- Associated Press - Monday, September 25, 2017

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - Equipped with a contraption comprising four torches steered by a single wheel, Stephen McMenamin targeted any invaders challenging his future spinach buds with 1,500-degree flames.

“The problem with growing in dirt is that there are a ton of weed seeds,” the Greenwich restaurant-owner-turned-French-intensive-farmer said as he pushed the Flame Weeder over his newly planted crops at Versailles Farms.

In 2012, McMenamin and his wife, Ingrid Delson, bought the property adjacent to their backcountry Greenwich home. The following year, they sold their Greenwich Avenue restaurant, renowned for its pastries and celebrity sightings, to focus on other endeavors, including the farm. In a few years, the couple has restored the Locust Road property to its one-time purpose as New England farmland. This summer, they have begun sharing their produce and story with the community.

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McMenamin, who is also a longtime investment adviser and executive at Greenwich Roundtable, said during a recent tour of Versailles Farms the pace and demands of the restaurant business wore on him and his wife.

Traveling is one of the couple’s favorite activities and, while cycling through destinations such as France, Italy and Vietnam, they observed diverse food traditions and alternative planting techniques.

“We were doing all these research trips and thought, ‘We’re in the wrong business,’ ” McMenamin said. “We saw where the farm-to-table movement was going and the restaurant business was hard, so we thought, ‘Can farming be any harder?’ “

On a recent Friday afternoon filled with harvesting, planting, flaming weed beds and readying for the weekend’s busy farm stand, McMenamin said, with a chuckle, the answer is no. “We quit our day job and got back to earth,” he said.

Of the 6-acre property, the couple uses a little more than an acre to grow more than 50 crops, produce honey, inoculate logs with shiitake mushrooms and run their weekend farm stand, which they began promoting this year.

Of the land they are working, “we use every available inch,” McMenamin said. That is critical to following the French intensive method, which can yield harvests many times the size of those managed with a bulky tractor.

Trips abroad and to the Four Season Farm in Maine showed them the capacity of such small-scale, sustainable operations, and they decided to implement it at Versailles Farms.

Instead of choosing what to plant at the outset, McMenamin took a different approach. “I try to let the land tell me what it can and can’t do,” he said.

Versailles is not organic certified, but its products are grown without using pesticides or herbicides - hence the flame weeder - and using organic techniques, said McMenamin, who emphasizes they “grow for flavor and good digestion.”

Last year, their fourth of farming, marked their first year growing for customers. Now, Versailles supplies many Greenwich country club restaurants.

Since the weekend farm stand opened a few months ago, visitors have expressed surprise something like Versailles exists in Greenwich, the couple said.

How they have transformed the land into rows of densely planted vegetables and flowers amid backcountry’s undulating landscape frequently inspires visitors to share their stories, often surprisingly intimate, about food and gardening, Delson said.

An afternoon with the pair discussing their labor, mistakes and lessons learned with each crop unearths the farm’s most striking quality - its effect on people.

“We live in a world of abstraction where everyone’s sitting behind their phones,” McMenamin said. “But food is very emotional. The response to this has been overwhelming. It’s amazing what happens since we decided to work simpatico with the land.”


Online: https://bit.ly/2xoNkvy


For more information: The Greenwich Time, www.greenwichtime.com

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