Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

A matter of taste: La Bella's Farm

You haven't lived until you've tasted a La Bella tomato.

Thanks to ancient farming practices adopted by Tony La Bella and his daughter Donna King, the potatoes grown on La Bella Farm in Branford are unique. The pair has managed to successfully adapt the strategy to their onions, lettuce, zucchini and 25 other crops, all with the same astonishing results.

La Bella jokes that grandpas everywhere would laugh at all the fuss about his “new” farming techniques. “It’s how our forbearers farmed before the Industrial Revolution.” he says with a smile.

Down a gravel road, just off Route 1, La Bella’s Farm & Country Store sells something many supermarket shoppers have never experienced – vegetables with taste!

“What you’ve been eating your whole life is a four month old potato which sat in a storage bin at 30 degrees. No one knows what a two day old potato tastes likes anymore.” explains La Bella. “Most folks are used to that baseline of taste, and when they really taste something just out of the field, they go wow!”

Fresh potatoes are crisp with a delicious earthy subtlety that might just make you think twice before smothering your next spud with butter and sour cream. Everything on La Bella farm is picked at its peak of ripeness and sold immediately.

“It’s about freshness” says Ruth Weil from Branford who stopped by the market for a handful of tomatoes which were picked just hours earlier.

Donna King can’t contain her passion for farming. “Our favorite customer is a supermarket customer because they’ll come back and say “I’ve never had a tomato that tasted this good.” Or, “I’ve never had a potato so good.” And the bell peppers, people freak over the bell peppers.” she says with such contagious enthusiasm that you want to go pick green beans beside her just to share in the excitement. She pauses for a moment, and then, as if struck with inspiration, says “Oh my god, you have to taste the onions.”

According to La Bella, taste equals freshness. If you want a vegetable with flavor, you need to eat it as soon after it’s picked as possible. He says “Once you cut it off the vine it starts decaying. If I get something from the store that’s seven days old, it’s been decaying and losing its flavor, slowly but surely.”

La Bella’s farm is committed to getting the harvest to the consumer as fast as possible. As their John Deer Gator tractor pulls up the driveway, it is filled with produce that just came from the fields, not more than a few hours old. “A lot of people’s taste buds wake up and say “I haven’t tasted that in the longest time” – especially the older people. We are banking on getting those people.” says La Bella.

La Bella and his family are new to Connecticut but are well seasoned farmers. Nancy La Bella, Tony’s wife of 30 years, explained that they chose to sell their 65 acre heirloom apple tree farm in Margaretville, NY and move to Branford to be close to family already established in the state. She says about her husband “he’s living his passion.”

Several frustrating years of searching for the right piece of property finally ended when an existing deal by a commercial developer fell through and this piece of land became available again. The La Bellas didn’t hesitate to grab it. “For us it was fate.” says King. This is the farms first harvest season.

The La Bella’s apple farm was certified organic under the National Organic Program, and the family says they will apply for organic certification in CT after the required three year waiting period. Until then, the land will be farmed using the same organic principles that have always guided them. “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t eat.” says Tony La Bella.

There is considerable confusion among the public when it comes to understanding organic farming, as well as a fair number of misconceptions about what a “certified organic” label really means. La Bella makes it clear “Organic farming in its essence means no synthetic fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides, and no synthetic fungicides. Bottom line, organic farming means just like great-grandpa used to farm.”

Organic farming does not imply that pesticides are not used, but certification does require that everything that gets applied be approved by the National Organic Program, and that it be derived naturally, such as oils or soaps extracted from plants. “Instead of using herbicides to kill weeds, you’re pulling them by hand.” notes La Bella.

As steward of his land, La Bella says “There is no way I would use that stuff (synthetic products) on my soil. It’s a very short term outlook.” While spreading bags of commercial fertilizer might be easier, La Bella chooses the labor intensive option of planting a cover crop during the winter, and tilling in his own compost each spring to enrich his soil.

For the small farmer adopting organic principals, this decision has significant financial implications. Besides the expense for the increased manual labor involved in the process, La Bella says that “Organic sprays are just not that powerful. They don’t do the job like the laboratory products. Instead of a 90% yield like the larger conventional farmers might get, I have to struggle with 70% from a consumer perspective.”

Buyers have become conditioned to paying more for products labeled organic. King describes an all too common experience about buying a typical head of supermarket lettuce. After stripping off the unusable parts, you are left with only half of the head. She says “You bring this home (holding a head of her lettuce) and there’s no waste. You’re going to eat every single piece of it and get every bit of your money’s worth.”

La Bella’s immediate focus is on establishing their farm store and building wholesale relationships with local restaurants that appreciate and demand the freshest ingredients. The family is also contemplating organizing a traditional farmer’s market where artisan bakers, cheese, meat and dairy farmers could sell their wares.

La Bella’s Farm & Country Store is open Thursday through Sunday and is located at 736 East Main Street in Branford (across from the transfer station on Route 1). They can be reached by phone at: 203-488-3836 or at: www.labellasfarm.com