Just 80 miles from Times Square, Jones Family Farms offers a great experience for visitors, and help to other farmers trying to protect their rural acres.
By Des Keller | Photos By Greg M. Cooper
Each and every tour at Jones Family Farms near Shelton, Conn., begins at a large rock into which the following inscription is carved: “Be good to the land and the land will be good to you.”
That pretty much says it all for the six generations of Jones family members who have nurtured 400 acres’ worth of Christmas trees, vineyards, fruits and vegetables. And while the sale of those products is certainly one focus of the farm, exposing tens of thousands of city dwellers and suburbanites to the “agricultural experience” is also a part of the business plan.
Located 80 miles from New York City’s Times Square, Jones Family Farms may be the closest destination farm to the city.
“My dad, give him credit,” says Terry Jones, 64. “In the 1950s when he started doing it, the idea of a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm was barely a concept.” A few friends from church asked if they could bring their families out to the farm and cut their own tree. Prior to that, the farm was mostly a dairy with forage crops.
“Really, that’s how it all started,” says Terry. “It began by happenstance and each year became more popular.” Christmas trees are now grown on half the farm—200 acres.
Guests seemed to really enjoy the farm experience while getting a Christmas tree, so why not other products? Still selling raw milk from their dairy, Terry helped introduce vegetables and strawberries in the early 1960s. His wife, Jean, also began to play a major role, helping develop the farm as a great place to experience a real working farm with a generous dollop of hospitality.
A registered dietician with a master’s degree in public health, Jean calls herself a “subversive health nutritionist,” who educates visitors on good eating habits and the merits of fruits and vegetables in the process. As many as 3,000 schoolchildren visit the farm each fall as part of local agriculture and nutrition programs.
Overall, about 100,000 people visit the farm annually, and more than 10,000 follow the operation on Facebook. Still, most of their new business comes via word of mouth.
“The country as a whole is losing touch with what farming and growing is really like,” says Terry and Jean’s son Jamie, who now manages the farm day to day. “We’re devoted to outstanding agricultural production … and educating visitors about this business,” continues Jamie, who is also given major credit for founding Jones Winery in 2004. Their on-site vineyard grows vinifera grapes, such as pinot gris, cabernet franc and merlot. Not surprisingly, they also produce sweet strawberry and blueberry wines.
Making sure their operation and others in the area remain in existence is also part of the Jones legacy. The family partially gifted a conservation easement on 300 acres of their farm, using the Federal Farm and Ranch Protection Program. This program provides matching funds to state or local governments or organizations for the preservation of rural lands. (“Partially gifted” means the Joneses gave up part of the value of the land to put it in an easement.)
The Jones family has also set up a separate local farmland stewardship fund to promote the continuation of local farming in the area and to provide for environmental sustainability. Overall, their farm is part of more than 2,000 acres locally that have been protected through greenways, land trusts, public watersheds and the purchase of development rights from other area farms.
There’s good reason for that protection. Twenty years ago, when Terry served on the local conservation commission and began his work to educate the community about the benefits of land preservation, suburban sprawl was on the march. In those two decades, it has swallowed up hundreds of acres of local farms. Hundreds more, though, have been protected with Terry Jones’ help. That’s no small feat considering that 1 million people live within a 20-mile radius of the farm.
“Fortunately, there was movement to preserve some of the rural character of our town,” says Terry, who, in addition to advocating for saving rural land, now serves on the state board of education.
For those in the area, it is hard to imagine Shelton without Jones Family Farms. As Jamie tells it, his great-great-great-grandfather arrived from Ireland in about 1850 to visit family. He had spent so much of the voyage seasick that he had no desire to get back on a ship, and the area around Shelton reminded him of hilly areas back home. So he bought some land and began farming.
The property itself is very diverse, with rolling topography, several natural springs, ponds, two creeks and some timber. Christmas trees grow on gentle, rocky hillsides, among other places, while blueberries thrive in peat bog organic soils.
“One of our strengths is crop diversity,” says Terry. “When weather conditions are adverse for one crop, they are favorable to another.”
Diversity of experiences is not only good for crops, it’s good for business as well. “There is a lot of hard work put in around here,” says Marketing Manager Keith Padin, “so that, when you come, it’s a lasting impression.”
During the course of the year, there are cooking classes that demonstrate how to use produce from the farm. The work of local artists dominates the gift shop. At Christmas, they offer natural garlands, cookies, hot cider, and 13 different wines.
This isn’t just visiting a farm, it’s an experience that their visitors—especially those from one of the most populated regions in the U.S.—aren’t likely to forget. And as the Joneses make sure they run a model farm operation, they’re also working diligently to make sure theirs is not the only one.