Golden Acres Farm is the quintessential New England example of a diversified, self-sufficient family farm.
Michael and Cindy Orefice weren’t raised on farms, but began farming in the city of Bristol, Connecticut. Even on their small city lot – back in the 1970s – they were raising chickens and rabbits and knew they wanted to farm on a much larger scale. Educators by trade, they purchased a few small parcels of land in the nearby rural area of Harwinton, Connecticut, and dabbled in farming.
By the late 1980s, they purchased their current 108-acre farm and began to seriously develop their small farm dream.
Overgrown fields sprouted goldenrod. Their last name, Orefice, means “goldsmith” in Italian. Thus, the name Golden Acres Farm was derived.
By 1998, they had built their home and relocated to the property. Since then, they’ve slowly developed a year-round farm, doing everything to meet their goal “to be a diversified farm and have something for every season,” Michael Orefice said. “It’s all about the diversification and having enough product year-round to make it worthwhile.”
“Cindy and I come from farming families, so it must be in our blood,” Michael said. “We have five children and all have benefited from exposure to life on the farm. All have a great work ethic and have a deep appreciation for farming and land management, something they are passing down to our seven grandchildren.”
One of those children, Joseph Orefice, has his own small farm, North Branch Farm in Saranac, New York. Joe has been on the leading edge of agroforestry, specializing in silvopasture. With a doctorate in forestry, he also works for Cornell University as the new director of the Uihlein Forest, is the Northern New York Maple Specialist and teaches at Paul Smith’s College.
Joe, as well as his parents, is making figs an important part of the family farming legacy. These figs came directly from Italy, brought here by Mike’s grandfather. The Orefice Heirloom Fig, as it is now known, was replanted each season in Bristol, Connecticut, after being dug up, wrapped in burlap and put in the basement to protect it from the winter weather. Both father and son now propagate genetically identical Orefice Heirloom Figs.
Joe sells the figs as well as fig trees at his North Branch Farm. He grows various fig trees in a greenhouse environment and has made a name for his farm based on his locally-famous figs.
Joe’s father, Mike, said, “I guess I consider myself the keeper of the Orefice Heirloom Fig, which I now call it since we have been propagating the same genetic strain since 1938. No cross-pollination is needed. I propagate the figs in two ways: in the spring from cuttings from the previous year’s growth and from new shoots that contain some root structures. Since my son Joe has incorporated fig production on his farm, I am confident the family tradition will continue after I am gone.”
Those figs have played a role in this family’s farming heritage and legacy, but are only one small, but important, part of the diverse, seasonal enterprises undertaken at Golden Acres Farm.
Operating with 90 acres of forested land, trees play a significant role at Golden Acres Farm. There’s currently a small maple operation in place, with plans for expansion. Selective timber harvests have primed this sugarbush for operation. January and February are focused on preparations for sugaring season, which typically arrives in February and continues through late March.
They’ve selectively thinned out a 5-acre area that had mature and young maple trees, so that the young sugar maples could thrive. Currently 100 taps, some on buckets and some with tubing, yield 1,000 gallons of raw sap annually. Thirty acres of sugar maples will eventually be tapped as the sugarhouse expands. They boil over open wood flames outdoors, much as syrup was made in the 1800s, which “gives our syrup that unique woodsy flavor of long ago,” Orefice said. “Our syrup production is nowhere near the level of its potential, but we do have plans to expand.”
They’ve recently harvested oak and hickory trees. The market for hickory has been on an upswing, so a timely timber harvest brought in income, while helping to maintain a healthy woodlot. About 20 acres of the forested land has been logged. Joe is the forester in charge of timber harvests at Golden Acres Farm.
Christmas trees are also in production here. The farm grows Blue and White Spruce, Fraser Fir and Scotch Pine on about 2 acres. Black birch chips, which they supply to a whiskey distiller in Pennsylvania, are another unique forest product. Several times per year, trees are cut down and the branches are chipped.
A sawmill on the farm is primarily used for sawing boards for their own needs; the sawmill also serves hobbyists seeking the cherry, red oak, ash and other wood found on this land. All hardwood floors in the farmhouse were milled on site; the barn is made of pine harvested and sawn here and the sawdust is used as bedding for the chickens. Firewood is sold as well.
“We try to utilize as many products as we can from the farm,” Orefice said.
The winter months are the birthing season for the flock of sheep – Columbia and Finnsheep – and herd of goats. The lambing and kidding is done in the barn, which also provides shelter from harsh winter weather. The goats and sheep are pastured together during the grazing season, fed hay raised on the farm and supplemented with antibiotic-free grains purchased commercially.
“The goats are several breeds, but my buck is a pure-bred Saanen, a good milking breed. Females contain genetics from Alpine, Toggenburg and Lamancha – all excellent milking breeds,” Mike said. “I raise milkers because Cindy makes several kinds of cheese. Because of Cindy’s knowledge and background in food science, our cheese can compete with the best of them!”
Breeding stock is selected carefully, with mothering instincts, disposition, body characteristics and milking ability playing important roles. The sheep are both meat and wool animals and the goats are milking breeds. Future plans include a state-approved processing facility, so Cindy’s cheeses – currently for family use only – can be sold.
The farm has a small niche market for on-the-hoof meat sales of goat and lamb. Easter sales of kid goats and lambs brings a “good market” from nearby Italian neighborhoods. Any animals too young for spring sales are held until fall for the Muslim holidays.
Animals are sheared – they do it themselves – in April and May and the wool is pooled with other Connecticut producers and sent to a Massachusetts mill for cleaning and spinning, then to Rhode Island to be made into scarves and assorted sized blankets. The farm produces about 70 pounds of grease wool each season, which they receive back as finished, marketable products.
June brings 100 turkeys – broad-breasted whites – to the farm, to be raised for Thanksgiving sales. The birds are kept in the barn for the first few months, then are moved to fresh pasture, fenced with portable electric poultry fencing for grazing the grasses and eating the bugs. They are herded nightly into the barn – where they also remain on rainy days, for protection from predators and the elements.
“Temperature changes, overcrowdedness and disease can raise the mortality rate of young chicks, so I usually figure about a 10 percent loss,” Orefice said. “I could sell 1,000 birds, but we do all our own butchering right on the farm.”
The butchering occurs one day only each fall, with the entire family pitching in to get the job done right. They are permitted to process the turkey on-farm on a small scale for customers, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) exemptions after meeting all state and local guidelines.
Laying hens are also a part of the farm’s diversity. About 100 birds are housed in a coop, but have daily access to an outside run.
Vegetables are grown for sale at a self-serve, on-farm stand. Plans to expand the stand to include an agritourism component are in place. The Orefices have purchased a historic schoolhouse, dating to when Harwinton had one-room schoolhouses and have relocated it to their frontage on busy Route 4, which sees 10,000 or more cars per day. Here, they plan to restore the building, fill it with period antiques and books and open it up for tourism, as a part of their farmstand.
Honey is extracted from the beehives each fall. The honey is centrifuged from the comb and heated gently to prevent crystallization. Pumpkins are being grown for the first time this fall, extending the season beyond their usual tomatoes, squash and peppers. Once the schoolhouse is operational, vegetable production will expand and diversify, too.
“Everything we sell is raised on the farm,” Orefice said. “Another product that we sell but only becomes available about every 15 years is witch hazel. We will be doing our second harvest this coming winter.”
Golden Acres Farm will continue to expand its roots. Retirement from his off-farm job will give Orefice more time to devote to development of the many enterprises that make up this family’s farm. He is confident that this diversified small farm – one which incorporates forestry, livestock and produce, sustainably using the bounty from this land – will continue to thrive and to serve an appreciative local community.
“We are in the process of putting together a futures plan that will lay out the direction the farm will take,” Orefice said. “Harwinton is a small, rural community that understands the need for farms in order to retain that rural character.”