Conn. Couple Sows Seeds of Passion for Farming

Dick and Dot Wingate at their Studio Farm in Voluntown, Conn. (David Smith/ecoRI News photos)

Dick and Dot Wingate at their Studio Farm in Voluntown, Conn. (David Smith/ecoRI News photos)

Children and grandchildren follow Wingates into the fields to work

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

VOLUNTOWN, Conn. — Back in 1963 it seemed natural for Dick and Dot Wingate to start growing vegetables to feed their family, only now the family has grown to include many people who enjoy the fruits of their labor at two farmers markets in southeastern Connecticut.

Look for the small banner inside the tent that reads “Studio Farm.” It was a name for their 35-acre homestead that stuck. Sit on the back porch of their circa 1753 farmhouse and they might bring out a copy of an old newspaper to explain that monicker. In it there is an article about the farm and its former tenants from around 1916 — movie stars of the silent-film era led by actor and producer Joseph Byron Totten.

Look to the north from the porch and you’ll see a more than 100-year-old stone building that is now a barn. Look closer, and you’ll see bars on the window. It was once used as a “jail” for a Western film.

There also is a story about a secluded area out back shielded by a tall ledge that purportedly was once the site of a still that produced booze during Prohibition.

They might also tell you the story about one cold October day the same year they moved in when a bucket of ashes left on the porch started a fire that spread to the roof. The volunteer fire department saved the day and the house. Dick was at work as a shop teacher at Stonington High School when he got the news from a school official. He was told that his seven-month pregnant wife Dot and his two children, Mark and Belinda, were OK.

“I was surprised when I got home to see the house still standing,” recalled the 78-year-old.

Things are much calmer at the farm these days, well, except for the visits by a black bear. It seems the couple’s multitude of fruit trees, strawberry plants and blueberry bushes are too much for the local wildlife to ignore. The bear has left calling cards on the ground in the groves that provide clues to its diet.

Gardens surround the barn and two greenhouses. The more than two dozen fruit trees provide a variety of apples, pears and peaches.

The Wingates were certified organic farmers for nine years, but let that certification lapse, not because they have changed their farming methods. It was simply a matter of cost. The last time they were certified the price tag was $750.

The process involves a visit from a person from an independent certification group. Seed packets are reviewed to check and see if they are organic. Crop rotation and planting plans are studied, as well as the harvest numbers from the previous season. There also was a rule requiring fields be numbered so that if there was a problem with the crop it could be traced to a particular area.

“We can’t say we are organic,” Dick said, “but we can say that we are growing using organic standards.”

It’s not a question that comes up frequently. The couple said new customers ask whether they are organic growers, but their regular customers already know.

“So many people come to the farm and see the weeds,” said Dick, noting that using herbicide to control them isn’t an option. “People thank us for not using herbicides”

There are some organic sprays, made from various flowers, that are allowed, but they are contact sprays — meaning they must land on the bug — and aren’t very efficient.

The Wingates originally got the organic certification at the urging of their daughter Belinda Learned. When they tried to get into the Stonington Farmers Market, they were rebuffed because the group wanted an organic farm member. That was 13 years ago.

Dick Wingate helps a customer at a recent Stonington Farmers Market.

Dick Wingate helps a customer at a recent Stonington Farmers Market.

Family affair
The Wingates are joined at the market in a field next to the Stonington Borough town dock by their daughter Belinda and her husband, Ed Learned, owners of the 105-acre Stonyledge Farm in North Stonington. The Learneds sell pasture-raised beef, pork, eggs and chicken, along with a few vegetables under the same tent.

If you visit their tent, you might see four generations of the family. The Wingates, Learneds and Belinda’s daughter, Marcia, and her children Bradley and Annalise.

Belinda also has three sons who operate the 115-acre Valley View Dairy on East Clark Falls Road in North Stonington. It’s about 1.5 miles from her farm.

The Learneds have a 98-foot-by-30-foot greenhouse. Dot starts the vegetables from seed in her greenhouse in February and, when the plants are ready to be transplanted, they are brought to this larger greenhouse to mature.

Dick said he never wanted teaching to be the sole source of their income. His starting salary was around $5,200. His wife would later work for 22 years in the Ledyard School district teaching business classes.

So, 20 years ago when they had extra vegetables, jams and fruit they would put it out front on a wooden stand at their farm, with a plastic container for people to leave money. They used that money to send their kids to an adventure camp in Massachusetts.

Then, 13 years ago, they got their foot in the door at farmers markets because of that organic certification. Dick said that years ago he used to spray his fruit trees to combat bugs, but that reading the label showed him that it contained some nasty stuff.

“Three to four years after I stopped spraying, I started to see praying mantis eggs on the raspberries,” he said. “I realized that I was killing beneficial insects as well as the bad bugs.”

The couple now grows about 36 varieties of tomatoes, including heirlooms. Tomatoes, and various types of lettuce, are Studio Farm’s big sellers.

“They don’t look perfect,” Dick said. “They are not spherical. I had one lady look them over and said that one had a split in it. She denied herself a great tasting meal.”

And sometimes there are years when worms can be found in the ears of corn they sell. So, like any good farmer, Dick sold this corn with the guarantee that each ear came with a worm. He recalled another farmer marketed his corn with the promise that each ear came with a “free fishing worm.”

Studio Farm also sells a mesclun mix, which features a variety of lettuces, arugula, dill, basil and spicy mustard leaves. They sell 9 ounces of the mesclun mix for $5 and 5 ounces of arugula for $4.

Dot, 77, said it usually takes her three hours on a Friday to put together just 12 packages for that weekend’s markets. The leaves have to be washed, sorted and packaged. It is one product that usually sells out.

And as far as the variety of jams they sell, Dot said they probably sell some 1,800 jars a season.

The youngest of the Wingates’ four children is Matthew. He is expected to retire from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 18 months and has talked about returning and opening a farm store — a place for local farmers to bring their crops.

It’s a question of finding a good place with plenty of traffic, Dick said.

The Stonington Farmers Market is open every Saturday from 9 a.m.-noon until the first Saturday in November, when it moves to the Stonington Velvet Mill, 22 Bay View Ave., until the end of May. The Wingates and Learneds also sell their wares at the Denison Farmers Market, 120 Pequotsepos Road in Mystic, each Sunday from noon-3 p.m.