Nancy Strong still lives where she grew up, on the Strong Family Farm at 274 West St. in Vernon. She can tell you when the former dairy farm house got plumbing and when the garage was built. After her father, Norman Strong, died in 2010, Nancy Strong had to figure out a way for the farm to survive. She was able to turn the farm into an educational nonprofit, to provide a learning experience for families and children.
Q: You grew up in this house?
A: I did.
A: I grew up here. My mom just passed away this March. She was 96. My Dad was 93 when he passed away.
Q: Such long life. That’s so great.
A: Isn’t it? Everybody says longevity is going to run in the family.
Q: You never know.
A: My mom didn’t like doctors. She never went to one. I think that’s why she lived so long. Both my parents lived their entire lives at home.
Q: That’s great. That’s what everybody wants, right? There is so much stuff to read about the farm. Your dad, Norman Strong, ran a dairy farm here?
A: Yes. In the ’50s. He went into business with his father, Nathan. That was the first time it was solely a dairy farm.
Q: You can trace your family back to England, right? Jonathan Strong?
A: My father’s side goes back to the Mayflower. I am the fifth generation in this house.
Q: The farm was dairy and then it became turkeys?
A: Yes. My sister started the turkeys as a 4-H project. My father saw what a short season it was. Turkeys are quite lucrative. That was after he sold the cows. Vernon developed so much. He used to drive them up the street, people remember. My grandfather rented his horses out. During the winter the horses would pack down the roads so the sleighs could go. My grandfather had a big concrete cylinder that he would haul with his horses.
Q: It must have been all agricultural here then.
A: Vernon was agricultural. Then the ’50s and the ’60s came after World War II. Pratt & Whitney grew and development sprang up left and right.
Q: Where Center Street School is was part of the farm?
A: That was part of the county home. My father rented the land from them to keep his cows back there.
Q: I was looking at the website for Strong Family Farm and saw Claudia Steele does all the canned goods for you. Is she part of the family?
A: She married my mother’s nephew.
Q: You also sell Jeff’s Kettle Corn. Are they related to you?
A: He’s related, way back.
Q: Do you remember living in the house before it had modern improvements? I mean like plumbing and electrical improvements?
A: The reason we got plumbing was that my grandfather’s sister married somebody from Hartford. He wasn’t going to come out to the country unless we had indoor plumbing. This was the ’20s. He also wanted a garage to put his car in. That’s how this garage got to be. There was a lot of extended family living in the house at that time. In fact the hired hand lived here. He lived over the garage. My father raised the roof on the house to make two kitchens. It is a two-family house.
Q: It easily holds two families, then?
A: Yeah. During World War II because of rationing two generations lived in this house.
Q: Have you had to do a lot of work on the house?
A: Not that much. We have gone from coal to oil to gas. That’s the only major project.
Q: I read that you consider yourself a librarian, not a farmer.
A: Well, girls didn’t become farmers. It was the sons who took over the farm. Throughout the state you hear stories about farms that were turned over to the brothers and the sisters were left to get married and go away.
Q: You weren’t raised to be a farmer.
A: But I was also a go for. Go for this, go for that. I learned by osmosis, I guess.
Q: Were you a town librarian?
A: No. at Ellington High School I was the library/media specialist. That was my career. I took a sabbatical the year after my father passed away to decide what would happen with the farm. My brother had moved away to Virginia.
Q: Does he still farm down there?
A: Yes. He raises his turkeys. It’s more rural. He comes to visit. It’s too busy here for him. He likes his quiet life. If I didn’t do anything, the town would have wanted the property and they would have torn the barn down. I took some seminars to learn how to start a nonprofit. I had friends and people who supported me. After I took the sabbatical in 2011 I retired. I still do some part-time reference librarian work in South Windsor.
Q: Your idea basically was to keep this place going. It became an educational nonprofit.
A: Yes. It’s a 501(c)3. We did the legal work. We have been a nonprofit since 2013, right after our Harvest Festival. We have educational farm activities for children and adults.
Q: You got a $50,000 grant at one point for the barn?
A: We’ve gotten so many grants. Right now we have a $100,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor if people make donations. We have another grant from the Department of Agriculture to put in raised beds of all different heights. Our new executive director, Seana Weaver, will be taking that on. We still have to get the project cleared through zoning. The beds will be somewhere on this property. The raised beds will reduce the needs for weeding. It will show people how they can do this in their own yards.
Q: Are you thinking vegetables?
A: Yes, vegetables, herbs. One farmer had a salsa garden, tomatoes, peppers, herbs.
Q: It would be easier to care for because you can do it at the height you want?
A: That, and you are starting off with new soil so it won’t be so weed laden.
We have a memorial orchard down in back. We have raspberry and blueberry plants. We might add some more grape arbors. We already have apples, peaches, and pears in the orchard.
Q: Who cares for it all?
A: It doesn’t need that much care, just some pruning. The ag-ed kids help me from Rockville High School. They get graded on their time here. I get to bond with these kids. It’s part of the vo-ag program at Rockville. I’m used to high school kids.
A: It’s six years that we’ve been doing that. Families pay $40 and the kids get an educational component. They get time with the chickens and they get to go pick blueberries and raspberries. They get the farm experience.
Q: What’s involved in caring for the chickens is the idea behind it? Families do it with their kids?
A: It’s a great family thing. We get all ages of kids. We have had adults join. We get anybody from age 4 to 93. At the Harvest Festival we get out my father’s old chicken crates. We put them in an antique Model A and they go to another chicken farm in town. It’s a new farm in town, Driggs Hill Farm. The owner works with mypetchicken.com to educate people on how to care for their chickens.
Q: Keeping chickens is getting to be quite popular, right? Do you think home-grown eggs are a lot better?
A: Oh, yeah. I bought some eggs at Aldi and I boiled them. Compared to the ones that she has, what a difference. And you know that they’re fresh. There is a difference in the taste and the consistency.
Q: You have some chickens here, right?
A: Oh, yeah. They’re out there. We have 23 this year from the program. They stay all together.
Q: Are there still people helping with them?
A: We have one more class. Then we have the Harvest Festival. (Saturday, Oct. 20, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Q: Your store is open a lot of hours now, Wednesday through Sunday?
A: We have activities on Sunday, different animals visiting. Our Facebook page will tell you.
Q: You’ve been the director all this time?
A: I’ve taken the lead. I saw that it needs to go farther than I am able to take it. They did a search for a new executive director. I told them at the beginning I would stay until I was 70 years old. It’s a few more years until I am 70 years old, but life is too short. Our new director, Seana, is wonderful. She’ll be able to do a strategic plan. She has worked with other nonprofits. She is also a chef. She’ll do some grant writing and searching.
Q: Sunday is your busy day?
A: Yes, because we try to have animals every Sunday. In the future we’d like to get a farm manager so we can have more animals on the farm. The first year we had chickens I didn’t like having chickens. Then the next year we got an assortment. They were so likable. These girls we have now are nice. They won’t peck you. When I was a kid I had to carry water out to the chickens. We had 400 of them, before the turkeys. Now I only have 23. My father used to have a window on the cellar door that you could open and drop money in for eggs. There are people who remember doing that.
Q: That’s cool. Is this your kitty?
A: That’s Lily. She is a light-colored calico. She has a book named after her. She’s my barn cat. The book is called, “I am a Barn Cat.” We’re still looking for an illustrator.
Q: That sounds like a great book.
A: This is the cat’s farm and she lets us visit. When she has had enough of people, she disappears.
Q: Until the people leave. Those are your farm pets? Cats? That’s enough.
A: We used to have dogs. The dogs had a purpose. They were herding dogs, border collies. Once we didn’t have cows anymore, we didn’t need them. My mother said no animals in the house. She had enough to do, cleaning up after us. She went to work at Tolland Bank later to put us through college.
Q: Good for her. You’ll still be very involved at the farm?
A: Oh, yeah. I’m secretary of the board.