story & photos
by Alexis Ann
John Whitman Davis, better known as “Whit,” 86 years young, is the owner of one of the oldest farms in the state, the Stanton-Davis Farm. The 11 generations to work this farm, by cultivating this plot of land for at least 356 years, makes it the last working farm in Stonington. Thomas Stanton started the first business in 1654 and the farm never missed a crop since!
Last year, Whit accepted the Century Farm Award on behalf of the Stanton-Davis Farm. This distinguished award, honors a farm in family operation for more than 100 years.
Long Island Sound borders the Stanton-Davis Farm, located on a pristine plot of land in Pawcatuck. It survives because of hard work, dedication, and passed down tradition. The farm is rich with stories, just as rich as the soil that makes the corn, beans, cabbages, potatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and radishes thrive.
A couple of weeks ago, on a hot July afternoon, I took a ride to the farm, looking for Whit, as I kept missing him at the Quiambaug Cove Farmers’ Market, held on Tuesdays. When I drove down the private road, I didn’t spot Whit’s red pickup so I phoned his wife, Velora Davis.
“He’s there,” says Velora. “He was interviewing with the NY Times this morning.”
“He’s cheating on me?” I joked. “Yes, there he is, up by the old farm house!” I exclaimed….
I drive up along side Whit’s truck and open the passenger window. We exchange greetings and he signals me to come into his vehicle. I didn’t discover until later that his every move takes effort these days. Even a dedicated farmer can’t ward off the aches and pains of the ageing process.
“How’s the blonde bombshell?” His sweet talk is a first runner up to his famous sweet corn.
“The NY Times reporter was here earlier,” he says with a twinkle in his sparkling blues.
“Yes, I know. You cheated on me again.” We laughed and without asking, he starts the engine and thus, begins our wonderful afternoon jaunt around his more than 300 acres of prime farmland.
As we drive around the vegetable garden, he tells me that it was a late planting season due to this spring’s flooding. “It’s going to be a late season for corn.” He shows me where the deer ate off the tops of some of the younger corn stalks.
“Would you like a cabbage?” Before I could answer, he says, “Sure you would.” He opens his door and heads for the cabbage. I follow. He teaches me about this special cabbage called Early Wakefield Cabbage. “You won’t taste a better cabbage,” he prides.
Next, we head for the garlic and onions. I don’t get out this time as one of those green horse flies took a bite out of my leg. I wasn’t dressed for farming as this wasn’t in my schedule nor his, as a matter of fact. Whit is a giver and it’s obvious he enjoys sharing his farm and his stories with those interested. I mean how many ceo’s allow you to enter their office and hangout while they do their job?
While we continued to tour the farm, Doug and Johnny Main, brothers from Pawcatuck, stopped in to assist Whit in making a repair on the John Deere 24T Hay Baler. Whit says, “They both used to work with me on the farm while growing up, they both used to ride horses to cultivate and drive cows. Their father is a farmer and they still do a lot of farming.”
We discussed today’s economic times and I questioned if the farms were the businesses with the money way back in the old days?
Whit shares, “No, nobody had any money to pay. I found my old record book from when I started at 11 years old and I recorded selling 133 bunches of radishes for three cents a bunch. When the milk customers got behind on their bill they would come down and help pitch hay, help cut corn, and help with the hoeing etc… And, when they got ahead of us, my father would give them five to six bushels of potatoes and that’s the way we lived! We never had any money. It was all trading.”
Whit unlocks the secret of his tasty eggs — “It’s the chicken feed.” Every two weeks, Whit gets together with the “Doc” William Burrows of Groton Family Farm and the Amish sends up a truck with their special grain in it. The grain produces flavorful eggs and Whit says, “Some of the special ingredients are ground shelled corn, roasted soy beans, ground oats, dehydrated alfalfa meal, sea shell flour and kelp meal.”
These special ingredients make the egg shells tough. “Now, two to three markets ago a woman bought a dozen eggs and she was fumbling them while placing them in a bag and she dropped them! ‘Well, you have to have another dozen,’ I told her, but when I picked them up, there wasn’t one cracked!”
Longtime family friend and helper, Dara Karas, explains another specialty that helps produce their wonderful eggs, she says, “We put wood ash in a box. The chickens roll and flutter in it, it keeps the mites off them. They line up like crazy when I fill it up, they just love it. And therefore, we don’t have to use any chemicals!” I guess it’s true that happy, healthy chickens make healthy eggs.
Whit uses an old Indian tradition known as the “Three Sisters” – Indian Corn, Indian Beans and Indian Squash. This tradition of planting corn, beans and squash together is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provides long-term soil fertility. Whit is connected to the history of this land and the tradition known as the Three Sisters is passed down to him.
Whit says, “The Indians would plant the corn and when it got about knee high, they would plant the beans. As the corn grew up, the pole beans would climb up the corn stalk. In between the rows of corn, they planted the squash with those big leaves to help keep the weeds down. That is why they called them the Three Sisters!” The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Native American Tribe were the first to tell the story of Three Sisters, who grew up together in harmony – corn, beans and squash.
Whit understands these three crops and their environmental cooperation. Animated, he begins telling the story of how he was given the Indian Beans.
“There was this old man down in West Virginia who had these beans, and he was afraid his family would let them run out. His children didn’t care too much about it so he asked a friend of mine if he knew of a farmer up in this area who might be interested in keeping them going. My friend said, ‘YES’ and I got the beans!”
“The only thing I lacked was the old Indian signature. The old man made out a piece of paper with the Indian name spelled out and then he translated it into English, It means ‘bright scarlet flower.’ I’ve got the Indian Corn and now I have the Indian Beans and I am looking for the Indian Squash!” says Whit.
Whit continues as I admire the dramatic red blossoms on the bean stalks, “I’ve got two out of three. I am doing pretty good. I am still looking for the other one for the squash. I replaced the Indian Squash with pumpkin for now, and I have three different Tribes looking for the squash: the Mohegans, the Pequots and the Narragansetts.”
As for the Indian Corn, Whit explains, that without the generosity of the Indians, he would never have the corn. He believes it is important to give back, “When the ‘corn-ers’ lost their land out on Martha’s Vineyard, they lost their corn seed. When they got their Federal Recognition and some of their land back, I sent them out three or four beautiful ears of their ancient Indian corn so they would have their seed back. I did the same with the Pequots and the Mohegans and the next one to get it are the Schaghticokes. What goes around comes around!”
The Stanton-Davis Farm helps many and Dara opens, “I had Diabetes II when I first came to the farm. I was on 20ccs of insulin everyday and was watching my diet and all that. I started on the farm in the spring and by fall, I was Diabetes-free and still am, today. I attribute my regained A-1 health to exercise and eating fresh vegetables, not store or canned, and that makes a big difference.”
I returned to the farm on Saturday morning to see the egg gathering process and the procedures for getting ready to take the goods to market. Dara is in charge of gathering the eggs every morning. I was in awe of her way with those birds. While I photographed, she was talking to the chickens, as she gently lifted the hens and pulled out their prized gifts. She picked up the rooster, Big Red, so I could get some close-ups. Whit proudly shows off the bird’s shiny coat, his gorgeous rose top comb on the top of his head and his brilliant red wattle under his chin. Washing of the eggs came next before placing them into the cartons.
Preparing to go to market the next day takes up a good part of Saturday. Picking the corn is next on the agenda. “Corn was one of the first crops ever planted on the farm,” informs Whit. Other fruits of his labor are picked and loaded into his truck and the corn is loaded into the wagon pulled behind his pickup.
I join Whit, Velora and Dara, the next morning around eleven at the Denison Farm Market in Mystic. Pitching the tent is a task in itself. The Denison Farm Market is in a large field across from the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, at 120 Pequotsepos Road. Starting the first Sunday in June and running until the last Sunday in October, the market is open from 12:00 until 3:00pm.
Whit points to animal tracks on the back of the wagon filled to the brim with sweet corn, “Do you know what animal those prints belong to?”
“Raccoon,” I answer.
“Yup,” says Whit.
Another obstacle, I’m thinking. Geeze! From spring flooding to the deer eating the corn plantings, to the insects, to the machinery breakdowns, to wondering about the possibility of a hurricane that would wash away an entire crop of corn planted especially for Whit’s famous Johnnycake meal and now, a hungry raccoon! There’s risk in every business but this is over-the-top! How does he do it?
“I make a list when I go to bed at night about what I am going to do the next day and that gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Up and at ‘em!”