How One Couple Saved Their 255-Year-Old Family Farm—and Turned It Into a Destination for Food, Education and Community
Jane Meiser has vivid memories of childhood summers spent at her family's 65-acre farm in Stonington, Connecticut—running through cornfields, jumping over cattle guards, picking raspberries from the bushes for her grandmother's jellies while sneaking samples—just like the many generations that came before her.
She never imagined that a few decades later, she would own the place with her husband, restaurateur Dan Meiser, and have turned the farm into its own self-sustaining compound, complete with an event space, farmstand and non-profit education center.
But the most exciting way that the Meisers have transformed Stone Acres Farm, which dates back to 1765, might just be the farm's new zoning designation. Yes, you read that right: a zoning designation. This bit of city planning has been a game-changer because it permits the farm to have a range of uses and therefore revenue streams—allowing the Meisers to keep Jane's family legacy alive. And it sets a precedent for others to do the same with their land.
A decade ago, after Jane's grandmother passed away, her family decided to sell the farm. There were offers, but no one wanted the property to go to a big developer. And it sat on the market for six years—until the Meisers, who run four restaurants in the area, realized that their dream business venture had been right in front of them the whole time. They would create a space for people to come and eat, drink, stay, shop and learn on the farm.
The Meisers assembled investments from family members, neighbors and regulars at their restaurants, all of whom "recognized that this is a preservation project first," says Dan.
But it wasn't until after the property was theirs that they realized their grand plan had hit a major snag: because the farm was in a residential zone, only very limited commercial activity was allowed.
"This is why so many farms get sold," Dan explains. People can't bring in enough revenue from crops alone to cover the tremendous operating costs. So, in 2016, the Meisers collaborated with the town of Stonington and devised a new floating zone called the Agricultural Heritage District, which grants low-impact commercial activity on historic farms. The "floating" designation means an eligible property can be in an otherwise-zoned district as long as its master plan fits the AHD criteria. To qualify, farms must be 35 acres or larger, have been in continual operation for at least 25 years, and all of their various businesses must tie directly back to local agricultural activity—a clever way of supporting the community.
A major benefit of this system, of course, is the delicious food it brings. "We have extraordinary product popping out of the ground," Dan says of their crops, from tender Japanese eggplants to sweet carrots. Every dish served at farm dinners and events couples the food grown at Stone Acres with that of other local producers. Sea bass caught nearby is dressed in caper butter and served with the farm's corn and tomatoes. Corn on the cob is brushed with a flavorful compound butter made with shiitakes from nearby Seacoast Mushrooms. "It is a win-win for everybody involved," says Dan. "It is a win for flavor and a win for your local economy."
The Meisers hope their experience can be a model that helps keep other American farms alive. "It is so easy to sell farm properties to be developed," Dan notes, "but by creating an Agricultural Heritage District you can give them the opportunity to be creative and do more than just sell corn at a farmstand or raise cattle for beef." While their farmstand is an integral piece of Stone Acres, they also host weddings, farm dinners and food events like a BBQ and bluegrass festival and clambake movie nights. And kids can learn about food and farming at The Yellow Farmhouse Education Center. Jane says that the Stonington planning department has already started to have conversations with different towns across New England about how this zoning designation can be applied elsewhere.
Growing up so connected to the land, she adds, has helped her to understand the positive impact that farms like her family's can have on the community. "We are all connected in this one big living system," says Jane. "Stone Acres might be a small farm, but it's all the little footprints sewn together that make the larger impact. If we can figure out how to be successful and solvent enough, hopefully others, the little footprints, can join."
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This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, July/August 2021.