Tommy Towtruck in the Muck

At the Back40 Farm we have 2 John Deere “Gators”. They have replaced the mules and oxen on today’s small farms….small but strong 4wheel drive ATVs with dump beds and tow hitches. We have had more than a few mishaps…..so many come to mind, but let me highlight this one, or two.

My “city mouse” wife took her fancy friend Anne on a Gator tour of the farm, one sunny day…….fancy in this case is a big compliment, as well as a descriptive term that comes into play later……the Back40 property has probably 2 miles of assorted trails, 90% of which are mowed paths through the hay fields. People are instructed: “have fun, stay on the paths, don’t drive with the emergency brake on”

Very simple:
1. Have fun.
2. Stay on the paths.
‎3. Release brake when driving.
Check, check, check.

Katrina of course decides to take a short cut; not noticing that the “hay” she was going to traverse was actually swamp grass. They made it about 25 feet and promptly sunk the Gator, wheels spewing mud in the air as the vehicle sunk slowly….lower, and lower, until the mud had now crept onto the floor boards.

Now picture these 2 city chicks, marooned in a swamp, wearing…….I am going to go easy on them here: leather sandals, sun dresses, sparkling jewelry, all coiffed and mani’d and pedi’d. I’m sorry, it was what it was.

Help! Help! Damsels in distress! Help! We’re sinking!  Anne watch out! The mud is hitting your Espadrilles.

I hear them from 150 yards away and my wheels start moving. (not literally; I’m referring to those fast firing synopses that generate decision making)

‎Quandary. Do I let them sit there like the father who leaves his son in jail to teach him a lesson? Do I mosey on down there, sipping an iced tea, smirking and rolling video?

Both are delicious ideas…that had to be rejected immediately. (i’m ashamed it took me so long to decide what to do…I’m just being honest).

So I hopped up on Clifford the big Red Tractor and drove down there and pulled them out….spending at least an hour knee deep in muck, while the city mice recovered by the pool.

Funny now. Yes. Way funnier then.

Coincidentally, Bill King, Back40 Farm owner, and supreme scolder of Gator Mistreaters, was mowing the high grass in the same spot….tooling around on his soup’d up Kubota sit down mower with the racing stripes and cup holders…..he takes a turn too wide, right near the same swamp…and?

Sinks the mower….almost flipping it.

Again. Quandary.

Bill was wearing his favorite Gucci loafers, gabardine shorts, and a silk/linen blend blue, always blue, dress shirt, with the sleeves gently rolled up. (when I came up to him he was frustratedly cleaning his RayBans, scolding himself)

That swamp has eaten at least 10 Gators. We might as well build a bridge….at least that way I’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon of stone wall hunting without having to play Tommy Towtruck in the muck.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

Making Amends With the Foodies

foodie‎I often meet foodies strolling around the Back40 Farm. Assorted visiting foodie dignitaries, foodie authors, foodie restaurateurs, and general foodies for food’s sakes. I can tell a foodie from far away: Comfortable shoes, canvas watch band, floppy hair, thin, and very happy. Then there would be the introductions. ‎ Awkward. (I always wanted to say: “hold that thought. Stay right there. Let me go get my work boots on”)

They would look at my full figure, slicked hair, endangered species belt and give me one of those half smiles….looking back on those encounters is amusing for me now.

Because I have been converted? Because I think sprouts and kale should continue to be categorized as edible? No, not at all, on either count.

I’m amused by what it must have been like for them to meet me…..they had heard about people like me; they had read about us in a Forbes or GQ, when there was nothing else to read in the doctor’s office.

‎But to actually meet an unconscious consumer, in the french fried flesh? Must have been quite entertaining for them.

I can laugh at myself now….it’s not like I can travel back in time and make amends to God, Nature, and all those people who carry a compass to find their food.

I have come very far. Please accept me as reformed, and improved. I often recycle. I haven’t used Miracle Grow on my veggies in 10 years, and I always bring out the organic condiments when my sister visits.

If you think I’m coming up short on the whole sustainable living scale? Think about how far I’ve come, and give a guy a break.

In the 1980’s I ate so much Velveeta spray cheese that my friends would give it to me for birthdays. ‎I drank 6 diet cokes, every day, for 5 years.

For me to be such an outspoken supporter of organic farming, in practice and in preach, is a much bigger accomplishment than some forager foodie who grew up on a kibbutz in the Oregon woods eating soup made out of bark.

I have done 2 juice cleanses, know how to pronounce Quinoa, and have read all of Micheal Pollan’s books. That HAS to count for something!

I remember pulling into the Litchfield Farmers market last summer and thinking to myself, Man, I’m a Foodie! I am a flea-market-shopping, practical shoe wearing, salad eating foodie! It was invigorating!

I’m going to go buy some carrots and iceberg lettuce and cucumbers , (hold the fiddlehead) an organic dressing with a date scribbled on it instead of a label, read Edible Nutmeg and not care what my hair looks like! (well, maybe not the hair; let’s not get crazy here).

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

A Table for 10, Please

People often say to me: “Wow, you’re one of 8?” Followed by “your Mother’s a Saint!”.

As a child, I knew the former was true, but it took me a handful of years to realize the latter was also true.

Yes, I am one of 8, but, technically speaking, I am the 4th of 8. (very different from #1 of 8)….the oldest lives a privileged life….no hand-me-downs for instance. The middle child lives a life of obscurity; overlooked, talked over.

Our family name is German, but our ancestors are Irish, mostly. Our name is German, but our food was decidedly Irish. Potatoes were what you built the meal around.

blog2cAt one point our parents had 6 children and the oldest was 5 (with 2 sets of Irish Twins…Rich and Greg, Lia and I). Irish Twins are siblings born within 12 months of each other….(for some reason the Irish have so many children, and are known by everyone to have so many children, someone took it upon themselves to coin a phrase for it all). Greg is the same age as Rich for 15 days every February, and I’m the same age as Lia for 8 days every February/March.

I don’t know about other big families, but ours had a complex web of alliances and rankings….titles.

…it was jousting in the octagon; replete with palace intrigue, coups, attacks, retreats….treaties.

I was in a constant state of discipline…..privileges lost, pending, re-granted, lost again.

Food played a big part in the drama. ….or, let me rephrase that: food is WHERE the drama played out. Wait, let me refine that: the FEEDINGS were where the drama played out.

Our father was 6ft 8, 260 pounds, and a very strict disciplinarian. (putting it mildly)

The goody-two-shoes sisters Lia and Lesley sat nearest Dad at the dinner table….creating what can only be described as a demilitarized ‎zone. The youngest, Rachel, was in her wobbly high-chair, complete with bite marks, fork holes, and graffiti.  And then there were the 5 brothers, a safe enough distance from our father’s reach, backs to the doors.

The dinner table was where we would go around the room and tell on each other.

Dad: “Warren, I see your new shirt is ripped, and it’s on backwards, what can you tell me about that?”

Warren, awkward glance towards a glaring Greg‎: “umm, I fell”

Rich, the oldest, rarely, if ever did anything wrong. ‎We didn’t teach him how to misbehave until he got his driver’s license.

Greg had tenuous alliances; mostly truces and back room deals that went like this: “I’ll give you back your hockey stick if you tell Dad I was fishing with you”.

Me. I tended to keep the peace.  The only time I got slapped is when Greg got mad at me for not getting in trouble, or if I happened to be seen at the scene (well, perhaps I stirred the pot a few times, like NOW, for instance).

Warren….well, what can I say? He was‎ the boy Dennis the Menace was modeled after. With a few more black eyes and stitches. Warren has been bitten by 30 animals, including a piranha, snapping turtle, horse, and Canada goose.

And then there’s Nicholas, (Nicky, Nick, Nicko‎, depending on his age) the youngest of the 5 brothers. Nick rarely did anything wrong, but rarely was not accused of it…..he broke 4 tables and 3 pieces of China before he could even walk.

“Nicky did it” was his nickname.

And when he got older, and he got in trouble? He quickly rolled the turd downhill and yelled at Lesle‎y, who was probably outside picking honeysuckle reading Emily Bronte at the time of the crime.

Rachel was the mascot. We used to push her around the house in a giant casserole dish‎….she suffered more than one head on collision with door frames and piano legs.

Back to the supper table. Supper was always a starchy event. Macaroni and cream of mushroom soup with hamburger was my favorite meal. That might sound like 3 dishes on one plate; not quite.  One pot, one ladle, one plate.

NEXT!

Our mother needed to get food on the table, and there had to be a lot of it….now!

This was the 1970’s….fathers were a pampered class. (and ours was no different….wait, I need to be more specific……my father never changed a single diaper; not ONE, and he loved telling people…….this was back when diapers were heavy cloth, and the toilet was the washing machine…..so, imagine our mother’s plight for a minute, before you judge her for using a 5 gallon pot for supper, and skipping the niceities of an appetizer or a salad. (my 7 siblings just laughed out loud).

There were  always 2 or more in diapers, she was frequently pregnant, never any air conditioning, no maid or nanny‎….and everyone was hungry, 3 times a day.  A clean towel was a dry one, grandma darned our socks and one time we found a litter of kittens under 7 loads of laundry.

Yes, our Mom IS a saint.  Eight children, 8 college degrees, 32,453 diapers.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

The Farmland Reclamation Era, is Here

There’s a movement afoot, throughout New England, that people are describing as the “reclaiming” of the land…”city folk” have been looking to get farther away from car traffic, past the foot traffic, and into the hooved traffic, ever since they made enough money, breathed enough fumes, stood in enough lines to wake up one morning and say:

“Let’s go reclaim some abandoned farmland and re-establish New England to its glory days of high quality organic food and crafts”

-well, maybe it didn’t go exactly like that, but you simply need to visit Arethusa Farm in Bantam Connecticut to see my point. (arethusafarm.com)

If you own a pair of ‎Manolo Blahnik shoes, you helped build this pristine dairy farm. (watch the Bloomberg tv interview of the owners and their explanation of why their milk costs $9 a gallon). Pay special attention to Tony Yurgaitis’ comments about the farm they built directly across from their historic home: “the owners were planning to make a golf course, so we knocked on their door…” His partner George Malkemus says: “we did this to protect the farmland”‎….

They reclaimed the land, and now have a 450 cattle dairy farm that makes the most amazing ice cream.

The Back 40 Farm is an 18th century farm that was purchased by my sister and her husband about five years ago. (Lesley and Bill King)…..and they have transformed it into something that even I struggle to describe. (well, that’s not entirely true; I had to insert that for effect)

‎Lesley and Bill are Wall Street veterans and they planted their flag on “the old Pearson brothers’ farm” with an intention and a dream:
Make it self sustaining, make it all organic….make it a place people are drawn to…..but make it a Working Farm, not a manicured oasis. (they achieved both btw).

The Back40 is a Reclamation Project

farm2

What does that mean?

New England farms were abandoned as the textile mills of Stratford, Bridgeport, Worcester started providing much better jobs to the farmers’ children.

A common monologue at a Litchfield County kitchen table in the early decades of the 20th century went like this:

“Pa, Mary Lou and I are going to work in ‎a textile mill spinnin yarn. They are going to pay us in cash as opposed to food and maple sugar, and we only have to work 70 hours a week”.

The next sound was the screen door hitting the back of their pants. Thus commenced the land abandonment m‎ovement that Eric Sloane, and Tom Wessels, and Robert Thorson discuss in the text books I keep piled high next to my bed.

tractor2Why do we care about this abandonment? Boo hoo, poor farms and farmers….get over it!

We care because we need to care…. Look where “progress” has taken us! (see Tom Wessels book “The Myth of Progress”)….progress has given us GPS-guided 32-head harvesters that can cut and shell corn fields as big as whole towns in a single 24 hour period.

We care because we want our food to be local. If it can be grown locally, it can be grown healthily. A tomato from Mexico gets sprayed, injected, shock chilled, shrink wrapped and flown, to your “local” distributor.

The Back40 Farm will grow 10,000 pounds of tomatoes this year. Without a single chemical. THAT’s what happens when we reclaim farm land, and dedicate ourselves to the original way of farming….manure, compost, sustainable crop rotation, good pests eating bad pests….

Washington-20110722-00155All you need to do is watch a crop duster fly over a 1,000 acre corn field in Iowa spraying chemicals on our high fructose corn syrup to realize we have lost our way.

The reclamation era is here and it needs to be supported. We need to support local artisans and farmers and buy products that don’t harm people, animals, or nature while they are being made, or being used.

‎We research all our products at our store. We won’t buy it to sell it if we wouldn’t buy it to use it. The Back40 Mercantile is our attempt to bring small town, sensible, general merchandising to our small town. Old Greenwich is an amazing town; because of our merchants, the restaurants, our gas station, our firehouse, our post office, our one traffic light.

(We’re still looking for the person who allowed Dunkin Donuts in, but that can be discussed at a later time.)

We wanted to fill our store with hard to find, high quality, stylish, and Classic merchandise. We want to keep the shoppers on Sound Beach Avenue; saving them time and money going over to “that” avenue. We want OG to remain a strollers’ town. ‎And we want to get to know you if we don’t already.

My name is Jeff Bischoff, and my wife Katrina and I are co-founders of the Back40 Mercantile, along with our 2 best friends: Lesley and Bill King.

You’ll see our sisters, brothers, mothers, cousins and children running in and out of the store. It’s a family business, in a family town.

Come say hello.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger