Ridgefield residents support Henny Penny Farm lease renewal

RIDGEFIELD — Several residents spoke at a public hearing Wednesday night in favor of extending Whitney Freeman’s lease to operate Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road.

In addition to the live testimony, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the board had received 15 letters “all in support” of the extension.

The 16-acre parcel lies about a half mile north of the former McKeon property, which is designated as conservation land and owned by the town. There, Freeman grazes a herd of roughly 70 sheep that aid in soil regeneration.

Years of uniformed grazing practices have damaged the soil’s viability, Freeman explained, but more progressive practices — like the ones she employs — could improve it.

Neighbors, however, have expressed concerns about the seemingly commercial nature of the farm. The original five-year lease only approved 30 sheep — the new one allows up to 85.

Although Henny Penny neighbor David Whitehouse is not opposed to having the animals on the property, he argued that the land looks and smells like a livestock operation, not open space. He believes the soil improvement, field maintenance and educational opportunities Henny Penny provides can all be achieved with fewer than 85 sheep.

“I believe language should be added to the lease stipulating that the sheep count restriction be designated as a material term, not to be changed nor amended in any fashion … without formal town approval and notification of the residents,” Whitehouse said.

The Board of Selectman assured attendants that any modification to the lease would be brought before the public.

In her testimony, Freeman explained that the growth of her flock was relative to the growth of the farm over the past five years. The addition of two fields increased its acreage from 10 to 16 acres, meaning more sheep could graze “over a much bigger area,” she said.

“It’s very hard to estimate numbers if ... you’ve never even seen the fields,” Freeman added.

Public comment

Fairfield County Farm Bureau President Pete Sepe regarded the operation as a model of sustainable agriculture enterprise.

“Environmental stewardship is at the head of the Henny Penny Farm business plan and includes exemplary public education activities,” he said. “Whitney’s improvements to the land all contribute to its productivity because of how it is managed. ... I encourage you to continue to support her efforts to make the farm more efficient.”

In his address, resident Tom Katz noted Ridgefield’s agrarian roots. He believes farming activities should remain to the extent they can since they add value to the community.

“The idea that we would want to limit the expansion of farming in Ridgefield to me seems really retrograde,” he said. “The kinds of things that Whitney Freeman does on the land … (are) really quite remarkable. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of seeing some of it really ought to visit.”

As fellow environmental stewards, Laura Mulligan and Cece Berger commended Freeman for her efforts. Mulligan is a livestock manager at The Hickories and Berger is the founder of Cornerstone Home & Gardens Inc., both of which operate on the former McKeon property.

Resident Rebecca Kuijstermans said she was drawn to move Ridgefield because it reminded her of her rural home country of Wales. She and her family have taken advantage of Henny Penny’s educational offerings, which she said cemented her view of the town as being a great place to live.

If the board votes against the lease extension, Kuijstermans said, “It would be a big detriment to the town.”

Next steps

The board made two nominal changes to the agreement.

A new provision in the lease stipulates that Freeman shall contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture to suggest changes to her grazing practices if a species of special concern is subject to impact. Some neighbors felt that increased activity on the farm, such as the noise of lawnmowers and tractors, causes disturbances to nearby wildlife.

Residents will vote on extending Freeman’s lease at a town meeting on Sept. 22.