“Oh my Gosh, look at this thing that Corey designed,” enthuses Pauline Lord, the petite and stylish owner of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, Connecticut. We’re standing in front of what she likes to call the, “chicken palace.” The white hand-built chicken tractor is currently home to 120 laying hens and, in its current location, has a view of a lake that most humans would envy. The contraption Lord is pointing out is a system of PVC barrels, pipes and tubing designed to keep the chickens’ water supply fresh.
“I haven’t really focused on this, this thing they’re drinking out of, with all these nipples,” Lord continues. “Thank goodness you’re here, so I can do a tour, see how they’re drinking. The big spiny things keep them off of it. See how happy they are? And they get to eat all this stuff. This is mostly clover and buckwheat.”
We’re about halfway through our tour of White Gate Farm, and I’m noticing a trend in the proprietor’s attitude – appreciation, enthusiasm, and creativity. Case in point, the way Lord has handled a recent problem with scaly leg mites. “The treatment is: you have to pick up each chicken, invert it, and anoint its legs with vaseline,” Lord shares with a smile.
At moments like this, I’m glad I’m a writer, not a farmer. Yet the way Lord tells the story, the whole situation with leg mites is a grand adventure, rather than a repulsive task to suffer through.
“120 chickens; that’s 240 legs,” she continues brightly. “We were lucky, because the first time we had to do this, I had a bunch of classmates from high school staying here. They decided to have a reunion on the farm. I kind of broke it to them the evening they arrived, which was Friday, that Saturday night we were going to have this activity. Saturday morning, I warmed them up with some light weeding, and then they were all up for it. We had to move the chickens from the barn (which the lambs are now using) into this thing, which was right next to the barn. So, we had our headlamps on. You have to do this at like 9 o’clock at night when people don’t think of doing something like this. When the chickens are asleep, that’s the only time they’ll cooperate. They sort of wake up and squawk, but it’s way better than doing it when they’re fully awake.”
“When you start having people stay at the farm, will you include agritourism?” I ask.
“Yeah! They can do the mites! For that, we’ll charge a LOT more,” Lord laughs. In her view, the amount of agritourism programming one can do is limitless, depending on people’s level of interest. Recently, a bridal party chose White Gate Farm as the location to get their hair and makeup done. “The photographers came to take pictures, and they were all focused on these gold high heels that were displayed. It was a different kind of activity for us,” Lord says.
At an age when most people are enjoying retirement, Pauline Lord is expanding her farm operation. After a career in psychology, Lord – a self-described backyard gardener who was then 50- decided with her husband David, a recent retiree from US Geological Survey, to move from Menlo Park, California to Connecticut to take over her mother’s 100-acre hobby farm and turn it into a business.
That was 1999. Challenges arose from the start, as one might expect when a psychologist and a geophysicist dive headlong into a new field. Eighteen years later, White Gate Farm is a thriving operation, producing lamb, chicken, turkey, a full line of organic vegetables, flowers, and value-added products for retail and wholesale to restaurants. White Gate Farm is also a tourist destination, and that’s the part of the business Lord wants to expand.
On this sunny July Saturday, cars line the driveway and fill the small parking lot outside the converted 4-bay garage that now serves as the farm stand. Entering the farm stand, one sees an artful display of fresh produce, flowers, fresh baked goods, a stocked freezer, and a juice bar (a partnership with Lyme Juice Company). Juice bar owner Carolann Patterson beams as she presents unique concoctions made from White Gate’s fresh-picked produce. Farm manager Kent practically bounces around the farm stand, making suggestions for food combinations and waxing poetic about the qualities of different summer squash varieties. Until we steal her away, Lord is handing out samples of pickles made in the farm’s onsite kitchen. She stops her interactions with customers long enough to give my photographer and me a tour of the operation.
A Rocky Beginning
In the 1940s, the property was a dairy farm, but when Lord’s mother bought it in 1974 the dairy was no longer running.
“When David and I arrived, it was just sort of one foot in front of the other, figuring it out,” says Lord. “Neither of us had a background in Ag. A lot of mistakes were made. We tried to hire people who knew more than we did, which at the time was very easy to do because we knew almost zero. When we first started, our focus was just getting stones out of our first growing field and growing some things. We didn’t even know to make straight lines. We had these wiggly lines of beets, and they were consumed with weeds.”
They also grew kale and eggplant, one of Lord’s favorite vegetables. With plants in the ground, Lord approached a small group of women who were in a co-op, to see if they wanted to be the farm’s CSA. Initially, Lord grew only a few vegetables and flowers. “We had these massive baskets, and we had so little to put in them. I put little jars of flowers in the bottom.”
At the end of the first year of the CSA, Lord issued a survey to find out what other vegetables people wanted. Several respondents said, “Something normal, like carrots,” and, “Not so much eggplant.”
“I just thought everybody loved eggplant,” Lord says.
At its peak, the CSA served about 90 families divided between two days of pickups. One thing Lord didn’t consider in advance was the amount of administration required to run a CSA. “Getting the people signed up, and then– what if they can’t come to get their basket? You have to deal with all that, and it’s kind of a pain in the neck. It was fine, and it’s a great model, but since this place is so gorgeous… We really morphed into a farm stand in 2007 or 2008, because we had way too many tomatoes for the CSA, so people could just come and buy the tomatoes. There was a lot of enthusiasm for that – just buy what you want and not then you’re not saddled with a bunch of kohlrabi you can’t use. It was quite a few more years before we built the kitchen and then got into this crazy amount of prepared food.”
Today, White Gate Farm grows “pretty much every vegetable you can think of.”
The farm has been certified organic from inception. “We started out being certified by Connecticut, and then when the feds took over, we were issued a thick sheaf of papers, and I took a look at all these forms and new practices, and said “I can’t do this,” Lord recalls.
The farm manager at the time (who was later hired away by a larger operation) felt strongly that they should go through the USDA process. Lord gave him the go-ahead, and is glad she did. “It’s a good program. They make you do a level of record keeping that most people wouldn’t dream of doing, but it’s very useful, and it sort of forces you to have the best practices.”
Making the transition from CSA to Farm Stand was easier than one might expect. Several CSA members followed White Gate Farm into the farm stand. “We lost some. And there were some who came to the farm stand years later sort of mourning the CSA, because they liked being forced to use produce they wouldn’t otherwise buy,” says Lord.
As we pass one of the farm’s fields, Lord points to a couple who are tying up tomatoes.
I ask what kinds of tomatoes they’re growing. “That is a heck of a good question,” Lord responds. “The great thing is, now I don’t choose the seeds; I don’t even know. I’m thrilled with that, but that was one of my jobs for a long time. We grow a bunch of heirlooms, but also some hybrids that are sturdier. We certainly do all colors – greens, yellows, some of my favorites are black – which are more of a maroon.”
In the summer, White Gate Farm employs ten local staff: seven in the field and three chefs in the kitchen. Lord brings in additional chefs as needed. “We’ve got some serious talent,” she says. (I can verify this – having purchased and consumed several delicious baked goods at the end of our tour.)
A critical element in Lord’s workforce is a couple who comes from Mexico through the H2A program. “It’s their 11th year,” says Lord. “Ramon and Laura are so wonderful, incredibly hard-working, and smart as anything. My only complaint is that sometimes they see that the gringo farmers are doing something wrong, and they don’t tell me. I’m like, ‘You have to tell me these things!’”
We pass a small barn, and Lord stops to point to the apartment she and husband David first lived in when they returned from California. Ramon & Laura currently stay in the apartment. “Every year the guys come from the state department for ag workers,” Lord shares. “They check out the house. They measure everything. Inevitably, someone will ask, ‘Are they really staying here?’ They’ve got three bedrooms, a full kitchen; they’ve got their washer & dryer room, two bathrooms, a little terrace…”
Lord is aware that they don’t have to provide this level of housing for visiting farm workers. Yet the pleasure she takes in treating her staff well is evident.
Off the Bandwagon
We are living in a time when everyone seems to have a complaint about something. Despite my offering her numerous opportunities to kvetch, Lord finds a positive aspect to every part of her farming experience. I have to ask, “What special challenges have you faced as a woman farmer?”
Her response surprises me: “I don’t know that it’s so different owning a farm if you’re a woman versus if you’re a man. Anytime you’re the head of a business it’s hard. There are so many things you really have to put together to start a farm.”
So I ask whether she has any advice for young female farmers? Lord says the big challenge is finding land, whether you’re a woman or a man. “You have to also be pretty clear about how expensive it’s going to be, making sure you have enough machinery. We are so lucky that my stepson Corey works for us; he is a genius at repairing anything. You need someone like that on staff. We had two farmers working for us who decided to move out to California and start a farm, but neither one is mechanical. They had a tractor that came with their farm, but they didn’t know how to take care of it.”