A Currant Affair

3/3/2014 6:30 AM
By Sarah L. Hamby Connecticut Correspondent

Conn. Grower Diversifies Into Currants, Hydroponics

PRESTON, Conn. — Since 1978, fresh from studying agricultural mechanization at the University of Maine at Orono, and nursery management at the University of Connecticut’s Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture, Allyn Brown III has been working the land at Maple Lane Farms LLC in Preston.

Originally purchased by his father in the 1950s, the farm was small and overgrown. But Allyn Brown III saw promise.

What began initially as a pick-your-own fruit operation has now grown into currants and hydroponics.

When Allyn Brown III started working the farm, he cleared the land, preparing more than 100 acres for what was to come. Then, in the 1980s, “jumping on the pick-your-own craze,” he began to sell strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, an effort that eventually led to apples, pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Selecting a “cut-your-own” Christmas tree from Maple Lane Farms has been a tradition in Preston for nearly 30 years.

Brown has also produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of oyster mushrooms for the now defunct Franklin Mushroom Farm. He’s opened up a retail store, added farmers markets to his schedule and delved into “produce, baked goods and all that.”

But for Brown, it wasn’t enough.

How has he tried to stay current in the world of rural Connecticut agriculture?

By growing currants.

Once a familiar fruit, the small tart berry was banned in the early 1900s as carrier of white pine blister rust, a disease of white pine trees. Considered a threat to the logging industry, the berries were banned nationwide. But recently they’ve started to make a comeback in the Northeast, with New York leading the way. Connecticut, Vermont and other states have followed suit, while other states including New Hampshire and Massachusetts continue to ban them.

“I looked at these black currants,” Brown remembered, “popular in Europe, a super-fruit with double the antioxidants of blueberries; figured they’d be popular in the U.S. We planted, bought a very expensive harvester.”

Slowly, the farm’s focus moved from the pick-your-own operation to currants, and now Brown is the largest grower of this fruit in the country.

“Somewhere along the line,” he said, “I realized I didn’t enjoy the retail end of it and I got out. Got out of peaches and apples. This farm is gonna be mostly black currants and Christmas trees. We closed the farm store, too. Our focus now is on growing the black currants for the juice business and on our own juice sales.”

That focus has put Maple Lane Farms on the map.

This year, Brown hopes to purchase new currant bushes — an expensive endeavor — to offer new varieties. After eight years or so, a bush begins to decline. It takes about three years to get a crop from a currant bush.

Right on-site and just down the road from the main house where Brown’s father still lives, and down the hill from Brown’s newer home, is a bottling facility. While Brown feels the company has outgrown the small building, the staff makes sure all is in good working order.

Here, employees don’t just bottle Currant Affair Black Currant juice in various flavors. Co-packing allows Brown to work with larger companies such as the Farmer’s Cow. All beverage labels for Farmer’s Cow products, with the exception of milk, are done at the Preston farm. Lemonade, cider, fruit juices and flavored waters from various companies use the Browns’ co-packing service.

Currant juice isn’t just a highly concentrated, antioxidant-packing super-juice, either. Brown is extremely proud of the currant vodka and gin he has available through Maple Lane Spirits. Vodka is ready for purchase, while gin is taking a little longer as Brown waits for federal officials to approve the bottle label. Also of note is crème de cassis, a currant liqueur that can by mixed with white wine or champagne.

“We’re evolving all the time,” he said laughing. “It drives my wife crazy.”

Brown believes he is the largest grower in the state. But in the winter months, after the last Christmas trees have been sold and the berries still lie dormant, one might wonder what sort of work Brown does.

“I’m back behind a desk,” he laments. “That’s what I do most of the time these days. It’s like a treat for me to sit on a tractor.”

Still, he’s found a new crop to replace the oyster mushrooms: hydroponic lettuce.

In an 8,000-square-foot greenhouse, row after row of bright green heads of living lettuce are growing, even as the winter chill blows outside. There are 1,800 heads of lettuce per pond; six mature ponds and two junior ponds.

The farm is one of the largest distributors of hydroponic lettuce in the country.

“This is local. No competition in the lettuce biz right now and people want local I was looking for something that was year-round, picked 52 weeks a year,” he said.

The fresh Boston bib lettuce lasts for two to three weeks once it’s been purchased, almost as long as it takes to grow — about 27 days in the summer and 40 days in the winter, without the addition of the summer sun. In December, he struggled a bit to meet demand as the days got shorter, but “now things are looking better.”

With so many successful endeavors, Brown doesn’t seem worried about the future. But there is one thing that concerns him: the future of Maple Lane Farms. While many in the agricultural community are discussing succession plans, much of his family’s “next generation” has moved away, although his sister has a home nearby.

He has one daughter, a high school student, who will likely go away to college next year.

“This is probably going to be a one-generation farm,” Brown said. “She helps out with the pick-your-own, but she’s not gonna go out there and spray trees.”

Learn more about Maple Lane Farms and Currant Affair black currant juice at www.maplelane.com.

Find information about farm/land succession planning: http://landforgood.org.

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