An Urban Farm Bucks Business Trends, and Traditions, In Danbury

DANBURY, CT — When the coronavirus chased everyone indoors in the spring of 2020, we all developed a heightened interest in keeping healthy, not to mention baking sourdough bread. As we slowed down and shut ourselves in, we developed a new appreciation for things organic.

In Danbury, that translated into a surge in membership for the Community Supported Agriculture program at Halas Farm Market, with the business having to turn away hundreds of customers.

CSA members pay in advance for their “share” of the Halas harvest, and can drop by curbside weekly to scoop up their bounty. The farm gets a steady subscription-based business, and its customers can choose from a large selection of produce grown using organic practices.

Mara Castro, who runs the program, credits pandemic paranoia with the spike in interest, and business.

“The general public is saying, ‘I want to know where my food’s coming from. I want to know who’s growing it. I want to know who’s touching it. I want to know what’s going on here,'” Castro said.

What’s going on, is a 4th generation family-run farm — Mike Halas took over the operation from his father in 1990 — that has been bucking national agribusiness trends for nearly a decade.

Lean times for American farmers began with the Great Drought 0f 2012, the worst in a half-century. From the following year through 2019, global commodity production outpaced demand, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Then, just as the economics seemed to be resetting, the coronavirus wreaked havoc with the supply chain and the institutional demand for fresh produce, not to mention bio-fuels. The effect, as described by the USDA, was “immediate and drastic.”

One of the great ironies to play out during the coronavirus pandemic is that many smaller farms vanished even as Americans rediscovered nutritious foods. Even Halas had to close shop for a time last spring, just as grocery store shelves were emptying.

Castro said the business was able to bounce back quickly with the help of the CSA program, and a robust social media presence carried over from pre-pandemic times. That kind of self-promotion is unusual for a small urban farm, where the typical office space is “on a tractor,” according to Castro.

“You can’t buy what you can’t see. You won’t but what you don’t know. We’re not Whole Foods, we’re not Stop-N-Shop, we can’t advertise like them.”

And the big chains can’t pivot like Halas. The farm poured a lot of love and attention into its garden center, nursery, and greenhouse over the past year, and was rewarded. As many area residents tried their own hands at household horticulture (overtaking sourdough baking as “a pandemic coping mechanism,” according to National Public Radio), the Halas Garden Center hit pay dirt.

The farm also made a point of boosting its outreach to the community during the plague year. Last Halloween, the Halas organized a pumpkin picking and jack-o’-lantern lighting event the organizers knew would lose money, no matter how successful, and rolled with it anyway.

“It was something the community needed at the time,” Castro told Patch, “and our community means everything to us.”

But all good things, and miserable pandemics, must come to an end. As coronavirus restrictions have loosened and retail supply chains have become un-crimped, Castro says some of the CSA customers the farm picked up last year have begun to return to grocery stores.

“It’s a mindset. Some people don’t care. They’ll go to a supermarket and buy something that comes from Mexico, or wherever, and they don’t care,” she said.

But many more do care, apparently. The farm’s CSA program, which caps its membership at 200 in order to have enough inventory to serve the general public, still has a good-sized waiting list.