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Skidmore College

Digging the dirt

November 27, 2017

Jess Wong '09 loves every minute of running Holbrook Farm in Bethel, Conn., but her days are particularly long in the summer, when work can begin at 5:30 a.m. to beat the heat and when darkness doesn't drive the chickens in until 9 p.m. Even then, she may stay up working on accounts or updating social media.

Jess Wong '09
Jess Wong '09 (Don Hamerman photo)

Growing up interested in the sciences and animals and envisioning work as a veterinarian, Wong says she started at Skidmore with "a pre-med mindset." But, she discovered, "I was not as passionate about it as I thought," and instead she completed a double major in Asian studies and anthropology.

After graduation, she worked in marketing, but again there was no passion. "I wanted to get out of the office," she says, so she followed a friend into farm work, and that's when "everything just felt right." Wong started at Holbrook Farm by pulling weeds and soon earned the trust of owners John and Lynn Holbrook, who were eager to retire from the day-to-day responsibilities of growing vegetables, running the farm store, keeping the books, and tucking in the chickens. Wong started managing the fields as well as the accounts with area restaurants. "This was all new to me," she says. "John and Lynn taught me everything." Soon she emerged as a natural heir to their business.

Holbrook employs intensive farming methods to produce large amounts of vegetables on just a few acres. "Farming in our area is rare, and microfarming is even more so, but it's gaining popularity," says Wong, who is happiest when the farm is crowded with customers shopping and visitors learning. "The most surprising thing I've realized about farming is how disconnected people are with food," she says, admitting she had once been too. "The more people I can get to visit the farm or grow their own food, the better." Her social media and other outreach is growing those numbers.

In the meantime, area customers can eat well on Holbrook Farm produce, from tomatoes and eggplant to Asian greens and edible flowers, from broccoli and beans and peppers to garlic and herbs. The store supplements all that with fruit, corn, meat, and dairy products from other nearby farms. Holbrook has its own bakery too. And with all those chickens, of course, it sells a lot of eggs.

Wong spends much of her time in the market. But like all the farm's workers, she is trained to do everything, and she eagerly schedules a little time every week to get her hands dirty. "Being outside, in the dirt, that's where I'm in my element," she says.

On a mission to grow good food and educate people about it, Wong is even happy to hear those early-morning rooster crows-odds are she's already awake anyway. —Kathryn Gallien

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