Peter and Kristin Orr are not your ordinary, everyday farmers. They are people possessed of seemingly boundless energy, superb creativity and clever providers of an agritourism experience matched by few other such attractions. Using a botanical term, this is a very variegated farm with a great deal to do, see and learn; emphasis on "learn."
When I first spoke to Kristin Orr, she was on her cell, clearly multitasking, something that seemed hardly alien to her. It’s a way of life she thoroughly enjoys, as was evident during a great conversation.
|Peter and Kristin Orr, owners of Fort Hill Farms
What impressed me most of all was Kristin’s energy level. It was positively tornadic, her speech rapid, saturated with enthusiasm for what she does and a determination not to let go of "wide open spaces."
Scientists will tell you a person can think about only one thing at a time. Well, they need to talk to Kristin, because they’re mistaken. She could switch from topic to topic the way a hockey player can poke, check, shoot, yes, she wishes she was related to the Great Bobby Orr!
She then moved on to discussion of the farm’s history, and her Lavender Labyrinth and the perennial plants they sell, the courses they offer to teach people how to take care of perennials, their remarkable Corn Maze Adventure and their herd of dairy cows, and, on and on. In fact, it's growing and becoming better known. It was featured on NBC News and won Yankee Magazine's coveted BEST PLACE TO GO NOWHERE! Award, and said Fort Hill Farms is "one of the top 10 Places to Visit in New England!"
Fort Hill Farms offers it's famous and fantastic maze, which is open 10 to 10 August 9th to Nov. 5th, and the delicious new Creamery is open 11 AM to 7 PM.
It was on May 16, 1683 that the King of England bestowed a land grant upon Sir Robert Thompson in what would come to be known as Thompson, Connecticut. While he never set foot on the land himself, he dispatched his five children to claim and settle the land. Used to demarcate the land’s boundaries are wonderful, antique stonewalls that remind New Englanders today of the genesis of the agrarian culture that so elegantly characterized the region.
Thompson’s children had marked off their own plots and began to farm. As time passed, John Doane moved to Thompson in 1883, bought the five properties, and unifying them, dubbed the acreage, "Fort Hill Farms," its name to this day.
Previously with the Chicago & Pacific Union Railroad, he opted for a more sedate lifestyle and started a dairy farm. Bruce Ream, founder of U.S. Steel, visited Thompson and decided he liked the town well enough to buy land there and stay.
He and Doane imported Italian stone masons, who, for five cents a day, built beautiful stone walls, some of which were unearthed by the Orr's, who once again brought light to a 350-foot long by 12foot high barn foundation in pristine condition, save for the side that bordered the road. Some stones from that had been pilfered over the ages.
Just as the Orr's are no ordinary farmers, their farm is no ordinary farm. Not only do they sell their milk, which contains no hormones, no antibiotics, and is minimally pasteurized, to the likes of Cabot, Agrimark and through their Connecticut cooperative, The Farmer’s Cow, they offer a number of fun things to do, each with a learning experience attached.
The entire endeavor is very cleverly planned out. It is in every way not only the Quintessential Garden and farm, but the quintessential form of agritourism, an attraction category that’s blossoming into a shiny new form of "things to do" for those who visit New England.
Kristin and Peter, together with members of three generations of family, run an enormous spread, some 350 acres’ worth. Besides milk and ice cream, you can buy an array of perennial plants from them.
Kristin talks quickly about them as she ticks off the names of the various plants she offers.
She explains that Quintessential Gardens offer unusual varieties of homegrown perennials, perennials that don't take a lot of care, and perennials that hardly need any water.
Kristin lets her interest in the environment shine through. "We want to be the generation that makes a difference." She and her family are holding up their part of that bargain.
The Perennial Nursery is open from 9 to 6 daily. In addition to the education you’ll get when you buy organically grown plants, the Orr's take things one step further: Kristin coined the word "In-Farm-ation". She aims to educate you about the New Agriculture.
According to one of two Web sites the Orr's run, Quintessential
Gardens, going to Fort Hill Farms is an empowering, educational encounter that enables those who, just by stepping onto the property, can connect with and honor Nature.
"Our focus even in the corn maze will be to enhance a deep loving relationship with the Earth, so that we can walk gently, in harmony and balance with all of life."
LAVENDER: "IT CAN MAKE ANY CRUSTY GARDENER THINK SWEET THOUGHTS"
While all of this is of great interest to Kristin, it all slides to second place behind her passion for lavender. She offers a variety of applications for this stress-busting plant. "It’s a tension easer," she explains.
"We tell people to stand amongst our 1500 lavender plants and breathe deeply," she says as if her description is providing her with a moment of relaxation. "We tell people who come to envision purple fields in Provence, a cottage garden in the Cotswolds, cupboards stacked with fragrant sun-dried linens.
"Lavender’s penetrating, clean fragrance can make any crusty old gardener think sweet thoughts," she grins. "July is definitely the best month for the color, the luscious scent, and the profuse blooms!"
Not only has she harnessed the power of the plant, she’s come up with recipes that include delicious lavender buds and even lavender topping for ice cream.
AN A-MAZING EDUCATION
Fort Hill Farms has an absolutely unique corn maze. It’s much more than just a maze one tries to navigate through as quickly as possible. It’s an educational experience that nurtures both body and mind, and hopefully helps someone to cross the environmental Rubicon to commit him or herself to the needs of a living, breathing planet.
|The "Famous Farmer," Kristin Orr knows how to maximize what can be done with agritourism. She cleverly plans out the theme and design of the corn mazes each year, then leads numerous guests through this outstanding farm. This is cutting-edge agritourism at its finest.
To the Orr's, it’s the Fort Hill Farms Corn Maze Adventure and it’s designed to be an agricultural learning quest. The maze theme is "Building awareness about the nature of food!"
The entrance fee for adults is $12, and for children under 12, it’s $10, more than manageable fees for the education one gains in the field while navigating their way through the maze. (Groups of 20+ must call in advance for special scheduling and discounts.)
The design for this year’s maze is Sacred Ground. Getting through the maze provides a healthy walk. One is enlightened throughout about farming, where milk comes from, and how The Farmer's Cow is working to save a way of life that could be lost. Dairy farms are important to Connecticut," Kristin says, her tone suddenly serious. "They save wide-open spaces, something of considerable importance to all farmers." She’s right.
Dairy farms throughout New England have been closing down at an alarming rate. That’s due in part to who controls milk pricing. Like just about everything else, the folks on Wall Street poured milk into the commodity markets where anything can and often does go wrong.
But here, the Orr's have been clever. When you enter the maze, you are given a 4-page game sheet. You walk the paths looking for clues about why locally grown food and the "slow-food movement" is so beneficial, and why it leads to healthy families.
In the maze, you will encounter 30 desks, which have the answers you need for your game sheet. The Orr's encourage people to work together to meet the Maize Quest Challenge!
One thing was abundantly clear throughout our exploration of this enormous, clever and very well executed learning experience. Kristin is no "crusty farmer". Her enthusiasm for what she and her family do is infectious, but not sustainable for the unindoctrinated. Fortunately, she shares her secret energy reservoir.
"BEST PLACE TO GO NOWHERE"
Kristin proudly announced that this year, "We now have The Farmer's Cow Ice Cream, made with our own milk and cream! Ten (10) flavors, plus our OWN whipped cream for Sundaes! Plus our OWN Blueberry topping, and LAVENDER topping! Ooh-la-la!"
In addition, Fort Hill Farm won an award as THE BEST PLACE TO GO NOWHERE! from Yankee Magazine, which considers the farm to be, "One of the Top 10 Places to Visit in New England.
It’s abundantly clear that the Orr’s are not only doing what they want, but they love what they do. The love of farming can be shared by a visit to Fort Hill Farms, in Thompson, Connecticut, where you can visit where the calves are kept (Kristin says that way they get Vit. D all year vs. those raised conventionally in barns). Then there’s her Lavender Labyrinth and her perennial plants.
We often hear it said that some people are "down to earth." But in the case of the Orr family, not only are they down to earth, they’re excited by what they do and anxious to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. They are very much a part of the soil they work in a uniquely spiritual way, and that’s what makes this a true gem in the rapidly expanding agritourism industry. As such, it’s a must stop for anyone interested in an agrarian way of life.
The Orr's provide substantial inspiration by building a remarkable template for the farms of the future, especially as the farm’s role in agritourism broadens.
It’s no surprise to me that bothYankee magazine and The New York Times have done not one, but two stories each about this extraordinary farm.
You can check the map to see where Thompson, Connecticut is and how to make it a stop on your trip through New England.