A third-generation farmer, Sal Gilbertie gets up every morning and goes to work all day in his four acres of greenhouses on Adams Road. He grows petite edibles, cut greens and other USDA-certified organic products to sell to leading food markets in the tri-state area.
He and his family own and operate Gilbertie’s Herbs and Garden Center in Westport, begun by his grandfather, in addition to farming the wholesale operation in Easton.
Farming is what Gilbertie loves, and at 79, he shows no signs of slowing down or wanting to do anything else.
“I hope I can keep doing it all my life,” he said at the end of a busy workday.
But farming has challenges beyond dawn-to-dusk hard work and the whims of Mother Nature.
Three years ago, financial reality forced him to sell the 34-acre property on Adams and Keller roads that he and his wife, Marie, purchased in 1984. Dan Levinson, president of Main Street Resources, a limited liability company in Westport, bought it. Gilbertie continues to operate his business through a lease with Levinson.
Levinson and David Brant, executive director of the Aspetuck Land Trust, want to create a conservation easement that would preserve 15.4 acres of the property as open space and have approached the town of Easton about forming a partnership.
The site abuts Randall’s Farm Preserve, the 34-acre former farm that Joan DuPont donated to the land trust three years ago.
Brant and Ross Ogden, a Planning and Zoning Commission alternate, presented a broad overview of the proposed partnership to the Board of Selectmen, subject to negotiations and taxpayer approval.
The other half of the property, with its working greenhouses and buildings, plus the house, which sits on three acres, would continue to be a farm.
Brant said the proposed venture would be “a nice extension” to the 34 acres Joan Dupont donated, and that the land trust “would work very hard to come to some kind of a deal.”
“We love Easton, which has a great agricultural heritage and ongoing agricultural enterprises,” Brant said. “Preventing Gilbertie’s farm from being developed is a good thing. It’s fortunate that Dan has the means and inclination to preserve it as an agricultural enterprise.”
Sport Hill Farm also grows vegetables on the site, Brant said.
With regard to the 14 acres that would be preserved as open space, Brant said the land trust would undertake fund raising to come up with the money to purchase it, if the town is able to be a partner.
“We’d like to see Gilbertie’s Farm preserved, and we’re going to try to make it happen,” First Selectman Adam Dunsby said.
The town has a fund for fees in lieu of open space that can be used only for open space purchases. People who come before the Planning and Zoning Commission for subdivision approvals have the choice of donating 15% of the land they are developing or the cash equivalent. Over the years the fund has accrued $806,916.
Two other funds might be able to be tapped for money for this purpose, the agriculture land preservation fund, which has $66,595 and the land acquisition fund, which has $8,752.
“So the town is in the rare position of actually having money that could be used for this purpose as I understand it,” Dunsby said. “If the town participated, there would be no tax impact. We would be drawing on existing funds.”
Since the partnership involves a purchase, it would require a referral to the Planning and Zoning Commission, meetings with the Board of Finance and a Town Meeting. Nothing is set in stone since the idea is in the conceptual stage, subject to negotiations, but the parties are anxious to move it forward.
“We purchased the property from Sal three years ago to protect it and are hoping to work with the land trust, the town and Sal to put a transaction together that protects the farm long-term for the community,” Levinson said. “We would love to keep it as an operating farm and protect it from rising prices and fear of future development.”
Levinson said Easton is one of the few parts of the world that has a shot at preserving small, working farms, “preserving something really beautiful.”
“We believe that the local food system is really critical in New England, and places like Gilbertie’s can play a critical role in bringing local farming back to life,” Levinson said.
He is cofounder to the Green Village Initiative, a nonprofit in Bridgeport, whose mission is to create social, economic and environmental change through a network of , and . The initiative promotes and educates the community about nutrition, healthy eating, agriculture, and gardening in an urban setting.
“We have a strong interest to get something done in the town’s and land trust’s interest, as we set out to protect the farm,” Levinson said.
Gilbertie said he just had his best quarter selling petite edibles and is excited about the prospect of working with Brant and Levinson, whom he considers friends, and the town to preserve the farming legacy in Easton.
A renowned expert on herbs and vegetables,Gilbertie has written half a dozen books, available on Amazon.com, and appeared on the Martha Stewart Show.
Stewart had this to say about Gilbertie’s fifth book, Small-Plot, High-Yield Gardening: “Whether you have a real garden or just a window box, I can think of no better guide to creating a sustainable herb and vegetable garden than Sal Gilbertie,” she said. “For more than 30 years I have turned to Sal for healthy, productive plants. With this useful and informative book, he can help you, too, cultivate your garden.”