Farm fields grazed by slow-munching cattle, and an orchard with gnarled apple trees clutching the sky, the former McKeon Farm open space seems a pocket of the past in the heart of Ridgebury. And the Conservation Commission, hoping to better preserve the property, has decided to study its potential future uses. Steer grazing, as in recent years? Sheep? Community gardens? Organic farming?
“We’ve formed a committee within the Conservation Commission, to look at what might make sense,” said Kitsey Snow, who heads the project.
“This effort, and it’s at its very beginning stage, is to develop some kind of a plan to guide the commission on how the land should be used,” said Carroll Brewster, another Conservation Commission member on the committee.
The town paid $3,458,000 — over $2 million of it raised in private contributions — to buy the 43-acre property in 2001. The land includes the orchard at the point of the triangle formed by Old Stagecoach and Ridgebury roads, and spreads south from there between the two roads, excluding a small house lot.
There are a couple of goals, according to Snow.
“It’s twofold,” she said. “One is that we’re barely maintaining the property by mowing, but we’ve been having a hard time getting someone to mow it.”
So the commission would like to find someone “to keep it mowed,” she said. “But if there’s some way to utilize the land and keep it farmed, we’re trying to look at a way to do that.”
Hans Williams, who lives in Newtown and works for the town Parks and Recreation Department, has been keeping steer and poultry on the property in recent years, under an agreement with the Conservation Commission.
“Hans mows part of it, because he keeps the steer,” Snow said. “He comes to us once a year with a contract to keep chickens, turkeys and steer there. This year, we didn’t give him the OK for the chickens — we just had the turkeys and the steer. …
“He keeps some of it mowed, and we don’t charge him.”
The study has been undertaken, in part, because the commission has had another request to use the land.
“We actually had another farmer in town come to us and ask for some space there, because she knows Hans had some space,” Snow said.
“Rather than handle this on a piecemeal basis, we thought it would be good to look at the whole property and figure out how best to manage it — what would benefit us, the town, but also the farmers.”
The person who approached the commission was Whitney Freeman Kemp of Henny Penny Farm, a two-acre organic farm on Ridgebury Road with a house, a barn and a variety of animals.
“Over the eight years we have been here, we have gradually rehabilitated a lot of the natural wetland habitat by using animals to maintain the land,” Kemp said. “The wetland was filled with invasive multiflora rose, privet and Phragmites reed. Our small herd of three goats have done an incredible job at removing the invasive woody plants, and by rotating their grazing we have been able to allow a large native wetland wildflower habitat to grow up each summer in their place.
“By rotating the sheep around the property and seeding with organic cover crops beneficial to the soil, we have been working to improve the grassy areas; and between the sheep and the chickens, only very little mowing needs to happen on our farm,” she said.
“With regard to the sheep project, I raise registered Romney sheep. They are a dual-purpose breed for meat and fiber,” Kemp said. “I have bred my ewes and want to graze the ewes and lambs off the property during the summer and fall. It has long been a practice to use different animal species to manage pasture, as each species has plants that they like to graze.
“Right now Hans Williams grazes his cattle in the pasture at McKeon, and the sheep will come along and eat the ‘weeds’ that the cows don’t like. They will also eat the scrub along the stone walls. The stone walls on McKeon are filled with multiflora rose. I told the Conservation Commission I could also bring the goats over for short stretches of time to get the worst of the invasive rose off the stone walls if need be,” Kemp said.
“Animals are a much more efficient and environmentally sensitive way of managing this land.”
Snow has been talking with Kip Kolesinskas, a conservation scientist who works with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and groups like the American Farmland Trust.
“He walked the property with Rachel Murray,” Snow said. “Rachel is at an organization called LandforGood.org.”
That group helps match up farmers with land available for farming.
The property has also been talked of as a potential site for a second community garden, where condominium dwellers and others without much open land could grow vegetables and flowers, augmenting the community garden off Halpin Lane that has a long waiting list for plots. This would likely require the addition of a well, at some cost, however.
Snow said one of the priorities is to maintain the organic management of the property that dates back to Dan and Louise McKeon’s decades of ownership. The McKeons lived across the street on Old Stagecoach Road, operating a cattle farm on both the town open space and what is now an elaborate equestrian property on the east side of Old Stagecoach Road.
“That property has always been managed organically,” Snow said. “So it’s very appealing to organic farms.”
Brewster said the commission’s idea was to get an overview before making decisions on individual requests to use the land.
“A number of people have on occasion asked if they could use that land for farming purposes, and we have let Hans Williams keep some steers there, because it was thought that was always part of the way the land looked in the old days. But there are other opportunities that people asked for — gardening for one,” Brewster said. “There was some talk about having another town garden there, community garden.
“It was thought, really, that we ought to have a plan before we start leasing here and there, here and there.”