Storm brings devastation, romantic moment to Bethany farm

BETHANY — Clover Nook Farm suffered devastating damage in last week’s tornado — its historic barn reduced to rubble — but the Demander family, whose spirit is not easily broken, is working tirelessly to try to open its popular farm store Friday as originally scheduled.

They don’t want to disappoint their loyal customers who have waited all winter — even though the store’s opening is still complicated by a lack of electricity, as the source of that was in a fallen barn.

It’s tradition for the popular store to open Memorial Day weekend, beginning 10 a.m. Friday.

“Our customer base is great,” said Debbie Demander, noting the family is touched by all the well wishes and offers of help that have poured in.

The Demanders, who own and run the 253-year-old farm, are Debbie, her husband, Eric, and one of their sons, Lars Demander, 26, who this year was named Connecticut’s Outstanding Farmer of the Year.

When the tornado and storm hit last week, the Demanders experienced some of the most frightening moments of their lives without much warning as they were following storm protocol in securing greenhouses, equipment and buildings.

Eric and Debbie Demander, married for 30 years, also had a remarkably tender moment in the fright.

Seeing they had to get inside, the couple darted across the street to home together and found the front door locked, the wind whipping so hard that it had lifted Lars Demander.

When they couldn’t get in the front door — and realized the only option was to run around to the back, the couple locked eyes, hugged and Eric Demander would tell his wife, it was “one of the most romantic moments we’ve had in years,” Debbie Demander said.

There was so much destruction wrought by the 20-minute storm that U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, and Bethany First Selectwoman Derrilyn Gorski made it one of their stops Monday on a storm damage tour in town that included the airport hangar and residential neighborhoods. DeLauro has made stops recently in hard-hit places including Hamden and North Haven, her staff looking for ways to help property owners receive aid for what’s not covered by insurance.

“It really is staggering — unbelievable devastation all in a split second,” DeLauro said of the damage in Bethany. She noted how one house may be devastated while others nearby seem untouched.

Gorski — who said the corn is so tasty from Clover Nook that people come from Fairfield County to buy it — noted this was her fifth major storm since taking office.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said of the damage. “It’s mind-boggling.”

FEMA will be out to assess the damage.

There were countless trees down, structures, tools and equipment destroyed or damaged, but the crops survived and there were no people or animals hurt. For that, the Demanders said they are grateful.

Lars Demander said the high point of the year was being named Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year, and the low point was the storm.

The family’s harrowing 20 or so minutes Tuesday began when Debbie Demander saw on the news at about 4 p.m. that there were tornado warnings. She sent a group text to her husband and two sons. They had been used to tornado warnings — although the tornadoes never actually happened — and followed protocol.

They locked the greenhouses, put up the protective siding, put the tractors in the barn, secured doors, made sure the animals were safe.

The three of them were in one of the greenhouses working on securing when they saw it was time to vacate. One of the greenhouses lifted up off the ground and landed on the side of the one they were in. The hanging baskets of flowers in the greenhouse started to fall down.

Eric and Debbie made a beeline to the front door of their farmhouse across the street — he had thought about bringing his wife to a closer structure, but decided the house was safest.

Lars went through the side yard to the back — the wind lifting him up on the way. He saw the historic barn tilt, until it completely blew over into pieces, landing in the middle of Fairwood Road.

Debbie Demander said in her group text to family the weather news called for a possible tornado hit at 5:10 p.m. Later, that’s exactly what the clock would say when the power went out.

“It was the scariest event that I’ve been through,” Lars Demander said of the storm.

There are were so many trees down or torn that the view from the house across to the farm has totally changed — they can see a hill in Beacon Falls that was never visible before.

The storm took down cattle fencing and deer fencing.

After the storm passed they couldn’t find the circa 1840 weathervane horse that sat atop the barn in a cupola.

Two days later, to Debbie Demander’s relief, they found the metal horse, named Dexter, 500 feet away in a pasture, but pretty ragged. It’s at the metal shop for repair.

Equipment was dented, lost or broken, along with tools, some of them antiques that are still missing.

Another complication they had was that cherry trees had fallen in a cow pasture and cherry tree leaves, when wilted, are lethal to cows. Since cattle is one of their prime products, the first thing they did was pick up those leaves.

“We’re getting back to farming now,” Lars Demander said. If they are able to open Friday they’ll have many fresh products, including lettuce, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, carrots, basil and beef.

Lars Demander said that right after the storm, the humans felt devastated by the damage, but the animals were right back to normal.

He said the birds were chirping, the cows were eating, the lambs were doing their thing — and one chicken was so happily picking through the rubble for bugs and other things to eat that they named it “Dorothy” after the character in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Lars Demander and his parents, eighth-generation farmers, have worked hard and with passion to continue earning a living through farming.

Lars 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 to practice 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 ’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.

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.”

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.