By Ann Baldelli The Day, New London, Conn.
Brianne Casadei says asking for help, never mind money, is totally out of character for her, but she believes so passionately in her latest endeavor -- adding a dairy to Terra Firma Farm -- that she's shamelessly promoting a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising $47,970 towards the project.
"I never ask for help. I'm headstrong. Determined. Straightforward," said the 35-year-old Casadei, who is better known around town as Farmer Brie and the force behind the community and educational Terra Firma Farm that she started 11 years ago on Al Harvey Road in Stonington.
Seven months ago, Casadei expanded her operation by leasing an additional 500 acres on the Norwich-Westerly Road, where she's planning the dairy operation. But midway into the effort, she realized she didn't have all the capital she needed to get the milk-making operation running.
"We got to a point where we invested a lot of money and I thought, 'We can't afford all this equipment on our own,'" she said.
A single mother of two young children, Casadei said her extended family has supported her efforts and backed her. But after retrofitting an old dairy barn on the former Oldhaven Farm to make it into a creamery and retail store, she turned to Kickstarter to raise additional money to finish interior work, buy six more heifers for the milking herd, and to acquire a bulk tank, bucket milking system and other apparatus needed to officially open the micro-dairy at Terra Firma Farm at Oldhaven. (A micro-dairy is a milking operation with fewer than 10 cows.)
Kickstarter contributions are only paid out if a campaign reaches its goal. With the few days to go, "the milk moovement" for Terra Firma Farm had pledges of $10 to $2,000 totaling $29,081 by late Tuesday afternoon. The campaign will expire at 7:43 p.m. Saturday and Casadei was optimistic she will meet the payout threshold.
"I think we will get there. We have an amazing support system in Stonington and I think local milk is something that people want ... people would love to buy milk that is made three miles down the road from where they live."
The plan is to graze the cows at the Oldhaven property on Norwich-Westerly Road in North Stonington and run the dairy operation there, although the bottled milk will also be sold at the farm stand on Al Harvey Road.
The milking herd will comprise Jersey cows and number from six to 10, with a weekly goal of 175-250 gallons.
"And that will be a mix of regular whole milk, chocolate milk and yogurts," said Casadei, who grew up in Farmington and earned a degree in animal sciences from the University of Vermont. The chocolate milk, she said, was a demand from her 8-year-old son, Thatcher, who said he would support the dairy as long as his mother made chocolate milk, too.
Her herd of Jerseys -- she already has two and a calf and plans to acquire six more next spring from a farm in Rhode Island -- will graze on grass in seasonal weather and hay in the winter. Jerseys, she said, are known for having a high degree of butter fat in their milk, so her bottled product will come with a cream floater on the top. Her milk will be pasteurized but not homogenized, Casadei said.
"A Holstein is your traditional black and white cow, but we are doing Jerseys because they are smaller, a little easier to handle, and they do really, really well on grass," she said.
Casadei plans to continue the educational component of Terra Firma Farm at the 20-acre Stonington site but has moved her pigs, and will eventually move her 1,000 laying hens, to the North Stonington property. In Stonington, she runs summer camp programs, spring vacation sessions and field trips. "Without that revenue from farm camps and programs and bringing kids in, we would have no way to sustain the expense for that piece of property," she said. "There's just not enough pasture to make a living off of dairy cows or beef cows and not enough land for enough vegetables."
The 500 acres she's leasing in North Stonington will allow for that.
"We are just going to be able to expand on the production part, so the dairy will bring milk, and we can also do more pigs, more chickens, and more beef cows," said Casadei. "The goal is to create streams of revenue to keep the farm open."
She said using social media and Kickstarter to get the dairy operation completed is not something she's familiar or comfortable with. But she believes wholeheartedly in the local farm movement concept and said she's been warmed and encouraged by the support she's received from the local community, particularly the families of her past and present farm campers.
"The goal with the store and the farm is that we can be something in town where people can buy milk and eggs and meat and vegetables and know that the foods that they are feeding their family are pure and healthy and in return it's helping to support another family."
If the Kickstarter succeeds, Casadei said she will be hiring some help in addition to the one full-time employee who helps her now and the seasonal summer camp counselors she employs.
Farming, she says, has always been a passion.
"I was always that kid that was animal crazy, farm crazy," she said. "Farming was all I ever wanted to do."
Sharing that passion with young people today is still exciting for Casadei.
"I just think the things you can learn on a farm are priceless, and if we can take a kid for a week and hope that some of the things we do that week will change them for the rest of their lives -- it just opens their eyes up to food production in a completely different way."
Casadei tries to look at how the Kickstarter campaign is doing only a few times a day.
"I get up in the morning and look, and then I go do my chores," she said, adding that with 1,000 laying hens, there's 50 to 75 dozen eggs to pick by hand each day. And now in addition to the Stonington farm, there's the North Stonington property, too. Some people call Casadei "the girl farmer."
"In a weird way I take pride in that," she said. "There are only a few successful women farmers out there, and I'd be proud to be one of them."
For information about Terra Firma Farm and its Kickstarter campaign to fund the dairy operation, visit terrafirmafarm.org