MIDDLETOWN – Looking for a fresh start and a new career, Joe DeFrancesco bought a farm at 519 Miner St. in the Westfield area with plans for a quaint winery that would serve as the foundation for his farm business.
DeFrancesco is the first to apply for a farm winery since the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved several new uses for farms in town – looking to give farmers more options for revenue as the high cost of land and low margins continue to threaten the stability of small Connecticut farms.
Having grown up on a farm in Haddam, said he has been thinking about starting a vineyard for about a decade. When COVID first struck, it was a call for him to figure out what he wanted to do with the next several decades of his life, he said. It was time to buy the farm.
“The job’s not easier,” DeFrancesco said. “Wake up early in the morning, take care of the animals, keep the vegetation down – it’s a full time job.”
He said he’s learning as he goes, and has learned a lot on YouTube, and from other farmers in the area who have been supportive and passed on some of their knowledge.
“It’s like a community that’s almost been lost, that’s trying to come back,” DeFrancesco said.
DeFrancesco said his vision isn’t for a “grand” vineyard like some others in the state, but something with a more quaint farm setting where people can relax, drink wine, look at the animals and enjoy their surroundings.
He bought a 7.3 acre property along Interstate 91 in the Westfield area of Middletown a year ago to be the site of his new farm. There were horses on the property already, and he’s started raising chickens and keeping goats, and has thought about adding alpacas.
DeFrancesco said he’s planning to grow about 2 acres of grapes, and make and bottle wine on the farm. He said he’d use about half of an existing barn for the production, then leave the front half of the barn for tasting. He would also build patios covered by awnings so people can sit outside and enjoy the scenery – looking at the horses or the sunset while having a glass of wine.
“Having a farm like this is a way of conserving the land,” DeFrancesco said. “I can’t say how many people just driving by will stop along the road just to have 10 minutes to look at the horses or the ducks and geese in the pond.”
He said his vision includes “limited” live music and events on the farm. He’s discussed restrictions on capacity and hours with the city – and both will likely be topics of discussion when the proposal goes before the Planning and Zoning Commission for a public hearing on Jan. 12, along with water, septic and parking plans. But he said he’s very conscious of the neighbors since he’ll be living on the farm as well.
“It’s where we’re going to live, so I don’t want to make a huge venue – I want to keep it pretty isolated,” he said.
To succeed as businesses, small New England farms often rely on several sources of income. The Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission decided last year to allow more farm-related businesses to give local farmers the chance to make and sell wine and beer and host events to supplement their income from raising livestock or growing produce – as well as farm stands so they can sell some of their produce directly to customers.
DeFrancesco said there might be a farm stand in the future, and now he’s talking to restaurants about buying the produce he’s growing in a garden on the property. He’d like to grow the garden and sell more produce, and possibly hold small vendor fairs for other local farmers to sell their produce or products like honey, he said. If the wine can draw people to the farm, then it could be an opportunity for local farmers to sell their products, he said.
“I want to make it a functional farm where I can survive, ” he said. “That’s what I want to do for the next 30 years to retire and live off.”
Editor’s note: a previous version of this story, drawing from the application submitted to the town, stated that the parcel is 7.8 acres. In fact, the parcel is 7.3 acres.