Seated under a shade tree on a summer afternoon, Sal Gilbertie looked around his well-tended farm and smiled. A gentle breeze wafted through the cultivated fields and rows of greenhouses.
“You have to be an optimist to be a farmer because you have a lot of things against you,” Sal said. “The Northeast is not an easy place to be a farmer. You have the good years that carry you through the bad years. You really have to love it if you’re going to be a farmer.”
Tucked behind a bucolic knoll, Gilbertie’s Organic Farm, at 65 Adams Road in Easton, Conn., comprises 27 greenhouses, a farm stand, a farmhouse and several barns and outbuilding on 34 rolling acres. It’s the largest certified organic greenhouse operation in the Northeast.
Sal has seen good years and lean years, and adapted to changing market conditions and tastes. This has been a particularly trying year for everyone in the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. But his business has never been better.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. “We had always been in the potted herb and vegetable business, but that’s very seasonal — April, May and June — and no one buys potted plants any other time. The rest of the year we would struggle, struggle, struggle.”
Over the last five years, he also went into the “cut” business and began growing organic micro salad greens, his signature Petite Edibles. He started the new enterprise quite by accident because some chefs were buying potted plants and cutting them.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you grow them in trays and cut them yourself?’” Sal said. “We began doing that in January, five and a half years ago. And now we’re doing about 3,000 trays a week.”
The advantage of growing “cut” rather than potted greens is that it keeps the farm busy 52 weeks of the year. “We have cash flow year-round which we never had before,” he said.
Gilbertie’s drivers deliver Petite Edibles and potted herbs and plants to grocery stores, markets and garden centers in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
“If you put a compass in Easton and go out 125 miles, half is in the Atlantic Ocean, but you still have 70 million people,” Sal said. “We’re so lucky to be in a rural spot like Easton and be so close to such a big population.”
The farm also sells microgreens, potted plants, farm-fresh eggs and seasonal items on the honor system at its on-site, fully enclosed farm stand just off Adams Road. It’s the only part of the wholesale farm that’s open to the public.
Prior to growing cut greens, Sal had tried a lot of things: landscaping, growing ornamentals and perennials, but nothing really extended the season. Now he has a product line he can grow and sell year-round. In addition to micro salad greens, he grows edible nasturtiums and viola flowers, which are a big hit and add a nice flavor, he said.
In June, L’Oréal signed an agreement to acquire Thayers Natural Remedies, based at Gilbertie’s Farm. The international beauty company, employs 88,000 people worldwide and has set sustainable development goals, aiming to empower its ecosystem for a more inclusive and sustainable society.
Gilbertie’s Farm grows the witch hazel — a flowering plant known for its medicinal properties — and slippery elm — used as a remedy for common ailments, like fevers, wounds, and sore throats — that Thayers Natural Remedies uses to make its products.
Founded in 1847 by Doctor Henry Thayer, the brand is best known for its iconic Witch Hazel Aloe Vera Formula Facial Toner, a best selling product popular among a diverse group of consumers.
“Supposedly everything is going to stay the same,” Sal said, based on L’Oréal’s 10-year plan for sustainable growth. All of this works hand-in-glove with Gilbertie’s organic farm methods.
But that’s not all. The Aspetuck Land Trust’s historic April 24 purchase of Gilbertie’s Farm for $2 million represents the first purchase of a working farm by the nonprofit membership organization, which previously preserved 1,940 acres of land in Connecticut.
The Gilbertie purchase, adjacent to the land trust’s Randall’s Farm Preserve on Sport Hill Road, protects a 70-acre agricultural block in perpetuity for farming and open space. Sal continues to farm the land but now leases the farm from the land trust. Randall’s Farm Preserve is open to the public, but Gilbertie’s farm is not. However, the land trust held a socially distanced native plant sale at Gilbertie’s in the spring.
“I love what I do and I want to keep doing it,” he said. “God has been so good to me. I’ve had a wonderful life. How can you not love this? Of course we’re lucky because we’re on this farm with this breeze. I’m grateful for the life I’ve led.”
Fit and trim, Sal looks and acts much younger than his 83 years. That he is a happy man radiates in his talk and actions. He didn’t plan to be a farmer, but life had other plans. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I was supposed to be an accountant,” he said. “But my dad got sick and died suddenly. I was the oldest child and had just gotten out of school. All of a sudden I was in the growing business. It was hard at first, but I grew to love it.’
His grandfather had started the business as a cut flower farm in Westport in the early 20th century. Over the course of time and evolution, his grandfather, father and he had to change their business model a number of times and adapt to the changing market. These days, Gilbertie’s Westport Garden Center, which has been in operation since 1922, is a successful, fourth-generation family-owned store.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted people’s lives and livelihoods everywhere, but as 100% certified organic growers, Gilbertie’s was already doing most of the things now required by federal and state regulations for food growers.
“A lot of things we’ve been doing for the past five years since we got GAP certification,” Sal said. GAP is short for “good agricultural practices” certification, a USDA audit program through which producers can demonstrate their compliance with food safety requirements to purchasers and retailers.
“The only thing I did differently was that before the pandemic, the employees who did the cutting and packing had to wear masks,” he said. “Now the whole farm has to wear masks all the time. The other big thing I changed was we always had four sinks; now we have seven sinks so people can wash their hands frequently. The sanitizer for the pandemic we’ve been using for four years.
“We had to wash all the tables and now we also clean all the door knobs on all the greenhouses every day. We spray anything that is being touched. I’m trying to set a good example by wearing a mask all the time.”
The Easton 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.
‘A Peace to Easton’
Sal moved to Easton in 1969 with his wife, Marie, and they raised their four children here. They quickly became close friends with Robert and Judith Keller, who owned a dairy farm on Adams Road. Sal’s family’s plant and vegetable business was doing well in Westport and needed more space to grow the plants and produce they sold. When the Kellers moved to a much larger farm in Kinderhook, N.Y. in 1984, Sal bought their Easton farm, which is now Gilbertie’s Organic Farm.
Having lived in Easton for 51 years, he says with conviction, “The best thing about living in Easton is the people. There’s a peace to Easton. We have this honor system at the farm stand. A lot of out-of-staters come up and don’t understand it. You can do that in a place like Easton. People respect each other. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
He praised the Aspetuck Land Trust’s purchase of the property, which assures it will always stay a farm. “That’s what we want it to be, and they’re wonderful people. They have so many good people who work with them, so sincerely and devoted to nature and the natural course of things.”
His family runs the Westport Garden Center, and his son, Sal, helps with finances at the Easton farm. The retail operation in Westport and wholesale farm in Easton contribute to the community through donations to local gardens, charities and schools. They have presented lectures and classes on the importance of growing organically to preserve the world and to be more healthy.
In-person lectures ceased during the pandemic, but Sal plans to produce short videos on gardening with his granddaughter who does marketing for the Westport store. “Everyone staying home wants a small garden but they don’t know a lot about it,” he said. “I can show them how to grow leeks, tomatoes, eggplants, squash, and herbs.”
Sal gained national renown with store visits from Martha Stewart and multiple appearances on her show, where he explained high-yield, small plot gardening and how to grow flowers and vegetables. He’s written half a dozen books and was a popular speaker for local organizations until the pandemic cancelled those appearances.
Sal and Marie have wonderful relationships with their children and 11 grandchildren. But none of their children want to go into the growing business.
“They see how long it takes, 24/7, and it really can’t be any other way if you want to be a good farmer,” Sal said. “Marie and I will go away for a couple of days, but winter is tough because we have the greenhouses. We have 36 furnaces. We have to worry about that, we have to worry about electricity. We have a big generator. We have to worry about snowstorms, and we have to worry about the lights because we need the lights to grow in the winter time.
“I’m going to continue to farm as long as the good Lord wants me to,” he went on. “I can’t do it without him, that’s for sure. Without Him I can do nothing, with Him I can do anything. I really love what I do. God has been so good to me. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m grateful for the life I’ve led.”