BANTAM — Litchfield County locals are already well acquainted with Arethusa Farm’s delicious dairy products, but the rest of the country is catching on. Earlier this year, Arethusa’s Europa, an aged Gouda, made headlines when the United States Championship Cheese Contest crowned it the top cheese in the U.S., beating out Wisconsin mainstays with an impressive 98.739/100 score. But there’s a lot more to Arethusa than award-winning cheese — and it’s about to begin an exciting new chapter.
Just a few miles from Arethusa’s popular restaurants on Bantam Road is the historic farm that started it all. Formerly a dairy farm operated by the Webster family from 1968 to 1982, Arethusa Farm was purchased by Tony Yurgaitis and his late partner, George Malkemus, in 1999.
Their original intent was to save the derelict farmland from development, have a small personal vegetable garden, and rent the rest of the land to local farmers — until they developed an interest in breeding dairy cows. Arethusa Farm went on to become a world-class dairy farm supplying multiple restaurants and stores, and further expanded with sustainable farming, greenhouses, and chicken coops. In 2018, the Connecticut Trust awarded Yurgaitis and Malkemus the Trustees’ Award for Stewardship for their 19 years of hard work preserving the farmland and its historic buildings. Now, much of that land will be used to educate the next generation of farmers and land conservators.
On April 5, 2023, the Region 6 school district announced in a press release the formation of the Arethusa Farm Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will be Yurgaitis’ and Malkemus’ “lasting legacy to the Litchfield area community, and more particularly to the high school age students in Litchfield, Region 6, the forthcoming Region 20, and the Northwest Connecticut area.” 125 acres of the Arethusa Farm property has been donated to the Foundation for students in Agriscience programs to use as part of immersive Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs). SAEs present a unique opportunity for Agriscience programs to provide school-aged children with hands-on exposure to various farming practices, making a career in agriculture more tangible and accessible. The Arethusa Farm Foundation will also raise an endowment to help fund the Agriscience program.
“This is an incredible, generous donation that really opens up some great potential for our students,” Christopher Leone, Superintendent of Region 6, told The Winsted Citizen. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a campus of this acreage, and it has the potential to be an unmatched program.”
For Yurgaitis, the Foundation was a natural continuation of Arethusa’s legacy. “They [Leone and a group of local volunteers] made a presentation on how they would like to use the property, and it was really well thought out,” Yurgaitis told The Winsted Citizen. “Both in terms of timing and usage, an Agriscience program supporting so many interested students seemed like a perfect way to preserve the land. I couldn’t think of a better way of passing the farm on.”
According to Leone, the student response has indeed been significant. Not only does working on Arethusa Farm provide a variety of invaluable SAEs, but the beautiful, top-notch facilities are undeniably appealing. “Arethusa Farm is a landmark in our community. The students take pride in the thought of working on this historic agricultural feature and ensuring it will remain so.”
Agriscience students from Wamogo Regional High School — which serves Morris, Warren, and Goshen, plus students from other towns in Litchfield County who apply to the prestigious Agriculture Education Program — have just started using the Arethusa acreage. At the moment, they are readying chicken coops, planting seeds, and attending to the day-to-day responsibilities of a working farm, but Leone hopes they will soon be raising livestock and growing a variety of crops: “The ultimate dream is self sufficiency and sustainability. I’d love to see our students working to grow produce that ends up on the tables of a school lunch program or making maple syrup they then sell through the farmstand.”
It’s a big undertaking, but Leone and the agriscience staff have excellent help. “Tony [Yurgaitis] has been a guide through all of this. He’s been generous with the property, but also with his spirit and knowledge. The pride he has in the farm inspires all of us, and it is our objective to ensure that legacy prevails.”
“I’m not just stepping away,” Yurgaitis confirmed. “I want to be involved. I know the ins and outs of the farm, and if I can help in any way to make this program work, I’m there. I’m excited.”
Thanks to the effort of Yurgaitis, Leone, and other passionate land conservators and educators, the legacy of Arethusa Farm is poised to last for generations to come.
This story originally appeared in the Winsted Citizen