BFA Chapter Spotlight: Hartford, CT

Kris McCue and Mark Cegielski, co-leaders of the Hartford, CT Chapter, sit down for an interview to discuss the growth and success of the Chapter, touching on a variety of topics ranging from how they got involved in the Chapter themselves, to the wildly successful demonstration garden they have established, to the many benefits members and community are reaping from the shared experience.

Starting at the beginning, what attracted you to better quality food?

Kris McCue (KM) – When I was a child I had all the usual childhood sicknesses, I broke my arm 3 times, but I never thought of myself as a sickly person. Then when I was 13, I got my first summer job, working at the George Hall Organic Farm in my town. I had only been exposed to a limited number of vegetables at home, I had never actually eaten much in the way of raw veggies before other than iceberg lettuce salads - my mother always kept a small garden but we were not allowed to eat anything raw out of it - it all had to be boiled and canned and put up for the winter, so I did not know some of the vegetables that I was selling at the farm.

I ate so many organic vegetables that summer and noticed how much better I felt and looked. I saw my grandparents live into their 90s, in really good health, but I saw my mother’s health take a different trajectory, and I decided I wanted to age like my grandparents. As an adult, I had spent a decade going with my mother to too many doctor appointments, including a couple of naturopaths. Some of the advice she got from two different naturopaths was good but, she decided to go with conventional medicine and one prescription after another. Conventional doctors did not address diet and nutrition at all. She aged fast and died 20 years younger than her parents. I’m not having it. I knew early on that good food was the medicine we needed. The trick was going to be finding food that had complete nutrition as nature intended.

Mark Cegielski (MC) – I've always been health and fitness oriented but, like most people (including doctors), did not really comprehend what it means to “eat a healthy balanced diet.” Kris and I both have 4 children for whom we want the best. Yet, there has been a tremendous amount of misinformation as to what that is and how to get it. I remember hearing that eggs were bad for us (due to cholesterol) and feeling that was ridiculous. Over the years, I've come across books which argued against the conventional wisdom, e.g., the cholesterol myth or that raw milk was bad for us.

My epiphany came on a family vacation, about 20 years ago. While browsing one of the gift shops in Bar Harbor, we discovered the owner had published several pet food books. She explained that cats and dogs were carnivores, and were far better off on food we could prepare for them at home. My inner skeptic called for more research. I learned that horses and other animals in the wild far outlived their domesticated kind. I read about Pottenger's cat experiments and much more. The proof was in the energy and healthy coats our own cats developed in short order from a mostly raw meat diet.

That begged the $64,000 question: if processed food wasn't very nutritious for animals, what about us humans? We started shopping farmer's markets, began gardening and became more selective about our food choices. My attempts at organic gardening went well at first, but saw declining results after several years. The obvious solution in my mind at that time was to apply more compost. If a little bit of compost is good, more must be better, right? Wrong! My garden production continued to decline, until I met David Forster in 2013.

At that time, David was the resident soil expert at nearby Eddy Farm in Newington, CT. Kris and I were searching for sources of high quality meats for her annual sausage making event when I stumbled upon David's Grass Hill Beef company. He had sold out for that year, but I asked him to come test my soil and tell me what was wrong. David had also just started holding local BFA meetings. So we invited him to conduct a meeting at Kris's home, for the benefit of our friends and food co-op members. It was a huge success and soon after we were both deeply involved in BFA activities. Credit also goes to my neighbor Beth King, and to our co-op members Joan and Nigel Palmer, from the Institute of Sustainable Nutrition. They had all attended Dan's workshops and gave us the additional motivation we needed to learn about regenerative farming.

Lastly, my father grew up in pre-WW2 Poland and complained that our food, while abundant, was not nearly as good as he remembered it before the war. I dismissed his claims as an old man’s pride in his country of birth. I was recently reminded of that in our chapter book discussion about Peter Tomkins “Secrets of the Soil”. In his introduction, Tomkins states “Anyone alive before World War II, especially in Europe, knows that bread, fruit, vegetables, and meat bear no relation to what they were before the war. Our crop yields may have doubled or even tripled, but their nutritive quality has diminished progressively.” I wish I had listened to my father 40 years ago.

How did you first learn of the BFA?

KM – My friend Mark Cegielski introduced me to David Forster in 2014 and I had David come and do a talk for some friends and my food co-op. I wanted to learn more.

MC – David suggested I attend his (then unofficial) chapter meetings in 2014. It turned out he and I had much in common, so he invited me to join him at the 2015 post-Northampton conference BFA strategy meeting, held at Dan's home in North Brookfield. Attending that BFA strategy meeting was a revelation for me. Soon after, Kris and I attended Steve Westin's RBTI workshop, also at Dan’s home. I guess we made a favorable impression on Dan.

How did the Hartford, CT Chapter get started, and how has it grown over the past couple years?

KM – Mark and I and some other people were invited to David Forster’s house for a meeting when he was about to move to NY in January 2015. He was looking for some people to take over his BFA chapter. Mark and I plus a few other people said we’d do it. Shortly thereafter, Mark and I, and our friend Marlene, took on the leadership of the Chapter, even though we were all students of soil health, and had no training as chapter leaders. We felt it was really important to keep the Chapter going despite our limited experience, and to involve farmers, gardeners and consumers as well. After several introductory meetings, we decided to invite various guest speakers who could speak with authority about various topics we felt were important to our meeting audiences.

MC – In 2015, David's spouse, Rose, began a medical internship in Rochester, NY. Prior to their move out of state, David organized a meeting of followers who could continue his work in central Connecticut. Our chapter was officially recognized as such when we met the 13 member minimum in early 2015. At that time we had 100+ followers in our mailing list. We've since grown to 40+ members, with 215 email followers.

We did not have a specific plan in mind. It just came together as we attended various meetings, workshops and discovered potential speakers we felt could convey our message. Our first year was a crash course in learning about soil management and running a chapter. This was a formative period, of developing ideas. We had the good fortune to have farmer Daren Hall as an interested member. One of the best ideas was our 4,000 square foot BFA demonstration garden, which Daren wholeheartedly supported and helped make possible.

Has your experience in creating and working to build the BFA Demonstration Garden impacted how you relate to Farmers?

MC – We learned how much work it is to maintain a large garden or small farm. You can’t really “walk the talk” unless you’ve had the experience and understand what farmers are up against. The cost of mineral amendments can be prohibitive on a large scale. That forced us to be creative and identify methods and local resources which could help us correct soil deficiencies while keeping costs down. For example, composted leaves and ramial wood chips are abundant in New England and an excellent way to build soil organic matter, soil microbiology and compensate for certain deficient elements. I feel we are much better prepared now.

KM – Agree! While attending to our BFA Demonstration Garden I spent numerous hours seeing the work at George Hall Organic Farm as the season progressed. Also my role as our Co-op local farm contact enabled me to have many conversations with the farmers who supplied produce to our members. I have much more appreciation for what it takes to get crops out to people. Our BFA Demonstration Garden has given us a lot more credibility.

Regards BFA Chapter meetings, how do you plan topics, agendas, events, and so on?

MC – Hmmm... countless emails back and forth between the two of us :-) Actually, we invited leading members to meet with us and discuss potential topics, guest speakers, audiences and venues for holding our meetings. Neither Kris nor I had any experience farming, and were just learning about soil management. We felt unqualified to speak to growers beyond the few introductory meetings we held at first and our table exhibits at farmer's markets and Grange events. So we began identifying potential guest speakers we could enlist. Dan and David obliged on several occasions, and that certainly made a huge difference in our attempts to grow our following.

As for topics, there are so many possibilities. We decided that farm tours were our best option for the Summer months, and otherwise agreed to focus on whatever was appropriate for the time of year, e.g., seed swaps during the off-season. Dan had compiled a list of potential topics, by month, at the first strategy meeting I attended, and that served as our starting point. Library conference rooms were an obvious choice for meeting locations, as they were available to non-profit groups for free. Our very first "introductory meeting" held at Simsbury Library was a huge success with over 80 people in attendance, thanks to newspaper listings and Kris "beating the bushes" to spread word about it via posters and social media. We met Todd Harrington, who has since obliged us by conducting several very successful and educational meetings at his organic land care facility in Bloomfield. Todd also introduced us to the leadership at CT-NOFA, for which we are immensely grateful.

KM – We just think of a topic we are interested in and then we look for an expert to speak on the topic. Mark and I are both gardeners so we at least had an idea of the gardening season here in the Northeast. We contact people we’ve met or heard who inspire us, and sometimes we use a book or article we read as our source. For example, Dan Barber’s book “The Third Plate” featured Jack Algiere at Stone Barns in New York. So we took a chance, asked him to come talk to our chapter and he said yes.

Based on your experiences, what can you share regards organizing and running BFA Chapter meetings and events?

KM – I view our BFA chapter meetings as social events as well as educational events. I led a large homeschool support group for about 15 years and I always served food as part of our meetings, classes and events. I find people tend to sit longer when they have a little something to eat. I also felt like we were asking people to come straight from work to sit for a couple hours, so the least we could do is have some light refreshments. It also seemed like a nice opportunity, if they were willing, for the chapter farmers to have us advertise and highlight their crops.

Planning and running an event is easy. The challenge is to get people to show up. We want the Chapter to be a resource, a way to get people involved with biological growing.

MC – We run meetings a little differently than ML Altobelli at her monthly Westminster, MA BFA Discussion Group, which by the way is an excellent forum. They schedule their topics at the beginning of the year, while we play it mostly “by ear”. Our meetings depend on the availability of guest speakers, many of whom are involved in farming. So we do not necessarily know if they will be available that far ahead of time. When we discover someone is available, we go for it. That provides us some degree of flexibility too. We’re hoping to schedule Derek Christianson sometime soon for a repeat engagement here, before his growing season at Brix Bounty Farm is in full swing. We’d like to hear about his experiences with Biodynamic (BD) farming.

What was the most enjoyable event that you have organized?

KM – Way too hard to pick one! A few that I particularly enjoyed were the 2-day workshop that Dan did at my house, having Will Bonsall come all the way from Maine to talk to our chapter, and our farm tours, such as Bryan O’Hara’s Tobacco Road Farm.

MC – All meetings are good opportunities to meet people and learn new things. Dan's 2-day Workshop, where we met Craig Floyd, from Coogan Farm in Mystic, CT was a highlight for me. After we make all the necessary arrangements for an event and promote the heck out of it, we get to meet and chat with lots of interesting and like-minded folks. I think that is the best part. On top of that it is so great to be outdoors in an environment that I find so rewarding, after a long career in an office environment.

How do people learn about upcoming Chapter events?

KM – I do a lot of advertising on Facebook, as well as posting announcements on our email list. Also we look for contact information and send private emails to people outside of our Chapter whom we think would like to be part of a particular event. We also print flyers and post them in multiple locations.

MC – We also take every opportunity to network. It helps to meet and align with organizations that promote Organic agriculture, people like Jeff Cordulack, the Executive Director of CT NOFA, and the folks who coordinate the New CT Farmers Alliance. I’ve even reached out to people like Jack Kittredge of NOFA-Mass, to help us out. Such connections often put us in touch with others. Once the leaders of such organizations get to know you, they can help spread word of upcoming events. It seems to me, that more people are starting to pay attention to our efforts in CT and beyond. I highly recommend that other BFA chapters follow our lead to connect with the major agriculture related organization in their state.

How would you say members have benefited from being a part of this BFA Chapter?

KM – People talk of how much better their gardens are doing since they started using some of what they are learning from our group. People thank us for all the speakers we bring in to teach about biological growing techniques. They are very appreciative.

MC – Better gardens!

KM – What about the story of soil testing and the rock dust?

MC – We have a Co-op member who was a little skeptical about testing and remineralizing her soil. She heard about the rock dust we were offering and asked me bring to her a small truck load. She was so impressed with the results she got last year, just from the rock dust, that she asked me to do a soil test and provide any additional amendments her soil required. Once people see the results, they want to know and see more. Another meeting participant was sufficiently impressed with the results from his small garden last year to ask for help with his 17,000 square foot lawn this year... Proof that testing and remineralizing soil works.

Are you planning to do a BFA Demonstration Garden this year?

MC - Oh Yes! We are expanding with a 30 x 125 high tunnel into an adjoining section of the farm. It is going to be built on the ground where for two years, tractors have been parked!

You have tabled at local events - how was that experience?

KM – My aim is to inspire people and to show them there are lots of things that are not difficult that they can do to improve the quality of the food they are growing. Also, I try to appeal to children as they are the next generation of farmers and gardeners. My goal is to inspire people to learn more. I was a Homeschool leader for 15 years. Setting up displays comes naturally to me.

With our tabling display, I try to have lots of resources on the table like books and ACRES magazines; we try to have lots of visual aids so people can see and touch what we are talking about. We have also added seeds for people to take home and try growing something new or different. Having something people to take with them seems to help as well.

At tabling events, I make an effort to greet people. That usually makes them turn toward you and reply, and then I’ll ask if they are a gardener or farmer. If they are a grower, it is easy to get them into a conversation about their gardening experiences; and if they say no, then I ask them if they are an eater. I can usually get them into a conversation about food quality as a consumer.

MC – Yes, and we did the same at the Garlic & Arts Festival in Orange, MA last year. It is about getting people’s attention and interest to attend meetings and hopefully join as BFA Members. Most people are very interested in the Refractometer and Brix Chart we demonstrate as a means of measuring produce quality.

What do you believe attracts people to both your BFA Chapter events, as well as the BFA?

KM – For some, it’s about the environment, for some it’s in response to ill health and their wanting access to healthier foods, and for others it is wanting to learn to be a more successful gardener. With others, it is wanting healthier food like they remember having when they were growing up. Other people are interested in getting help to solve the issues they are having with their Organic garden. Once they come to our Chapter events, hear our speakers and see the farms we tour, they often come back to learn more .

MC – Having the BFA Mineral Depot and bulk Fedco orders helps too. People who are not even members are calling and asking about it. One of our members is a Biology teacher who is thrilled with what she has learned. A chiropractor found out about soil testing through a friend and asked for help with her garden. People are realizing that food in supermarkets is not necessarily the best for us. There is a trend toward growing your own, more nutritious food. Our food coop is an example of this. Every one there wants better quality food. We provide an opportunity to share how to grow the best possible food.

Wow, that is pretty empowering!

KM – Yes! You can do this and talk with your farmers.

MC – I like to think it is a beginning of a movement.

The Hartford, CT Chapter has hosted several events with speakers such as Derek Christianson of Brix Bounty Farm and Will Bonsall from Maine. How did you organize these events?

KM – I view anyone who inspires me as a potential speaker for our group no matter who they are, and anyone who is an expert on a given topic as a resource for me to learn from. I used to be a very shy person but I outgrew that during my time as a homeschool support group leader. Being an advocate for your children and other families makes you lose the fear of talking with people. I kind of think of our BFA group as my extended family and I have no hesitation about asking knowledgable people to share what they know with us.

MC – Same here. I exchanged a few emails with Will Bonsall after learning that he had been a member of Seed Savers Exchange and grew hulless seed pumpkins at his farm. We were eager to try growing our own as most of the pepitas sold in the US, organic or otherwise, are imported from China. Will happened to be one of the guest speakers at the 5th BFA Soil & Nutrition Conference, so Kris arranged to have him come speak to us about seed saving. Another example: one of our Co-op members mentioned meeting seaweed harvester, Larch Hanson, from Steuben, Maine. That is all it took for Kris to get in touch with Larch and invite him to speak to us about the benefits of seaweed for gardens and our health.

KM – What I found is that most people are happy to share with a group of interested people.

MC – I belong to a beekeepers group that has a guest speaker every month. I asked them how they go about making arrangements and was told that most academics are expected to go out and speak and write papers. Their fees are generally reasonable, and because the BFA is a non-profit speakers are often willing to come for free. We do take up a collection and let speakers know that there will be some money to help with their travel expenses.

KM – And we feed them with really good food!

We are also thankful of doing this work and providing us the opportunities to meet some inspiring people along the way.

How do you feel such Chapter events have contributed to your community?

KM – We are building a sense of community within our Chapter that is not reliant on geography. We have a 'we are all in this together' approach, and we let people know that we the Chapter are here to be a resource to anyone who asks. Mark and I are on a mission to learn all we can about healthier soil so we can provide healthier food for our families. We welcome all to join us on the journey. We act as facilitators, bringing people together so they can network among themselves as well.

Are there any success stories that Chapter members have shared with you?

There are many people who have remarked that their vegetable gardens have done better since they started using biological practices that they have learned from our meetings. Mostly they talk about getting a longer season from their plants, and some have been able to halt the progress of fungal issues like PM using raw milk and molasses in a foliar spray which they learned from us.

In your experience, what has been most successful in terms of marketing and spreading the word about Chapter events?

KM – Mark and I are still scratching our heads over this one. We continue with Facebook because it seems to be where most people are, we send announcements to our email list, and we post flyers in libraries and community gathering places but again it’s hard to know how many people actually read them. When we remember to ask how people have heard about us the answer is usually Facebook, or our email list or a friend told them. Depending on the topic or the speaker we have coming, I may do research to find contact info for science departments at local schools, or I may look for lists of all local organic farms, or I may reach out to organizations I think would want to be involved with our event, such as CT NOFA, the Grange, local Churches who I know to have community gardens, organizers of community gardens, etc… I try to find the person at the top and ask them to spread the word in their community. I am still connected in the homeschool community and I know them to be very concerned with health and nutrition and environment, so I will contact a few friends whom I know I can trust to spread the word about our upcoming events. I am friends with my naturopath and the owner of a natural health products store, so I always ask them for help advertising. Basically I look at my whole network of friends, family and acquaintances as a networking system.

In 2016, the Hartford Chapter began a BFA Demonstration Garden - a wonderful project that transformed a less than optimal plot into amazing abundance. Could you share how that come about?

KM – In January of 2016, Mark and I took over the management of a 4,000 square foot garden in the middle of the George Hall Organic Farm in Simsbury, Connecticut. We intended to create an educational space where we could put into practice more of what we were learning from our BFA Chapter activities, and where we could share the experience with our chapter members and the public. With very solidly compacted ground, we worked it by hand, using no farm machinery. We did a soil test first and added some of our rock dust and minerals, then topped it with a thick layer of leaf mulch and left it alone until Spring.

In March of 2016, we began uncovering the foot-thick layer of leaf mulch using pitchforks. We then broad forked the ground to break up the terribly compacted soil. Over the Spring and Summer of 2016, we turned a patch of ground that was reminiscent of concrete and was only sparsely populated with a few grassy weeds, into an oasis teeming with gorgeous vegetables and herbs and flowers, not to mention the pollinators and songbirds too. Even the farm's owner was quite impressed and had taken to calling our experimental garden an “oasis.”

Through our application of the depleted minerals, and adding to the soil biology with indigenous microbes and various microbial inoculants, as well as keeping them nurtured with the use of composts and seaweed- and leaf-mulches, we were able to regenerate a healthy growing system, in less than one year's time. In 2017 we will continue the second year of regenerative growing practices, and we will expand our 4,000 square feet with the addition of a high tunnel, which we will also manage as a no-till, biological system. I am looking forward to continuing my learning adventures with our BFA Chapter for years to come.

We have kept a photo journey of this project on our Chapter Facebook page: Album 1 and Album 2

What is the motivating factor behind your enthusiasm and energy maintaining and building the Hartford, CT Chapter?

KM – Wanting to preserve the health of my family. My kids grew up watching their great grandmother age and their grandmother age, so they have a side by side comparison. I would often ask them which they would choose for themselves? For me, it is also a natural curiosity to want to learn more on whatever subject that interests me. I’ve always been around farms and farming because of where I live, I was not born into a farming family, but my grandparents and mother always had gardens at home, and so I was raised with the idea of growing food.

My grandmother always nurtured people with food, she was always feeding people, it was her way of showing that she cared. I think I inherited that from her. I’ve always loved food and cooking and feeding people, and being involved in the growing of the food is the best because then I know what I am serving is also the gift of good health. I am learning so much from my involvement with the BFA, where I am continually inspired by the experiences of other gardeners and farmers, and if I can give that gift back, if I can inspire someone else in turn or if I can share some information that worked for me, then I’m happy.

MC – Kris and I have known each other for nearly 10 years through our involvement with our food co-op, and found we had the chemistry to make things happen. After retiring, I spent 5 years at a bicycle shop thinking that I might want to eventually start my own shop. 5 years later I decided it was time for a change. Getting to know BFA Agronomist David Forster was the catalyst, and working with Kris has been inspiring and motiving. We manage to get a lot done and we get a lot of vegetables! Being with the BFA, has opened so many doors. What I have come to realize is that if you give it your best shot and don't worry, it all works out in the end.

Going forward, what and how do you envision the growth and impact of the Chapter?

KM – I personally would really like to see us have a very strong core group of maybe a couple dozen people who would be more actively involved in planning, preparing and presenting our Chapter meetings. I was very impressed by ML Altobelli's BFA Discussion group in Westminster, MA and how they operate. Lots of involvement, not just passive learning. I do not like the student as receptacle for information model. I prefer the “we are all in this together and everyone pitching in” approach. So more participation in a hands-on way from our Chapter members is my goal.

I would also like to see us make more of an impact on consumers, empowering them to make their voices heard about the lack of quality in our food. I would like them to be confident about having conversations with their local growers, to ask about their growing practices and soil and crop management. I don’t want to see farmers given a hard time by the public, and I would like people to express that they truly care about the taste and quality and longevity of the food they are buying, and to encourage their local farmers to go the extra mile. I think there are many farmers who know they could do better, but unless they are guaranteed robust sales, it is not worth the added cost in time and materials. I can respect that. There has to be support from the community, from the consumers. I would also like to see us have more conversations with chefs and restauranteurs, as they are very much invested in food quality and it makes me sad to see so many of them not patronizing local farms.

MC – Daren Hall was our 2nd success story. After a great experience buying bulk organic butternut squash from a Massachusetts farmer who experienced a bumper crop in 2014, thanks to David Forster’s efforts, one of our co-op members informed us that Daren had a surplus cabbage. That turned out to be the beginning of a lasting relationship and more good things to come. So we contacted Daren, got a great price and bought a 600 lb truck load, half of which went to our food coop. The remainder was sold (at our cost) to a New Britain farm which I had befriended. We were able to help Daren at Hall Farm, Urban Oaks which serves an inner city community and our own food co-op. We hope to be able to continue to making a difference and, in so doing, get the attention of other farmers, gardeners and consumers.