By KRISTEN J. TSETSI, Journal Inquirer
ASHFORD, Conn. (AP) _ In 2007, when retired IBM employee Matthew C. Couzens Sr. bought Crooke Orchards in Ashford, he’d never worked a farm, but he’d always been “amazed at how you get a piece of fruit out of a piece of wood,” he said.
Even though he was a beginner, he participated in the Ellington Farmers Market that year. Since then, he’s been surprisingly undaunted by the challenge of maintaining the farm and ensuring it continues to produce quality food for market.
While at IBM, Couzens had been exposed to technological creativity, and upon retirement he wanted to continue being creative. He began looking for land and when he discovered Crooke Orchards was available, he put in an offer. That he had no farming experience didn’t discourage him from taking on 153 acres.
“I didn’t know what a computer was before I joined IBM, either,” he said. “You just know it’s an uphill climb, and you have to do it the hard way.”
Couzens, whose love and respect for horses inspired him to rename the property Horse Listeners Orchard, replanted about 25 percent of the existing apple and peach trees, some of which were old and others that weren’t disease resistant. During the process he discovered an old stone foundation indicating someone had probably lived there about 100 years ago on a small farm. Couzens cleared out the overgrown earth and planted vegetables.
Overall, it took him four years to reclaim the farmland, which in addition to its vegetables grows more than 25 varieties of apples, several varieties of peaches, blueberries, pears, nectarines and plums. But again, it’s nothing he couldn’t handle.
“I’ve been through this learning curve before and it’s difficult, and it’s a lot of money. But you still want to do it,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of different levels. You always want to optimize your land and production.”
Hard work continues at the orchard. His wife, he said, calls him a POW–piece of work–because caring for the farm is a seven-day-a-week job for him. Most recently, that job involved thinning the orchard by hand. For every flower on an apple tree, five apples will grow. If allowed to grow in clusters like that, they’ll be the size of golf balls, he said, so it’s necessary to thin them out.
He and the few farm hands he employs have also been busy fixing portions of the electric fence to keep out the deer, fertilizing vegetable soil in places the rain had washed it away and picking squash for the Ellington Farmers Market, of which Couzens has been a participant since 2007.
As a partner with Simpaug Farms of Suffield, which focuses on early season produce and therefore makes it possible to keep the farm stand going throughout the season, Horse Listeners Orchard concentrates on berries, apples and fruits, Couzens said.
From July through September, market-goers can take home his peaches, from late August through November, apples, and last weekend he began offering squash and blueberries.
The Ellington Farmers Market, at Arbor Park on Main Street, is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon through Oct. 19.
Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com
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