Sullivan Farm -- a legacy built on hard work
On a perfect autumn day, with the verdant hills rolling into trees ablaze with brilliant red, gold and emerald-colored leaves, Mark Mankin slides open two large doors in the renovated 1868 red barn on Sullivan Farm.
"Come into my office,'' Mr. Mankin, 62, the director of the New Milford Youth Agency, beckons as he plops into a hay-covered chair.
Nearby, a couple of teenage boys haul in baskets of fresh vegetables just picked from the large garden along Park Lane (Route 202) they will now sell to markets, neighbors and passersby.
Since 2001, this picturesque 106 acres has been where the town's longest-serving employee has spent many of his days, nights, even weekends.
Sullivan Farm was a family-operated farm for nearly a century and a half.
Now, it is the place where Mr. Mankin, the innovative, 33-year Youth Agency leader, has worked alongside teens from all walks of life to till, seed and harvest the soil, take sap tapped from 1,600 maple trees and, inside their farmyard sugar house, turn it into syrup.
They fix tractors and hay bailers; they have a working blacksmith shop on the lower level of the main, red hay barn that, over the years, teen crews have rebuilt from the roof to the original wood plank floors.
This is where many of New Milford's youth have learned skills that will last a lifetime.
Former staff member Libby Covelli, 28, now a professor in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, one of the few girls to be hired for an otherwise all-male work crew, credits her career choice to her farm experience.
Mr. Mankin empowers his young staff to meet not only his high expectations, but those that come later in life, she said.
"You were expected to be at work in the early morning," Ms. Covelli recalled, "and work a full, eight-hour day. You were in charge of vehicles, equipment and making sure hiking trails were perfectly manicured.''
"As a 16- or 17-year-old, you had to step up to that challenge," she added. "It was a good transition from being a kid to an adult. The work helped me mature pretty quickly.''
A current staffer, Zach Ness, 18, who intends to study environmental engineering in college, started at the farm as a seventh-grader emptying sap buckets. Today, he does a little bit of everything, from growing vegetables to fixing broken down machinery.
Work on the farm has taught him problem-solving skills and the ability to work under all conditions with all kinds of people.
"Mark's great," Zach said. "He always has a great attitude, and he makes it fun."
Times are changing again, however.
Mr. Mankin is moving back to his administrative office on the third floor of the Lillis Administration Building.
It is where he is needed to help the agency plot its next chapter.
In his role with the agency, Mr. Mankin has indeed been the primary farm manager, but also the go-to guy when other agency needs arise, not to mention administrative responsibilities.
Possibly as soon as this spring, the management of Sullivan Farm will shift from the Youth Agency to a nonprofit organization, the Friends of Sullivan Farm.
Through what is expected to be a five-year lease agreement with the town, the Friends intend to expand upon the program rooted in Mr. Mankin's vision.
The old post-and-beam barn known for years as the Sugar House had been transported from the Larson Farm property to make room for the construction of New Milford High School on Route 7.
It quickly became integral in the start of the Youth Agency's involvement at Sullivan Farm. The town bought the farm from the Sullivan family in 1997 for just more than $1.25 million.
"It was in a weak moment,'' the easy dispositioned Mr. Mankin says with a nostalgic chuckle of assembling a youth crew to take down the barn that was in the path of the school construction.
"Now we had a barn and no place to put it," he recalled. "Someone suggested we bring it here (Sullivan Farm). We (the Youth Agency) never had any intention of coming up here.''
Yet the farm beckoned.
With the inheritance of a historic barn, Mr. Mankin and his staff opted to create a syrup center at Sullivan Farm.
Soon they were immersed in upgrading the land that, prior to their arrival, had become overgrown hay fields.
"The grass was waist high... and the (main barn) was in rough shape,'' Mr. Mankin said.
They assigned a group of young boys to exert some sweat equity and spruce up the place.
Then a staff member decided to grow a small garden out back. The produce was sold from a card table out front. The first year they made $300.
Little did Mr. Mankin realize what had been started to be just another of the agency's 23 youth programs was actually the seed for a full-fledged, agri-farming business.
Annually, the farm now relies on labor of some 25 to 40 middle school to college-aged teens, primarily boys. At this time, there are 14 paid staff -- Mr. Mankin just had to reject 45 job applications.
The rest are volunteers or those performing various community service duties.
The farm's budget last year was $60,000, and it garnered $72,000 in revenue from the sale of produce, syrup and hay, Mr. Mankin said.
More than 1,500 students tour the farm grounds and workshops during the school year.
The farm's annual harvest festival is visited by between 1,500 and 2,500 people, depending on the weather.
The Youth Agency now even has a smaller adjunct farming operation at Harris Hill Farm along Ridge Road.
Youth Agency supporter Shelly Pruss said the farm has not only been a great way to teach teens a strong work ethic and appreciation for the land, but has provided fresh produce essential to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Taxpayers benefit, he said, because it is a self-sustaining operation that puts money back into the town coffers.
The only complaint has been it has demanded too much of much of Mr. Mankin's time, Mr. Pruss admitted.
With renewed enthusiasm for organic farming and homegrown foods, Mr. Mankin said three years ago he started thinking about the farm's potential for additional growth.
Yet as much as he and the agency's Board of Directors wanted to see the program prosper and thrive, they realized they did not have the resources or manpower.
"I'm no spring chicken,'' Mr. Mankin jokes.
So, as a new season in the farm's life dawned, Mr. Mankin has had time to reflect on the past, present and future.
He said he has only the fondest of memories of what has been produced from this land -- lasting friendships, strong work habits, career goals, life ethics and lots of good stuff to eat.
Mr. Mankin said he is proud that, with his fellow agency colleagues, this farm, as well as The Maxx youth and community center and the long-thriving Latchkey program, are now town institutions.
He looks forward to what comes next.
"To have a part in building all that is incredible,'' Mr. Mankin concluded.