Pauline Lord sits in the kitchen of her home in East Lyme, sunlight streaming through windows that wrap two walls. One morning last week, she reflected on the past decade, during which she and her husband, David Harlow, created a small but thriving organic business at White Gate Farm, hailed for its diversity and creativity.
Her kitchen is the heart of the rambling, well-planned shingled home she and Harlow built five years ago, artfully situated near a curve in Pattagansett Lake so that virtually every room has a view of the water through the trees.
"I was really balking at building any structure," Lord says. "There are too many houses on the Earth."
But she was intrigued by the idea of building an "eco" house, well-insulated, toxic-free and with plenty of reused wood. The result is welcoming and serene.
The site was an overgrown piece of land on the 100-acre farm, owned by her mother since the 1970s.
"It must have been an apple orchard," Lord says. "There were many old trees in a state of rot," not to mention thick overgrowth of bittersweet, brambles and poison ivy. Harlow cut down many trees to open up the views. Now they swim in the summer and skate when it freezes.
They chose Donald Kaufman paints, each made with up to 13 pigments to produce colors with depth and luminosity, "every color but black, even if it's just a drop," says Lord. The spacious entryway is painted a mild, soft yellow, the dining room a mellow terra cotta. Each room is relaxed and uncluttered, furnished with minimalist style.
Harlow pops in quickly, along with their white standard poodle, Sophie, to report seeing two bald eagles flying over the farm. "We don't get bald eagles every day," Lord says.
A high shelf along the uppermost pane of the kitchen windows holds a collection of vintage cooking utensils. Rustic Quimper dishware, well-worn kitchen bowls and jars of grains are lined along the simple, open shelves.
On the counter sit a plump Kabocha squash, a little green Buttercup squash, fresh cilantro and a bowl of soybeans, all from the farm. Lord is planning to adapt a recipe for pumpkin, corn and bean stew from "The Greens Cookbook" by Deborah Madison for dinner, using her own ingredients.
"With our vegetables, you don't need to be too elaborate," she says.
Back To The LandLord and Harlow, who lived for many years in California, didn't expect to become farmers in their 50s. Lord, who went to Stanford University, is a therapist who specialized in eating disorders at Santa Clara University, back in the days when the word "bulimia" was scarcely known. Harlow is a volcano seismologist who worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and predicted the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in time for the military to evacuate, and eventually relocate, nearby Clark Air Force Base. "He happened to call it just right," says Lord.
In the summer of 1998, Harlow was between careers. Both wanted to be farmers, and they decided to head east to try it. White Gate Farm is a former dairy farm owned by Lord's mother, Ruth Lord, the founding president of Long Wharf Theatre, who worked at the Child Study Center at Yale. She lives in the farmhouse still.
By 2000, Lord and Harlow were living full-time at the farm — in the barn for the first five years — building the greenhouses, clearing fields and raising produce, flowers and poultry.
The move east was a homeward migration for them both: Harlow is from New Hampshire, and Lord grew up in New Haven, where her father, George DeForest Lord, taught English literature. Their daughter, Megan, is at Yale Nursing School. Harlow also has two sons.
Unheated GreenhousesWhite Gate Farm now grows 53 crops, Lord says, noting that they grow about 20 varieties of tomatoes, and that's just one crop.
This time of year, the farm's unheated greenhouses are brimming with delectable little Hakurei turnips, which can be eaten raw, baby bok choy, sweet Bolero carrots, herbs, fennel and a wide variety of cold-tolerant greens: Russian kale, rainbow chard, watercress and spinach, along with mache, red Bull's Blood lettuce and small, flat-leafed claytonia, the trio that form the backbone of their winter salad mix. The couple have relied heavily on Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine — "our guru," Lord says — for advice on which crops to grow. Four Season Farm, which Coleman owns with his wife, garden writer Barbara Damrosch, is nationally renowned as a proponent of small-scale sustainable agriculture and for its pioneering use of unheated greenhouses.
"We'll have salad greens in January," Lord says, adding that they like to expose people to new tastes. "One of the great things about growing locally is you can grow these really, really fragile vegetables and fruits."
It's been an ongoing learning process. Early on, figuring they could not grow lettuce in the summer, she says, they experimented with shading it and wound up with flea beetles, lettuce leaves so chewed up that they looked like lace, and an unusually healthy crop of weeds. They've since found they can grow crisp head lettuce from Johnny's Selected Seeds in the summer heat and light.
"We are always tinkering," she says, "but we really are quite happy with what we grow."
Turkeys, Foxes And The BBCOver the past decade, White Gate Farm has evolved. For seven years, it was a CSA farm — community-supported agriculture — filling 60 baskets a week for CSA shareholders.
"It was all hands on deck," Lord says. One year they had such a surplus of tomatoes that they also opened a farm stand, and realized they could downsize their staff to just six, including themselves, even as the business grew, by focusing on the farm stand. Open just two days a week, "it's way easier and more fun for us," says Lord, who handles it with head farmer Nora Painten.
Restaurants are key customers, including River Tavern in Chester, whose owner, Jonathan Rapp, enlisted White Gate as one of the original sites for the popular summertime "Dinners At The Farm" events. White Gate Farm also sells through Deb Marsden's Connecticut Farm Fresh Express.
After a misbegotten early "detour" raising alpacas — "you have to take them to shows and win ribbons, which eluded us" — Lord says they also have just begun raising lambs.
They have built a sturdier structure for the turkeys they raise each year, and learned that playing BBC Radio at night keeps the foxes away. "They don't want to hear human voices."
About 50 hens, including several Araucana hens that lay blue eggs, strut freely in a large enclosed hillside pasture, pecking for bugs.
"Each hen is meant to lay an egg a day, but they don't all understand that," Lord says; they produce only about three dozen eggs a day. "They're too busy hiking around to lay eggs!"
Even so, Lord says, they like to shovel walkways for the hens when it snows.
At The Farm StandOn a recent Wednesday the farm stand is packed with produce and people. Lawyer Debby Tedford of Noank, who is picking out Jerusalem artichokes, says she's a regular customer. "I have it on my calendar. Wednesday: Get veggies."
"There's such a huge variety," says Amy Napierala of East Lyme, whose children, 5 and 8, now love turnips and Swiss chard.
Casey Sugarman, a biologist from Niantic, says she feels as though the farm is her own. "It's like finding the community from 100 years ago which you always hoped for."
When a customer admires a beautiful bird's nest on a shelf — likely a house finch's — Lord promptly gives it to her.
More people stop in to stock up on vegetables, holiday wreaths and garlands, Wave Hill Bread from Wilton, plump "Hen of the Woods" wild miatake mushrooms from nearby Franklin Organic Mushroom Farm. They choose from White Gate's variety of private-label salsas, infused oils, dilled beans and eggplant caponata. The fridge is stocked with tubs of pesto, cartons of fresh eggs in a mix of colors and frozen Cornish game hens.
"We're sort of hitting our stride," Lord says. "We know how to go about things."
• This time of year, the farm stand at White Gate Farm, 83 Upper Pattagansett Road, East Lyme, is open Wednesdays from noon to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.whitegatefarm.net.