There is nothing loosey-goosey about our conversation with Jennifer Rothman, the organizational and motive force behind Yellow Farmhouse, a small nonprofit tucked into Stone Acres Farm along one of the iconic stretches of road on the eastern Connecticut shoreline.
“It’s this tiny, you know, $2,000 gift. We were able to buy, I think, 150 pounds of kelp,” she explained as she walked us around the property, gesturing to one project or another, occasionally directing traffic for farm workers, deliveries, and volunteers. “We put together three lesson plans with recipes. We delivered kelp up to Enfield, down to Fairfield, like all over Connecticut to these teachers who were eager to try something new. Then they worked with… I think it ends up being like almost 2,000 kids who cooked with kelp over the course of a week… you can just have this like cascading impact.”
By way of explaining how a tiny organization can have an outsized positive effect, Rothman also I think unselfconsciously suggested that understanding the worth of a dollar is in the DNA of Yellow Farmhouse.
Small pots of money. Organizational talent. A taste for the offbeat and practical that’s apparent when Rothman describes her relationship to the 63-acre farm with social and historical pedigree located between Route 1 and I-95 on North Main Street, Stonington.
Stone Acres Farm and the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center are technically separate entities – one for-profit and the other nonprofit – bound together and part of a local food scene that in recent years has been capturing headlines and plaudits from Esquire, Food & Wine and Robb Report.
Rothman manages these complicated legal and practical relationships in a way reminiscent of the common law farm practices that once sustained 17th– and 18th-century agricultural communities in England and New England, literally “gleaning” the fields for her educational mission and to provide food for the poor in New London.
Yellow Farmhouse pays its own way, but draws benefit from its place on a working farm that feeds the kitchens of the 85th Day Food Community, best known for the restaurants Oyster Club and Engine Room, as well as high-end farm dinners. Dan and Jane Meiser, and a group of investors, together own Stone Acres Farm. Dan Meiser, until recently, sat as chairman of the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and is CEO of 85th Day.
Gesturing toward tidy rows of greens, onions and peppers, Rothman, who previously worked as director of education at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture – a nonprofit in Tarrytown, New York started with the support of the Rockefeller family — described how her initial reluctance to plant a separate garden eventually grew into a regional farm partnership with participants from over 60 countries, and significant donations to food charities in New London.
“So, when we started, I was pretty clear that I did not want to have a separate gardening or farming space that was just ours because I wanted teachers and students to have authentic farm experiences. I wanted them to be out in the fields. I wanted them to know what needed to happen on a farm, that it wasn’t like pretend or made-up farming,” said Rothman as she gestured toward a garden planted by Eric Dawson, a 2019 graduate of Connecticut College with a degree in Environmental Studies and International Relations, who now works as an educator and farmer for Yellow Farmhouse.
“So, we’ve had teachers who come for training, and I’ll ask the farmers what do we have available for them? And they’ll say, ‘well, nothing really,’ and I was like, ‘no, no, what do you need to be done?’ They’re like, ‘Well, we need all these rocks to get cleared from this field. So, we harvested rocks.”
But during the pandemic, the program’s cooking classes for the summer internship program were canceled, and by serendipity Jane Meiser offered Yellow Farmhouse a disused plot of land. Reluctantly Rothman began growing food to serve the internship program.
That blossomed into a program that has donated over a 1,000 pounds of produce last year to the New London Community Meal Center.
“We started gleaning from the fields,” said Rothman, who described how a former Yellow Farmhouse employee, now working for Stone Acres, would call her up when there was unmarketable produce left in the fields. “He’d be like, ‘You know, Jen, I have a bed of spinach that is going to compost tomorrow. Do you want it?’”
Yellow Farmhouse also partners with nearby Adesa Farm in North Stonington, Provider Farm in Salem, Hunts Brook Farm in Waterford, and Connecticut College’s Sprout Garden, to collect produce for donations.
At the same time, Yellow Farmhouse repurposed the prior year’s class, at a hundred dollars a head, on koji and fermentation with author Rich Shih, into an online mini conference that sold to tickets last year to over 600 people, and this year to over 1,000 people in 60 different countries.
That programming in turn has spurred a further joint effort with the New London Community Meal Center to can and preserve a portion of the donated produce, and to establish a community larder.
“So, what it kind of has now morphed into was, like, ‘Okay, well how can we apply preservation and fermentation?’ We started teaching it to teachers, so that was part of it. But then we started thinking about the food donation program and the fact that most of our donations happen at the end of August. We have a ton of food. The green food is like — there’s almost too much of it. It’s not easy,” Rothman walked us through the effort.
“We work with the New London Community Meal Center because they’re scratch cooking. So, they can take a lot of stuff that’s not in individual bags … and there is this wonderful woman there MaryAnn [Martinez]. We started talking to her, and she talked about wanting to set up a larder. We talked to Rich who’s really interested in ‘how do we use fermentation?’ You know, ‘how is it really a community building tool? And how do we feed people?’”
Yellow Farmhouse now has enough funding to pilot building a small larder at the meal center, where they can track all the food that has been gleaned and donated by the five partner farms.
“My goal was to sort of prove our concept here in this place,” said Rothman, “and then think about how we can scale… what does this look like in other communities?”
For Yellow Farmhouse the template is rooted in a sense of place.
“How do you harness, wherever you are — here we have our fishermen. We have the fishing industry. We have our farmers right by the coast. We have so many amazing restaurants. What are the assets of a place and then how do how do you bring them together to create solutions? And that’s where I feel like we are a tiny organization. We don’t have the bandwidth to be everywhere, but we can figure out where we can have the most impact for us in Connecticut.”
Rothman needs about $6,000 to fund next summer’s internship program, with a larger vision of organizing the work, and creating lesson plans and a website to help reach all 500 of Connecticut’s high school culinary teachers in three to five years and provide them with a curriculum that connects culinary to environmental health and community health.
In the meantime, this summer Yellow Farmhouse is offering cooking classes for 5 to 10 year olds on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting July 5, and storytime on Wednesdays for preschoolers and parents.
There will be an Open House for Yellow Farmhouse on Aug. 7.
For information about donations and support of the programs at Yellow Farmhouse, click here.