Westport’s green village initiative hopes planting seeds will change lives
photography by stacy bass
For seventy years the eighteen-acre Wakeman Farm was a busy farm and produce stand, where summering celebrities and local families flocked to stock up on sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, fresh eggs and gossip. But farming life is hard, and Ike Wakeman, getting on in years, eventually sold the bulk of his family’s property to the town. Ike’s cornfields became ball fields. By 1970 the estate was just a 2.2-acre parcel and the original farmhouse, which the town also purchased and let languish.
The neglected Wakeman place on Cross Highway was in sorry shape when members of Green Village Initiative (GVI), a local grassroots community and environmental group, got wind that the town was offering it for lease at just $1 per year. Dan Levinson, one of GVI’s founders, said, “The town offered to lease the farm to a nonprofit willing to invest its own capital in renovating and staffing/operating the facility up to Westport standards. They trusted us, and we worked hard to deliver.”
Despite the drafty rooms, leaky pipes and overgrown gardens, GVI’s team envisioned a working farmstead and educational center, a home to a community supported agriculture (CSA), or grower-consumer cooperative, and a town resource where adults and kids could once again be a part of Westport’s farming heritage.
GVI rolled up its flannel sleeves and galvanized community interest. Nearly eighty supporters, including students and Jeanne Wakeman, who grew up on Wakeman farm, attended the December 2009 Town of Finance meeting. A fourth-grader put it this way: “If we don’t take this opportunity to turn Wakeman Farm back into what it was meant to be, what will it become? Another big house? We have enough of those. What we need is an educational farm to remind kids like me and my brother that you don’t have to live out in the country to grow your own produce.” Late that night, a cheer went up as the town unanimously approved GVI’s proposal to return the Wakeman Farm to its agricultural roots.
The group marshaled its resources, calling upon a diverse group of tradespeople, professionals, activists and students. They spent their weekends mucking out barns, filling dumpsters, installing donated appliances and transforming a ramshackle structure into a livable space. Then they convinced a promising young teacher and his family to serve as stewards.
Driving forward projects like the Wakeman Town Farm and Sustainability Center, the ban on plastic bags and edible gardens at the high school and Senior Center takes nothing less than a roster of personalities that refuse to take no for an answer. That’s especially true of pioneers Monique Bosch, Sherry Jagerson, Dan Levinson and Liz Milwe—all Westporters.
“The Town Farm was made possible by a public-private partnership between GVI and the Town of Westport,” Levinson acknowledges. “Everyone pulled together. The town really showed up to get the renovation done on time and on budget. [Architect] Peter Wormser and [builder] Ted Auer were amazing. We were so lucky to get Teacher of the Year Mike Aikenhead [Staples High environmental teacher] and his wife, Carrie, to take on this challenge. They have the perfect energy and attitude for it.”
Bosch agrees, adding, “The Wakeman Town Farm grounded our group, literally and figuratively. It has been incredible to have the trust and support of the town. We feel the responsibility to revitalize this historical farm and to develop it as an educational tool, for ourselves and the community. We realized the potential that the community of Westport had to make real environmental changes, such as banning plastic bags. That was the catalyst—if we could ban plastic bags, what else could the forward-thinking people of this town do?”
Levinson hopes that within a few short years, “the Farm and Mike will be the hub of a rejuvenated local food network.”
Involvement is at the root of the movement. Speaking of Levinson, Milwe says, “One thing he did was bring a whole table of people in the community together and asked, ‘What are you working on? Do you need support? We’ll help.’ ”
That lesson wasn’t lost on Aikenhead, who says, “They explained that one of the goals was to build a sense of community. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, but after living and working at the farm for several months, I now see what the founders had in mind.”
Nor did he miss another pivotal GVI characteristic. “Many organizations spend weeks, months or even years talking about what they should do, yet rarely accomplish anything. GVI simply does it. Rather than fret about what obstacles or road blocks may lay ahead, GVI forges ahead and finds a way each and every time.”
Aikenhead is looking forward to the summer community- and restaurant-supported agriculture (RSA) as well as the new Learn by Doing weekend workshop series this spring. It will cover growing food, from seed to harvest (see schedule at gogvi.org). Aikenhead will also mentor student interns and host the Middle School Wakeman Town Farm Club.
Keeping busy is a GVI specialty—one they would like to share. With a deep commitment to multiple environmental issues, they have a hunger for expansion. Bosch says, “We look for projects that have tangible, attainable results. With so many diverse skills and experiences to share, we empower each other to go beyond what one individual can accomplish.”
Presently, they are looking at more sustainable gardens, which focus on such principles as organic gardening practices, native plantings and composting. Milwe says such gardens are a great example of how GVI is taking root in other communities. “Karen Sussman of Fairfield is spearheading our school-gardens project in the Bridgeport School System, offering to fund and install gardens in all thirty Bridgeport Public Schools to address food justice, health and employment issues for these students,” she says. “In Ridgefield, Claire Carlson is launching garden projects in all the schools to teach kids where their foods come from. It just goes to show that an individual can make real changes if he or she has the right support.”