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Women's Work: From Farm – And Sea – To Table

Cassandra Basler
A view of the docks in Stonington, Conn. Women are increasingly shaping the food landscape in the area – as farmers, fisherwomen and food educators.";

Business in one historic town in eastern Connecticut has always revolved around the ocean. Now, a 250-year-old farm in the area wants to diversify the food economy in more ways than one. It’s become a hub to learn about what we eat and value: the men – and women – who produce our food.

Spinach, broccoli and herbs line a greenhouse at Stone Acres Farm in the seaside community of Stonington. Amee Hussey shakes aphids off a leaf of organic spinach before she gives it a taste.

“Delicious!” she says.

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Spinach and other leafy greens are grown inside a hoop house, a structure similar to a greenhouse that enables farmers to extend the growing season in northern climates.

Hussey is chef at the Oyster Club, a farm-to-table restaurant in nearby Mystic. Part of her job is ordering fresh produce here. She says she feels very spoiled.

“It definitely makes cooking at home a lot harder because there's so much here to choose from all the time,” Hussey says. “It just makes you more appreciative and aware of everything that you're buying and what you're surrounded by and what’s available.”

Hussey is more aware of who puts food on the table, too.

Less than 7 percent of restaurants are run by female chefs, like herself, but women own about 40 percent of farms in the state. This prompted a special event at the farm to celebrate the surprising amount of women who work in the local food economy.

“You don't think about it right off the bat, so it was kind of astonishing when we started putting everything together and thinking about, ‘wow, it really is a lot of females!’” Hussey says.

Stone Acres Farm has fostered a network of women working in the farm-to-table industry. Jane Meiser, a co-owner of Stone Acres Farm, says she’s been inspired by strong women who have played a role in her family business since they built the farm in 1765.

“My grandmother’s force is very much in the walls of this house and this property,” Meiser says as she stands in the entryway to her grandmother’s home. “I just remember, with her, making currant jelly and having the currants boiling on the electric stove in the kitchen and just spending time with her.”

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Jane and Dan Meiser's home on the Stone Acres Farm property. The house has been in Jane's family for generations.

When Meiser’s grandparents died, the farm sat vacant for eight years. Then she and her husband, Dan Meiser, who own several local restaurants, had an idea.   

“A lot of these larger properties are very expensive to maintain. You have aging buildings on here, you have large pieces of land that you have to use large pieces of equipment [for],” she says, “So how can large farms in New England survive on something besides just farming?”

So they rallied investors. They got special zoning to run businesses on the property. Now other farms look to Stone Acres as a model because it makes money by hosting weddings, a farm stand, dinners and events.

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Stone Acres is a working farm with a modern twist, offering seasonal produce, culinary education and event space.

Stone Acres Farm recently hosted a panel that invited food producers to discuss how they think the industry should change. The panelists were all women who supply meat, fish and more to local restaurants, including the restaurants owned by Meiser.

Anthropologist Rachel Black from Connecticut College introduced the speakers – not as women – simply as experts. Black said women do not want to be the exception.

“Women have always been there,” Black said, “Women have always been in the fields, in the kitchens, on boats, on the ocean, in the ocean, on the sea, in every aspect of food production. We’ve always been there.”

Among the panelists sat Rachel Slattery from Rhode Island.

“I joke that male-dominated industries are like where I’ve spent all my life,” Slattery told the crowd.

Slattery worked on fishing boats for several years before she founded Wild Harmony Farm with her husband. She realized she couldn’t afford to eat the kind of grass-fed beef she wanted, so she learned to raise it herself.

“Without education there is no sense in even really caring about food at all, right?” Slattery said. “If we’re not learning about how it’s being grown, who is growing it, how to cook it, how to source it, how to budget for it – It’s just like, we can’t make this work! We’re all going to end up at McDonald’s!”

The Yellow Farmhouse at Stone Acres is one place where people can learn all about food. Jen Rothman, executive director of the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center, runs a non-profit out of a historic structure on the property, where she works with kids as young as 3-years-old. Rothman shows them how to pull a carrot out of the ground and chop it for supper.

“It’s not so innovative except that it's just not done anymore, I mean people have been cooking together and learning from parents and grandparents and community members forever,” she said.

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Jen Rothman, executive director of the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center, holds a special half-moon-shaped blade, called a mezzaluna, that she uses to teach young children to chop vegetables.

Rothman believes making and sharing meals together changes our relationship to food.

“It makes it a little bit more special,” Rothman said. “I think the innovative part is using that as really a mechanism to get people to care more deeply about the people who are growing our food and about the soil that it is coming from.”

Here in Stonington, a small farming community may inspire a new generation to slow down and enjoy a seat at the table.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.