Like many of us, Brenda Sullivan grew up on farm stories, rather than a farm. She did not have to go too far back to find her farming heritage, though. Her father grew up on a farm, and he was the first generation to leave it. Her grandparents were the last to farm on her mother’s side of the family. But all previous generations dating back to the 1500’s were farmers on both sides. They were among the first families to go west in covered wagons looking for better land. But Brenda found her farmland right in her own backyard.
Q: It was your daughter, Katie, who led you to growing food, right?
A: Yes, Katie had to be on the Ketogenic diet to control seizures. The children’s hospital strongly recommended I grow my own vegetables because food manufacturers can’t be depended on to be honest about what they added to their products. Katie is no longer on that diet, but that is what led me to growing food, and I have been at it for 18 years now.
Q: When did your food growing turn from an avocation to an occupation?
A: It was the economic downturn in 2008. We needed to bring in a little extra money, “Hey, people are flocking to all these farmers markets, why not sell there?”
Q: What changes did you make to your garden to turn it into a farm?
A: I did not have to change much. I use the SPIN-Farming system, which is geared to garden-size plots. I started with 9 raised beds and as the business grew my husband built more beds. My home garden is now 1,300 sq. ft., with a total of 22 raised beds and I grow greens and specialty vegetables there. I sell at three full time farmers’ markets and two restaurants. The demand was such that I needed to expand.
Q: Were you tempted to buy a big farm?
A: Couldn’t even consider it financially. Plus, I need to care for Katie who has severe cerebral palsy, a severe seizure disorder and cortical blindness. So I needed to stay close to her health services.
Q: How did you expand your growing space?
A: It wasn’t hard. I leased 3/4 acre from a farmer close by, and also a small plot from the Great Meadows Conservation Trust. Conventional farmers considered it junk land because it is so small. But it is very fertile, productive land. Plus, I stretch my home-based yard to the limit.
A: I have a 14 x 24 foot greenhouse with 240 square feet of bed space, and I’m using a new product called grow tubes on 2 x 5 benches, or what I call lettuce cribs. I can roll out 3 tubes per bench for an additional 15 extra feet. I have 5 benches for an additional 75 square feet. I can expand or contract depending on what my needs are. I also grow micro greens in small trays on a specially built micro green house which has a similar design to the lettuce cribs.
Q: Micro greens is one of your specialties?
A: Yes, they are my cash crop. I grow some that aren’t very common, like sunflowers, horseradish and chia. [See sidebar for Brenda’s full product line] And after I harvest the micros I dump my trays into the chicken coop for the chickens to pick through and eat. Other trays I dump into the compost pile. I compost everything including the old bedding from the chicken coop and once everything is broken down I sift the compost, package it in small bags. Include 2 muslin bags, instructions and sell it at farmers markets as “Henrietta’s Compost Tea.”
Q: How’s it doing?
A: My target market is gardeners and people that have house plants. I sell enough to keep it going. It’s green, super easy, and completes the circle of life and people love the idea. Best part is, it’s another way to re-coup my costs.
Q: Henrietta is your chicken?
A: It’s the name of all my chickens. My chickens’ names are Henrietta 1 through 9. They are Rhode Island Red Hens. Two of them have been on the Colin McEnroe Show on CT Public Radio with me.
Q: Another gardening hero has a famous cat, Nora, that plays the piano. [See Betsy Alexander] Are your chickens musical?
A: No. But the Dave Mathews Band called me when they were in town to supply them with micro greens. I now manage the local farmers market so I could supply them for almost everything they needed for their entire meals. Their concerts are high energy so they need to eat healthy. Their tour brought in a Nor’easter, but we got all the stuff delivered.
Q: So you’re not a fair weather farmer. Rain doesn’t stop you. And neither rain nor sleet? In eastern states like Connecticut, most gardeners knock off in the winter. But you’re growing year round.
A: Yes. I grow inside the greenhouse, using reptile heat pads/mats. I turn on the mats when the sun goes down. The product I’m using is Zoo Med ReptiTherm Under Tank Heater. Amazon.com is selling them for $13.71 for a small mat. I’m also trying to push the limits to see what I can grow outside of my greenhouse. Right now I grow arugula and lettuce outdoor in raised beds, and carrots, turnips and tatsoi. This year’s grand experiment is growing lettuce in a small hydroponics table top unit. I’ll let you know in a few months how that is working.
Q: You also grow something considered an invasive weed – ground cherry.
A: Yes ground cherries are edible. I dragged a bush home from our community garden plot to replant in our yard. They are ready to eat when they drop to the ground and the paper casing is dry. I plan to make jam out of mine and sell them at the farmers market.
Q: You also sell another product called tomato passata sauce. Our spell checker doesn’t like “passata.” What is it?
Roasted passata sauce is a recipe I found when my husband and I were traveling in Italy. It’s very simple to make and tastes out of this world. All I do is roast fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano and rosemary over an open fire in the backyard. I then puree the roasted mixture and process the sauce. It’s great over pasta of course, and white fish as well.
I also have a few other specialty food products that I make. With my family’s encouragement I’ve started to make my Great Great Grandmothers tomato relish. I call it Grandma Davis Tomato Relish – 4th Generation recipe. My Grandmother lived on a farm in Buckley, Michigan and during the logging season she was the cook at the logging camps. I recently inherited her 2 recipe boxes, and I still hear stories about what an awesome cook she was. She was known in her area for this particular relish and her fruit pies made with a lard crust. And yes, I know how to make awesome fruit pies from scratch – only I updated her lard pie crust to a “vodka” pie crust. It’s a bit healthier than using lard because the vodka evaporates while it’s baking and you’re left with a beautiful flaky crust.
I offer two versions of her recipe. Original recipe which is vary tart and a sweeter version (which I adapted) for those who like things on the sweeter side. This relish is so versatile. I grew up on this stuff my Mother always put it over pork chops. My family enjoys it over hamburgers, turkey burgers, pork (chops, roast and tenderloin), white fish and pulled beef sandwiches.
Another favorite of mine is my Lavender Champagne and Rosemary Wine jams. Most farmers in our area are big jam and jelly makers and selling these at farmers markets becomes competitive when you offer the same products. I was looking to offer something that no one else had. So I found these great recipes. I grow a lot of lavender and rosemary, so I thought why not! My all-time favorite is the Lavender Champagne jam. I put this on toast and scones, but it’s awesome over salmon! It has a wonderful honey flavor with a hint of lavender.
The Rosemary Wine jam is a savory jam. That’s great on savory breads such as onion rolls, bagels or herbal breads and rolls. It’s also great as a sauce over roast beef. A customer of mine told me she puts this jam over brie cheese and serves it with wheat crackers.
Q: Do you ever garden just to relax?
A: Well??? This is my relaxation – kind of crazy, huh!
CONNECT WITH BRENDA: You’ll need plenty of protein shakes to keep up with Brenda. Not only is she reconnecting gardening with good eating, but she’s constantly turning the resources she has at hand into successful products. Her latest is Farm to Bath line of natural soaps and beauty products. She says anyone can learn to do the same, which is why she’s a SPIN-Farming trainer.
Find out more about the learning programs Brenda used to start her business here. If you’re not ready to go all-in just yet, get a taste of what starting a backyard-scale farming business is like from our members with a month-to-month membership here.
Brenda Sullivan’s Micro Greens Product Line:
- popcorn shoots
- pea shoots
- purple radish
- Bulls Blood Beets