By TAYLOR HARTZ
There’s a new committee in town, focused on using farmland that the town has purchased as open space.
As part of a broad plan to help maintain farming property in Southington, the newly established Farm Heritage Committee (FHC) is looking for a non-profit organization to farm town-owned land off of Belleview Avenue.
The FHC hopes to select a non-profit with vegetable farming experience to run the property, formerly part of the Lewis family farms.
The non-profit will maintain a working farm and develop an educational program for vocational agriculture (vo-ag) students at Southington High School.
To find an eligible non-profit, the town has submitted a Request for Proposals (RFP) for farming services.
Mark Ramsay, who currently leases the Belleview Avenue land, is a suspected frontrunner. Ramsay directs LEAF, a local non-profit that has provided agricultural education to Southington students for years.
FHC co-chairs Ed Pocock III (R) and Chris Palmieri (D) both expect Ramsay to submit a request.
“There are not a lot of vegetable farmers left in Connecticut,” said Pocock, let alone those who run a non-profit with educational services, he added.
“I’ve seen the value of the educational component for the students,” said Palmieri, principal at DePaolo Middle School, who has taken students on fieldtrips to learn from Ramsay. “It was very educational for them to get to see what it takes to farm on the land.”
Once they have selected a vendor, Palmieri said the FHC will help develop the educational program.
“Once we hire someone I’d like to reach out to the high school, and work with the vo-ag program and our hired farmer to come up with a vision for the future,” said Palmieri.
“The vo-ag program is an absolute gem in the Board of Education (BOE)” said Pocock, “And the most viable way to teach students vo-ag is to put them on a working farm.”
Pocock said the students will help maintain the property as a commercial farm, selling the products they grow in an effort to support farming expenses, property maintenance, and costs associated with the educational program.
In the long term, the farm is expected to be self-sufficient, funded through the chosen non-profit, but the town is willing to make an investment to get things started.
“We wanted a mechanism to get them going,” said Pocock.
One-time “seed money” was approved by the Board of Finance at a meeting on March 30, releasing $150,000 to kick start the program just in time for spring planting. The initial funds—appropriately enough—will be coming from overages in the vo-ag budget.
“It is coming from vo-ag and is leading right back into similar services,” said Palmieri, who said he will apply for grants and seek other forms of income for the educational side of the project.
The FHC is new this year and is focused on maintaining properties like Belleview and the Pleasant View Stables next to DePaolo.
After the town established the Barn Committee last winter, Pocock said he found that the scope of the committee was going to be much larger than the barn at Pleasant View, and another committee was needed. The FHC filled that need.
The councilor approached Town Chairman Mike Riccio (R) and suggested the establishment of a committee for farm properties, and thus the FHC was formed.
“We needed to do something with the committee that was going to focus on the farm components and how to manage these things,” said Pocock.
The co-chair said the goal of this committee is to oversee maintenance of farming properties, and he hopes it will operate similarly to the Apple Harvest Festival Committee, “serving as an oversight board for individual contractors.”
Proposals for Belleview Avenue are due by Wednesday, April 13. Applications can be found by visiting www.southington.org/townmanager and selecting “Bid Invitations.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Taylor Hartz, email her at THartz@SouthingtonObserver.com.