Ridgefield will allow more sheep in town pasture

Woolly, white and reminiscent of a time when Ridgefield was more a farm town than a commuter suburb, the sheep that graze on the town’s former McKeon Farm property may soon be growing in number.

“I want to add additional animals,” farmer Whitney Freeman told the selectmen. “In the long-term view, to be financially sustainable, I need to have more sheep.”

The Board of Selectmen voted 4 to 0 to renew and expand the license agreement the town has with Freeman, allowing her to graze her animals on town open space land at the property that lies between Ridgebury Road and Old Stagecoach Road — one of the most visible spots in Ridgebury.

The revised license agreement will allow Freeman to increase the number of animals grazed on the property from 30 to 48. It increases the area where she may graze animals from about 12 to just under 16 acres — out of a town holding of 42 to 43 acres at the location.

Freeman is the owner of Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road, about a half mile north of the former McKeon property. She grazes her sheep herd — and sometimes a few goats, or a llama — on town-owned land that was cow pasture in the decades when Daniel and Louise McKeon owned the property and ran it as a dairy farm.

Today much of the former McKeon property — including land, barns and the former McKeon house east of Old Stagecoach Road — is a privately owned horse farm.

But the town bought much of the land west of Old Stagecoach Road, including the apple orchard at the intersection of Old Stagecoach with Ridgebury Road. And that property is now part of the town’s roughly 5,800 acres of open space land.

Conservationists’ support

The Conservation Commission oversees the property, along with nearly all the town’s other open space holdings.

The commission approved the revised agreement with Freeman, before it was presented to the selectmen on Feb. 19. Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle spoke at the selectmen’s meeting in support of the revised agreement.

“Whitney does a great job,” he said.

Coyle later shared with The Press some thoughts on the McKeon Farm open space site and how Freeman’s animals enhance it.

“The McKeon Farm property is one of the jewels in our open space system,” Coyle said.

“The entire property is about 43 acres between Ridgebury Road and Old Stagecoach Road. It consists of open pastures for animal grazing, wooded and wet areas, hayfields, pollinator pathway garden, and an apple orchard.

“The views are wonderful,” Coyle said. “The property was formerly farmland and the addition of the Henny Penny Farm sheep reinforces that image.

“Sheep, goats, and a llama have used the site since 2016 under a lease agreement with the town for approximately 10 acres. Whitney Freeman has requested the use of an additional 6.4 acres of land. This would increase the number of sheep allowed from the original 30 to 48.

“Whitney has been managing her acreage, fertilizing and seeding the meadows,” Coyle said, “greatly improving soil conditions.”

Coyle and Freeman explained to the selectmen that having the animals on the property — and moving them between pastures, as Freeman does — is good for the land.

“The reality is you have to move the animals in a way that’s best for the animals and best for the soil,” Freeman said.

Freeman also described for the selectmen a project she’s completed, adding a well and water lines on the site, to make it easier for her to make sure the animals get enough to drink. The project was undertaken with a help of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Apple trees

First Selectman Rudy Marconi asked about adding more apple trees in the orchard by the intersection of Old Stagecoach and Ridgebury roads.

“It’s really replacement,” said Coyle.

Freeman told the selectmen she’s been looking for — but had been unable to find — someplace that sells large old-fashioned apple trees in keeping with those currently in the orchard. What’s available are new, smaller kinds of apple trees that are popular these days. The smaller trees are designed to allow people to pick the apples without climbing high into the branches.

But the larger trees are more scenic, and better for shade.

“Those are old, standard apple trees,” Freeman said of the orchard. “If you can find a big tree, it’s lovely, bucolic.”