Aspetuck Land Trust Assures Sustainable Future for Gilbertie’s Farm

The Aspetuck Land Trust’s historic purchase of Gilbertie’s Farm for $2 million marks the nonprofit organization’s first working farm acquisition. The organization has previously preserved 1,940 acres of land in Connecticut.

Tucked behind a country farm stand and bucolic knoll on Adams Road in Easton, Gilbertie’s Farm unobtrusively grows fresh herbs and Petite Edibles micro salad greens in an elaborate system of 27 greenhouses.

Sal Gilbertie, a third generation farmer of local renown, runs the largest certified organic greenhouse operation in the Northeast on 34 rolling acres, mostly hidden from view. 

The Gilbertie’s Farm purchase, adjacent to the Aspetuck Land Trust’s existing Randall’s Farm Preserve on Sport Hill Road, protects a 70-acre agricultural block in perpetuity for farming and open space.

Randall’s Farm Preserve, formerly a dairy farm, was no longer in operation when Mrs. Henry B. DuPont III donated the parcel to the Aspetuck Land Trust in 2012.

Unlike Randall’s Farm Preserve — with open meadows, stone walls, a pond and groomed trails — Gilbertie’s Farm is not a trailed nature preserve and doesn’t have public access at this time.

“Easton is such a unique town because of its farms, and we want to do everything we can to preserve that heritage,” David Brant, Aspetuck Land Trust executive director, said. “We can work with other farms in Easton to protect them, usually by getting grants for a conservation easement. The land trust would purchase the development rights, but the farmer would still own the property.”

Gilbertie no longer owned his Easton farm, which complicated the acquisition. Hard times had prompted him to sell the property to an investor who permitted him to continue to farm the land.

The Aspetuck Land Trust had to borrow funds from the seller, Dan Levinson of Westport, who was also a major donor, to preserve Gilbertie’s land. Borrowing to secure the farm means the Aspetuck Land Trust will have to do a lot of fundraising. 

“We closed on Gilbertie’s, but we still have a mortgage of $800,000 to pay off,” Brant said. “We hope we can work with the town administration to help defray the cost.” 

Gilbertie will lease the farm from the Aspetuck Land Trust, which is exploring ways to make the farm more accessible to the public. Gilbertie’s Farm is part of a larger open space vision the Aspetuck Land Trust has been developing as a component of the multi-town Green Corridor, emphasizing backyard biodiversity.

“Our mission is protecting open space, and saving a working farm today will have benefits for many generations to come,” the Aspetuck Land Trust stated in a message to members. “As we move forward, we will raise funds to cover the farm purchase and other open spaces identified in the Green Corridor — so important to all of us.”

The acquisition culminated from four years of study, collaboration, and negotiation. Ross Ogden, an Aspetuck Land Trust board member, helped to negotiate the Gilbertie’s acquisition every step of the way. Seeing it come to fruition excites him. 

“The size, location and connectivity to Randall’s Farm Preserve makes the Gilbertie’s purchase far more valuable than buying two unconnected properties,” Ogden said. “A working farm will be a unique opportunity and a fun one. Our  goal is to support Sal Gilbertie and the local food focus.”

The timing during the COVID-19 pandemic conveys an increased appreciation for locally sourced food and highlights the importance of the property to the Aspetuck Land Trust and the town, according to Ogden.

“I’m very happy about this property in particular, but there are other great farms out there,” Ogden said. “We will be able to use Gilbertie’s as a model to preserve more farms in the future. It’s an opportunity to partner with Sal, who is a phenomenal person and an inspiration to be involved with, and support his mission, which is symbiotic with what we do.”

Ogden has lived in Easton with his family since 2007 and serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission. With a master’s degree in environmental management, he brings a background in commercial real estate, a passion for the outdoors and love of fishing to his volunteer position on the land trust board.

Easton’s First Selectman David Bindelglass emphasized the private transaction aspect of the Gilbertie’s acquisition and not something the town negotiated. That said, he thinks the purchase “is a wonderful thing for Easton on many levels. Farming is at the heart of our culture here in town, so preserving farmland is of the utmost importance. Ownership by any individual or even by the town of Easton always includes the risk that the land could someday be sold off.”

On the other hand, ownership by the Aspetuck Land Trust “guarantees that the land will stay as is for perpetuity,” Bindelglass said. “Also that it will be well cared for. The Green Corridor, which I have discussed in the past with Jean Puchalski, chair of the Agricultural Commission, is a wonderful initiative for preserving land in our area and its ecology, and this property will add to that as well.”

The Agricultural Commission has compiled a list of Easton Farms and Farm Stand openings, including Gilbertie’s, and how to contact them with Covid-19 precautions in mind.

Renowned Farmer

Sal Gilbertie with his organic Petite Edibles micro greens. — Donated Photo

Carrying on a family tradition his grandfather began in 1922, Sal Gilbertie took over the business in 1959 and adapted to changing market tastes. Over the years, he switched from cut flowers to vegetables and herbs. The enterprise includes Gilbertie’s Wholesale Farm in Easton and Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens in Westport.

Each spring Gilbertie and his employees plant more than 300 varieties of herbs, 100 varieties of vegetables and 50 different cold crops, all of them 100% USDA Certified Organic. Started from seed, Gilbertie and his farm workers grow the the plants in specially formulated, super rich, potting soil. 

National store chains, including Whole Foods, and local markets Greiser’s Coffee and Market and Sport Hill Farm, sell Gilbertie’s herbs and Petite Edible micro greens, along with Gilbertie’s Garden Center retail location at 7 Sylvan Road in Westport.    

Gilbertie gained considerable renown from store visits from Martha Stewart and an appearance on her website, where he explained high-yield, small plot gardening. He’s written a dozen books about microgreens, gardening  and herbs and is a popular speaker. 

He will talk about “Micro Greens and Super Greens”at the Wilton Historical Society on July 24 from 4 to 6 p.m., pending COVID-19 restrictions.

With the Aspetuck Land Trust’s stewardship and community support, the future looks bright for Gilbertie’s Farm and Easton’s extraordinary farming heritage.

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