Ridgefield Conservation Commission approves lease extension for McKeon Farm

Sheep of Henny Penny Farm run at the McKeon Farm property on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020 in Ridgefield, Conn.

Sheep of Henny Penny Farm run at the McKeon Farm property on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020 in Ridgefield, Conn.

Bryan Haeffele / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

RIDGEFIELD — In a near-unanimous vote, the Conservation Commission on Monday night granted a five-year lease extension to Henny Penny Farm owner Whitney Freeman in a near-unanimous vote.. Commissioner Allan Welby cast the sole dissenting vote.

Freeman’s farm, on Ridgebury Road, lies about a half-mile north of the former McKeon property. She grazes her sheep herd on town-owned land that was a cow pasture when Daniel and Louise McKeon owned the property and ran it as a dairy farm.

Despite some concerns from neighbors that the number of sheep at Henny Penny has become excessive — around 70 — making it feel too much like a commercial farm, commissioners expressed strong support for the work Freeman is doing as steward of the 16-acre parcel.

“There’s a long history of farm animals on the farm for many, many decades,” Chairman James Coyle said, noting that dairy cows, turkeys and chickens have called the farm home.

Since grazing practices were historically uninformed, however, Freeman said the property’s soil has been damaged, needing treatment and more progressive grazing practices to aid its regeneration.

“We have had some people say that conservation has nothing to do with soils, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Coyle said, outlining the link between good soil and flourishing flora and fauna.

In a brief presentation, Freeman outlined the work she has done on the property during her five-year lease with the town, including spending close to $23,000 in grant money and her own money for improvements. She said there was a good chance more grant money could be coming — possibly as much as $20,000 over the next five years — to continue improvements.

Freeman said that adaptive grazing practices are “the pinnacle of environmental stewardship,” wherein animals graze on a small portion of land that is then left untouched for a month or more. This controlled “stress” on the land augments water percolation and infiltration, spreads manure more evenly — even reducing the smell — and improves the carbon-holding capacity of the soil.

“It is the way forward,” Freeman said, noting it could prove to be significant in addressing climate change. “Soil is the key. All of life starts from the soil. It is the essential building block for diversity.”

Freeman shared that during a site inspection from a state agronomist — someone who studies soil management and crop production — she was told her farm was doing amazing work in this regard.

Welby, however, is not happy about the farm, and attempted to postpone the vote on the new lease. Since the time of the glaciers, he said, “Connecticut has done quite well with its soil — does it really need the sheep?”

He said the original contract only approved 30 sheep, while the new one allows up to 85, allowing for double and triple births. “The original intent of that property was never to become a commercial farming property,” Welby said. “It’s just gotten out of hand.”

He cited activity on the farm, including the noise of lawnmowers and tractors, as a disturbance to nearby wildlife.

Neighbors of the farm said they actually enjoyed having the sheep there, but were concerned the number of animals may continue to increase.

“I think everything in moderation would be my general take on it,” said neighbor David Whitehouse, who asked the commission to keep tabs on the animal population. “It’s starting to feel much more like a commercial operation over there. … Where do we draw the line?”

“I appreciate everything Whitney is doing,” neighbor Karen Pray said, but echoed Whitehouse’s statements. “Our main concern is that it is beginning to feel far less (like) a small operation.”

Vice Chairman Jack Kace said the new lease keeps the number of sheep stable. “I think we view the farming operation as a bit of research as much as it is a commercial operation,” he said.

Freeman’s work, he added, could affect grazing practices throughout the state. “It might be beneficial far beyond Ridgefield if it does work out.”