When Farm Aid first played Connecticut in 2018, we met Lars Demander, an eighth-generation farmer raising produce with his family for his local community at Clover Nook Farm. We were delighted to reconnect with Lars when we announced our return to Connecticut, and I asked him a few questions about what’s been happening in the tumultuous period between 2018 and today.
(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Clover Nook Farm was hit by a tornado in 2018 that caused some major damage. Has the farm recovered from that natural disaster?
We were able to build a new pole barn for equipment storage; it’s not in the same place as the old barn we lost, but it serves a good purpose providing more equipment storage space. Perhaps this was a good thing that came from the tornado. It was definitely a struggle to recover from the tornado, but we came out on the other end stronger and better prepared for the future than before. While there are days we sure miss the old barn, perhaps it was for the best, as maintaining a 200-year old barn was going to be expensive, and also not as functional as a modern barn.
What has been the impact of COVID on the farm?
When COVID initially hit we were in a panic, like everyone else. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to operate even close to normal. In a normal year, we do not open the store for regular retail operation until the end of May. But when COVID hit, people began reaching out to buy our meat and other non-perishables like our sauce, salsa and honey. With a clear demand from the community, I set up an online store for curbside ordering and pickup, which quickly became very popular. People then requested that we stock fresh produce, regardless of where it came from as long as it was high quality (since it was March/ April, we didn’t have anything to harvest yet). One thing led to another, and we were getting about 100 curbside orders a day until about June, when I opened for regular walk-in shopping with COVID precautions in place.
Providing this easy curbside pickup program helped grow our customer base, some of whom are now regular customers. While 2020 was very hard for many businesses, and definitely provided some operational challenges for us, we were able to pivot the farm business and have our biggest year yet.
And the weather this year is also dealing the farm more difficulty, right?
The extreme weather we’ve seen in 2021 has not been as detrimental to our farm as many other farms in Connecticut. Our farm is on top of a hill, so our soils are fairly well-drained, and we don’t tend to have standing water issues. I saw some photos of farms located in river valleys with fields completely underwater. While we have our wind issues up on the hill, I can’t imagine what it feels like to have your fields completely underwater. An impact that we are feeling is the excessive moisture has made many plants sick with disease (especially tomatoes) more so than in a normal year.
And looking forward, what’s next for the farm?
Now that I am entering my 6th year back on the farm post-college, I’ve learned some valuable lessons, especially not to spread myself too thin. Early on I was definitely overambitious, trying to grow too many different crops and raise too many different livestock species. Since then I have gotten a better handle on the economics of our farm, and what parts of the operation are profitable and worth reinvesting in.
One of our largest challenges, that I think is shared amongst many farmers, is labor. It is difficult to find younger people who are interested in doing farm work. Some high school/ college-age kids looking for some summer work try to do the farm work, only to find that manual labor is too difficult for them. This may be a Connecticut issue, as not many kids grow up in/around agriculture, and therefore do not develop an interest/ passion for it. When we are able to find employees who work out really well, it can be difficult to retain them being a seasonal business.
I shared with Lars that we hear from farmers all over about the challenge of finding and keeping skilled farm labor. Challenges related to weather are also constant for farmers. While in the Northeast farmers are dealing with too much water, in the West and across the middle of the country, drought and wildfires are devastating farm businesses and the land. Dealing with these uncertainties is part of the work of being a farmer. It’s hard work and that’s why we celebrate farmers like Lars and his family who face those challenges every day to bring us good food, steward the soil and water, and keep agriculture alive in our local communities.
When we asked for a new photo of Lars, he sent the one at the top of this post along, with this update: “Another big event last year was that I got married in September to my long time girlfriend/fiancée, Amanda. We met as undergraduates while studying agriculture at Cornell back in 2011. Amanda went on to get her PhD in Animal Science. She helps where she can with the farm, especially with improving our beef cattle operation. She has a full time off-farm job as a pharmaceutical research scientist otherwise.”
Congratulations to both Lars and Amanda! We originally met Lars thanks to a Farmer Hero nomination by his mom. If you’d like to nominate your own Farmer Hero, please tell us about them here.