Lars Demander of Clover Nook Farm was one of the only farm kids at his school, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to be a farmer since he was in first grade. Lars, who is 26 years old, is the 8th generation to farm the 90 acres of Clover Nook Farm, located in Bethany, CT. Clover Nook Farm was started more than 250 years ago by Lars’ maternal great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Lars’ parents, Debbie and Eric, took over Clover Nook Farm 25 years ago after Lars, their second child, was born. Debbie’s father was ready to retire from the farm, which had been a dairy farm and then a cattle ranch raising replacement heifers and beef cattle. When they took over, Debbie and Eric took the farm in the direction of selling for local food markets by growing sweet corn, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Lars and his older brother Carl grew up on the farm doing chores together. Today, Carl helps part-time during the growing season while also working an off-farm job. As he grew, Lars became his dad’s number one helper. Lars describes his work on the farm as 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. He says, “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Farming teaches a good work ethic and you never stop learning.” Lars has learned a lot from his parents who, he says, “caught on early to the potential of the local food movement.”
Debbie and Eric encouraged Lars toward college, and while he wanted to return to the farm, Lars knew a college degree in agriculture would allow him to be an even better farmer. The 2009 late blight that decimated tomato crops across New England inspired Lars’ desire to learn crop science, which he pursued at Cornell University. He says, “Cornell University opened my eyes to a wider view of agriculture than I had seen. Here, we’re surrounded by suburbia—we’re not exposed to a lot of farms.” At Cornell, Lars met farm kids from across the country who shared his interests. “It was a life changing experience, and I began to see the big picture of sustainability. I learned about improvements that I could implement on the farm quickly.” After Cornell, Lars earned his Master’s degree at the University of Connecticut (UConn) by studying local agricultural marketing and consumer perception in Connecticut. Lars put his new marketing knowledge to use on the farm by returning to Clover Nook in 2015 as a partner with Eric.
“There’s a big disconnect between the farmer and the public, which is a big concern of mine,” Lars explains. “People have a lot of misconceptions about farmers and growing practices, based on what they read on the Internet.”
To expand Clover Nook Farm, Lars successfully applied for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Farm Reinvestment Grant. A horse barn built in 1840 had housed Clover Nook’s vegetable stand for 20 years and on the weekends, when the local community flocked to the farm to shop, there would be 20-25 people standing shoulder to shoulder in the horse barn. Lars felt it was worthy of reinvestment, and the state agreed, making it possible to build a new store at Clover Nook in 2016. The new and improved store has allowed the farm business to expand and support two generations of farmers.
In addition to increasing the farm’s financial sustainability, Lars says, “Environmental sustainability is my focus, and the soil is the place to start. Soil is like a bank. If you’re only making withdrawals, you’re going to go broke.” Lars is making deposits by planting cover crops such as hairy vetch to add nitrogen to the soil. To increase the organic matter in the soil, Clover Nook produces its own compost with brewer’s grain from a local brewery, manure and vegetable waste. Lars is also hoping to work with the local school district to add cafeteria food waste to his compost. Integrated pest management (IPM) is a strategy Lars uses to keep pests and disease at bay while reducing the use of chemicals. He also uses drip irrigation and plastic mulch to direct water right to the plant and prevent water evaporation.
Lars’ ancestors combined farming with public service, serving as Revolutionary soldiers and Town Selectmen. Lars’ commitment to teaching the public about farming is his public service. Clover Nook Farm hosts field trips “to teach kids that food doesn’t grow on grocery shelves,” as Lars puts it. Lars also regularly speaks at schools and garden clubs. “There’s a big disconnect between the farmer and the public, which is a big concern of mine,” he explains. “People have a lot of misconceptions about farmers and growing practices, based on what they read on the Internet.” To address this concern, Clover Nook annually hosts an Open Farm Day to provide the public an opportunity to personally ask questions and learn about the everyday challenges and growing methods of today’s farmers. Lars was recognized for this community outreach work when he received the Outstanding Young Farmer of 2018 award, given annually by the Connecticut Agricultural Information Council as part of Connecticut Agriculture Day at the state Capitol.
In addition to the larger community, Lars is close with the farming community as a member of the Connecticut Young Farmers and the Connecticut Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, where he serves on the steering committee. “It’s always beneficial to get out and talk to other farmers and tour their operations,” he says. Lars also keeps in close contact with his fellow graduates of Cornell and UConn, who farm in upstate New York and across New England. Lars’ network of farmer friends is represented in Clover Nook’s store too. “We sell my friend’s maple syrup from New Hampshire, and my new sheep flock comes from a friend in New York. My dad always stressed that a network is important, and I completely agree,” he says. Number one in Lars’ network is his father, who serves as a mentor to him. Lars explains, “A college education is great, but some things you can only learn from dad. You need to work on a farm to get that real experience, to learn the things you do on the farm in real life.”
Lars’ mom Deborah seconds Lars’ assessment of his dad; she sent in a Farmer Hero nomination for Lars and Eric. She wrote: I actually have two farmer heroes: My husband, Eric, and my youngest son, Lars. I grew up as part of the 7th generation on our family farm in Bethany, CT. My dad ran the farm as a dairy operation until 1972 when, due to medical issues, he changed the farm over to beef cattle, sweet corn, and hay. In 1991 my dad was planning his retirement and with no family members interested in taking over, he and his sisters (who owned the farmland together) began talking with realtors and investors about leasing the land to be turned into a golf course. Eric and I were both saddened to think that this would be the end of the family farm. Eric and I were married in 1987 and at the time he was working as a sheet metal mechanic. In his spare time, Eric helped my dad on the farm. We had our first child, Carl, in 1988. In 1991, when the talk about turning the farm into a golf course began, I was pregnant with my second son, Lars. My husband decided to give up his full time job and give it a go at running the farm. This also meant that Eric could be around more to help raise our boys. It was the most wonderful, scary, and rewarding decision we have ever made. Eric learned the trade of farming from my dad, including cattle management, hay making, and tractor repairs. But Eric’s true passion was for vegetable production. Eric spent countless hours reading, attending conferences, and gaining vegetable knowledge wherever he could. Soon after taking over the farm, Eric had filled the fields with all kinds of produce. We opened our own retail farm stand in an old barn on the farm to sell greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins to our local community. This venture has allowed Eric and I to work together every day, with Eric managing the vegetable operation and myself managing our farm store to support our family.
My son, Lars, from a very young age was quite taken with helping in the fields and learning the farming trade from Eric and his grandfather. Lars was quite clear in his ambition that farming is what he wanted to do. Lars worked hard in school and gained admission to Cornell University where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science. Lars then went on to attain a Master’s Degree at the University of Connecticut in Agricultural Marketing and Economics. After earning his degrees, Lars became a full partner in the farm business with my husband. Putting his education to full use, Lars has expanded our farm operation to grow more than 30 different varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as our own beef, pork, and lamb. Lars continually implements new sustainability practices on the farm, including composting and cover cropping. Lars also received the Connecticut Farm Reinvestment Grant to build a new farm store that will allow our operation to continue to grow. Watching Lars grow the business that Eric and I began has been extremely rewarding for our family. My heart is filled with pride and joy as I watch my two “farmer heroes” carry the family farm into the future.
With Debbie’s submission, it’s clear to see that this is a story of three farmer heroes, carrying a farm into the next generation, sustainably, and with a whole lot of love!
In May 2018, a tornado struck Clover Nook Farm and inflicted significant damage to the farm, leveling the main barn that houses their equipment and tractors. Immediately following the storm, the Demanders searched for an antique weather vane that lived on top of the barn and has significant sentimental value to the family. They found it!
*For our readers in Connecticut, you can support the farm getting their barn back up, at an event happening on Friday, September 14. Check Clover Nook Farm’s Facebook page for details!