Connecticut’s top young farmer grows success at family’s Bethany farm
Connecticut’s Outstanding Young Farmer of 2018, Lars Demander of Clover Nook Farm, is a hybrid of sorts.
Demander, 26, grew up on his family’s 253-year-old farm at 50 Fairwood Road doing farm chores in the morning and afternoon — taught hands-on by his father — but then went on to the Ivy League to learn the science of agriculture, receiving a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Cornell.
It was there he learned about facets of farming such as seed selection, the life cycles of pathogens and weeds, and soil chemistry. He topped it all off with a recent master’s degree in agricultural and resource economics from the University of Connecticut that taught him a lot about marketing products.
When Demander graduated from UConn, he had the opportunity to come back to the 90-acre farm, but he had to find a way for the farm to make enough money to support his parents and himself.
He met with great success.
Demander pursued a Farm Reinvestment Grant to help expand the farm’s retail store, which more than doubled sales in its first year of operation; he added additional product lines, offering Clover Nook’s own beef. The demand now exceeds the supply.
He also incorporated cover cropping, composting and drip irrigation as just a few ways he practices sustainable farming. And he’s used social media and events such as an open farm day to engage the public.
All the hard work — seven days a week, morning till ’til night during season — culminated in him receiving The Outstanding Young Farmer of 2018 award, given annually by the Connecticut Agricultural Information Council as part of Connecticut Agriculture Day at the state Capitol.
“It’s a really good feeling getting (the award). The nomination came out of nowhere,” he said. “I feel honored.”
Well, the nomination didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He was nominated by Judith Chute Hsiang, a Bethany resident and New Haven County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator at New Haven County Extension Center in North Haven.
Hsiang wrote in her nomination letter that, as a customer and professional, “I see the effort Lars puts into educating consumers through casual interactions, as well as farm tours and special events.”
She also wrote in the nomination letter: “The generation to generation passion for continually improving the farm, adapting to new scientific knowledge and changing demographics is notable. Service to the wider community is impressive.”
Demander, an eighth-generation farmer, grew up in the farm life after his father, Eric Demander, took over the place from his father-in-law 25-plus years ago and had to learn the ropes himself.
Lars Demander recalled riding on the tractor with his father as a youngster and driving a tractor at about age 13 — as soon as he could reach the pedal — and said he wanted to be a farmer since at least the first grade.
In 2009, when the farm’s tomato crop was destroyed by late blight, Lars Demander realized it was essential to learn the science behind agriculture as well as the modern technologies and practices.
Even with all the education, Lars Demander still enjoys being out in the fields with the produce and animals the most, but as the farm has grown so much in its offerings and number of people it employs, there is more management involved.
But he said even planting needs supervision because there’s a lot more to it than throwing seeds in a hole
“I think you have to love what you do to do this kind of work,” Demander said. “It’s rewarding to grow the variety of food we do. ... It’s nice to be able to provide our local community an array of products they truly appreciate.”
On a personal note, Demander said it fulfilling to sit down to dinner with a nice steak and vegetables knowing how they were raised.
Although the farm is nicknamed, “The Jewel of Bethany,” its growing popularity has drawn customers from around the area. It’s expanded, rustic, well-lit and immaculate store — qualities Demander learned to emphasize in the marketing, retail development portion of his education — does a booming business from the time it opens around Memorial Day to the time it closes at Thanksgiving.
The expanded store sells sauce, salsa and other special products made from the farm’s own fresh produce and the family sells their own popular farm-raised beef, with a plan to add fresh lamb. They sell other locally made and grown products, as well, including cheeses, honey, maple syrup, flavored olive oil and vinegar.
Sweet corn, pumpkins and tomatoes are their biggest crops, but Lars Demander said they grow everything from A-Z — “artichokes to zucchini.”
Lars Demander said that while formal education has done so much for growing the farm, there are some things he could only get from his father, who still works the farm, such as machinery repair, fabricating new tools, being able to read the animals and telling when is the best day and time to pick corn, because its sugar levels are tied to the weather.
Lars Demander takes pride in their beef cows — another factor in the farm’s growing success — and when they put word out the beef is back from the butcher people are lined up at farm store before opening.
He said the cows are happy and they feed in pasture, so they are primarily grass-fed, but he balances that with brewer’s grain, and special bread for just the right taste.
“My big thing is having cows that have freedom of choice” in how they live, he said.
Now that he’s a state winner, Lars Demander will compete nationally in the National Outstanding Young Farmers Program, which is sponsored by John Deere.
According to the Connecticut Agricultural Information Council, “The purpose of the Outstanding Young Farmers program is to bring about a greater interest in the farmer to foster better urban-rural relations through the understanding of the farmers’ endeavors, to develop a further appreciation for their contributions and achievements, and to inform the agribusiness community of the growing urban awareness of the farmers’ importance and impact on America’s economy.”
Lars Demander’s mother, Deborah, who also remains in the business, said she’s proud and her son “worked hard to get where he is.”
“He brought all his education home and between social media and public events, he’s getting our name out there,” she said.
Always with an eye to the future, Lars Demander said he someday would like to expand the farm store to offer everything needed to make meals.
Part of what he does in engaging the public is try to dispel myths about farms that have made it onto the Internet, including that they abuse animals or use dangerous pesticides.
He said that for Clover Nook — believed to gets its name from having an abundance of clover — he designed an integrated pest management system. Pesticides are used only if an entire crop is threatened and there is no alternative. And he will not use them at all if the edible part of plant already is out.
Instead, he focuses on use of netting, fences and other natural means. For instance, their onions are grown with a silver reflective mulch that creates so much heat that it repels insects.
“It’s all about adopting new ways to eliminate pesticides,” he said.