Dished: Maplewood’s Farm to Provide More Than Fresh Food

August 27, 2017, Tim Mullaney, Senior Housing News - Maplewood Senior Living has ambitions to create top-flight urban senior housing, but is also undertaking a project far from the bustle of the city.  The Westport, Connecticut-based provider has big plans for a farm that the company owns, which provides ingredients for its culinary operations.

Farm-to-table cuisine is important to Maplewood CEO Greg Smith, who is a self-described “foodie.”  His own family tries to eat as much locally sourced food as possible — including from their home garden — and he wanted to bring this same approach to Maplewood, he told Senior Housing News.  There currently are 13 Maplewood communities, in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio, with the company’s first Inspir-branded property under construction in Manhattan.

It was about three years ago that Smith found a farm for sale in Easton, Connecticut, about seven miles from Maplewood’s corporate headquarters and within a 45-minute drive of its Connecticut communities.  In addition to the prime location, the 48-acre farm was large enough to provide all the company’s Connecticut communities with the majority of their staple ingredients, so Smith purchased it.

The land had been cultivated by the same farmer for more than four decades. He stayed on after the Maplewood purchase but retired about two years ago.

“From asparagus and corn to squashes, tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumbers, it was a whole list of different produce we were getting from him,” Smith said.  “After his retirement, we hired a local farmer in Easton who would continue to maintain crop flow over time as we started to develop and design what the farm would look like in the future, in conjunction with the University of Connecticut and an architectural firm.”

Those plans are ambitious.  Overall, the project likely will cost between $7 million and $10 million, Smith estimates.  The idea is to make the farm an even more efficient supplier of fresh ingredients for Maplewood dining, but also to make it a place where residents and their families can come for programming and leisure.

Planned features include:

– A 7- to 8-acre vineyard and an orchard

– Resident-accessible greenhouses

– A 4,500-square foot activity center with areas for socialization and events, and a commercial test kitchen

– A root cellar

– An irrigation pond, potentially stocked with trout

– Living quarters where Maplewood residents and family members will be able to spend weekends

Plans for converting a barn to an activity center.  Credit: Stein Troost Architecture

Smith sees the farm as a place to foster greater resident engagement.  For instance, University of Connecticut students might teach canning and pickling; the test kitchen could be used for cooking classes or demonstrations; and the greenhouses and vineyard would allow to residents to get their hands in the soil and participate in the farming operation. Smith’s father — a fly fishing enthusiast who has helped lead the Easton Farm project — might teach fishing classes in the irrigation pond.

For many senior living residents, farm-to-table is not a novel concept, but hearkens to past times when they relied on victory gardens or home gardens for food, Smith noted. Older adults take pride in this legacy, and the farm might allow them to experience that sense of pride again.

“If I’m a resident and went to the farm and helped with a crop of tomato plants or zucchini or cucumbers … when I’m sitting at the dinner table and I can say, ‘I was part of the process that put that on your plate.’  That’s a sense of pride that really makes a difference,” Smith said.

Produce is not the only type of food that the farm will ultimately provide.  Crop production has been reduced a bit now, to prepare for the introduction of livestock.  While Smith foresees the farm contributing an even greater variety of products to Maplewood than it has in the past, it probably will not be a source of dairy or certain other ingredients.  Maplewood has relationships with more than 20 other farms to meet all its needs, Smith said.

As this array of suppliers suggests, there are operational challenges in sourcing food locally, and a whole host of other challenges in actually running a farm.  It’s not necessarily a more cost-effective way of obtaining fresh ingredients, Smith acknowledged.  He personally put up the capital to purchase the farm, and it is not meant to be a profit center, he said.

Rather, he believes it will be a competitive differentiator for Maplewood, distinguishing the brand in the marketplace and keeping occupancy high.

“We think of challenges not as obstacles to being successful, but as a way to understand that others may not be able to do something, so it’s an opportunity to be great,” he said.