunity to open a restaurant in tandem with an organic farm. The resulting Mill Street Bar and Table was born with an emphasis on fresh, locally grown ingredients. With an extensive menu, including heirloom popped corn, carrot fries, grilled broccoli, roasted honey nut squash, and shaved raw beets, as well as locally sourced meats and fish, the restaurant benefits from the farm’s bounty of produce.

heirloom tomatoes
Back 40 Mercantile

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

This long string of successes and rapid growth led the Kings to form the Back 40 Farm Group, bringing together their endeavors under a single business entity. Their farm now produces over 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, weekly, during the harvest season, as well as van-loads of produce to feed their many outlets. They’ve expanded to 85 acres, and they’ve bonded with their Litchfield County community, as well as firmly maintaining their Greenwich ties. Meeting and learning from fellow farmers has been instrumental to the growth of the farm; speaking with the land’s previous owners – John and Edwinna Millington – has both instructed and inspired them. Looking toward the future, they are in dialogue with the broader agricultural community to develop cooking videos, teaching modules, and other vehicles to spread their love of local, sustainable food.

Prompting people to think and eat green has become the Kings’ mantra, and they hope to continue building the movement to feed the world with nutritious, fresh, organic produce. These are aspirations built out of their experience working on the land but also out of the growth of community that has resulted from it. As Bill King puts it, “We hope to return more to the earth than we take out. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s a fun goal.”

> Back40 Kitchen: 107 Greenwich Ave.,
Greenwich; 203-992-1800

> Back40 Farm: Washington Depot

> Back40 Mercantile: 264 Sound Beach Ave.,
Old Greenwich; 203-637-0240

> Mill Street Bar & Table: 230 Mill St.,
Greenwich; 203-813-3323

Article from Edible Nutmeg at http://ediblenutmeg.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/back-40-farm-group-small-farmers-community-builders-litchfield-county
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