BRIDGEWATER — By now the term “farm to table” has become part of our daily lexicon. But it’s more than just growing produce and eating it.
At the center of the process is the farmer himself, the person or family who has tilled the land, planted seeds and nurtured the crops. And while there are many local farmers markets and dinners celebrating farm-grown food, the Farmer’s Table is one of the most popular and well-orchestrated events. Now in its eighth year, the dinner has been instrumental in strengthening the connection between those who grow the food and those who benefit from it. The farmer is still essential to the community, and vice versa.
The first Farmer’s Table took place in Warren, when a group of friends who advocated for fresh food supplied by local farms decided to host a dinner to honor those local farmers and to raise awareness of how important they are to communities in the northwest corner. Based on the success of that first event, it has become an annual affair. Each year it is at a different venue, selected from farms in towns across Litchfield County. This year the dinner will take place at Sunny Meadow Farm in Bridgewater on Saturday.
Cynthia Oneglia has been involved since the first effort and has watched it grow into a successful partnership between residents and farmers.
“We look at a potential farm in the area and evaluate its mission and legacy,” she said. “At first farmers wondered what we were looking for from them. Once our mission became clear, that we wanted to showcase them, the farmers were more than obliging and have joined forces with us. Generally we allow for 150 attendees, although this year, given the smaller venue, we have room for 132. But we also have other considerations: Does the farm have cell service to monitor deliveries and to field questions that might arise? Is there a barn large enough or do we need to rent a tent? Is there is portable water and electricity? These are just some of the things we need to consider before choosing a farm.”
From that first venture, The Farmer’s Table has grown in popularity and in purpose, but its emphasis is still on the farm and the farmer. Since 2015, the organization has been affiliated with Litchfield-based Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities Inc., which supports sustainable agriculture, local food and a healthy lifestyle in Litchfield County. This partnership has enabled the Farmer’s Table to distinguish itself from other farm-to-table events.
In organizing that first dinner, the committee decided it wanted to use vendors from the Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Market, which operates every Saturday in the town of Litchfield. It was this development that brought Kay Carroll into the organization. She has been one of the driving forces behind the farmers market and is its market master. One of her responsibilities at the Farmer’s Table is working with the executive chef of the event, sourcing food, planning the menu, making sure the food gets to the chef and that he or she has what is needed. Carroll, executive director of Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities, is secretary of its board of directors.
“Various local chefs have taken part in the dinner over the eight years,” Carroll said. “Sam Tilley, chef and owner of Mockingbird Kitchen and Bar, was the executive chef for two years and she and Brendan Martin, from GW Tavern, are still very much involved. This year, Carol Byer-Alcorace is back again as the executive chef. They all love working on this event because they are using local food and helping our farmers.”
One of the most crucial aspects of the dinner is obtaining the desired ingredients.
“Since we are depending on local crops, our choices are driven by their availability,” Carroll said. “For example, peppers are very late this season. While we don’t necessarily do a theme dinner, we do try to establish a theme profile. This year we have a Thai venison, and we are offering dishes with a more Asian influence.”
For Saturday’s (Aug. 4) event there are 24 local farmers participating.
“When I was growing up, there were farms everywhere in Litchfield County,” Oneglia said. “I know how important the agricultural community has been to our livelihood. Dairy farms have all but disappeared, but we are hanging on to our hay farms and trying to come up with new ways for them to prosper. They have had to rethink their philosophy and their approach to farming, and they have had to learn about new technologies that will enable them to use their land to its best advantage.”
Ben Paletsky, a third-generation proprietor of his family’s farm, is an example of someone who has taken a new approach. He blends entrepreneurism, modern farming, creative design and technology into his projects. He is passionate about his legacy and the importance of maintaining his family’s traditions. He raises heritage breed grass-fed and finished Galloway cattle. But he also parcels off acreage to other endeavors, such as Pioneer Hops of Connecticut, which is an innovator in the production of hops for the craft brewery market in Connecticut. He also leases part of the farm out for local events and charities.
To that end, the Farmer’s Table uses profits from the annual event to educate and assist proprietors of remaining farms.
“We encourage input from our farmers on what they need to be more sustainable,” Carroll said. “The two biggest programs we have are the Farmer’s Forum, which we sponsor every other January. It’s a free daylong series of seminars focusing on agri-education. The topics for that are generated in two ways. On the off January we have a round table discussion with 30 to 35 farmers. They tell us what they need in order to be more sustainable and what they want to learn. We categorize the topics and identify the issues that are most important. We then take those topics and give a stipend or scholarship to between four and eight farmers to attend conferences to help us find the correct content and presenters for the forum.
“Additionally, the organization purchases 25 CSAs from local farmers. Community Supported Agriculture is a program where customers are offered fresh-picked USDA-certified organic produce by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest in advance. By participating in a CSA, customers become involved in sustaining the farm by supplying capital for start-up expenses. The Farmer’s Table then donates these to local service agencies, the majority of them going to senior nutrition.”
All in all, the Farmer’s Table is more than just another dinner. From that core group of six people it has grown into an essential source of educational and financial support for local farmers. And it produces one of the most satisfying and enjoyable events of the summer season.