Weeds, seeds and bees

Texas transplant deepens local roots through community agriculture

Carl and Eric Frisk with two of their bee hives on the property of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Fairfield.

Carl and Eric Frisk with two of their beehives on the property of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Fairfield.

Eric Frisk adopted organic gardening methods partly because, he says, “I’m a lazy and cheap gardener,” and composting in his backyard garden was an easy way to loosen the Texas clay soil.

But Frisk, who moved to Fairfield in 1994 and quickly became a leading participant in the town’s Drew Park Community Garden, also sees his involvement in the organic movement as part of a cycle that began with his mother, a nurse and early proponent of natural food, who even in 1950s  Houston had Frisk eating whole wheat bread, skim milk and raw sugar.

“And now it’s all supported by my kids,” he says, pointing out that one of his daughters, a nurse, feeds her children a similarly wholesome diet, and that his son, Carl, has taken up beekeeping out of a concern about the weakened state of pollinators.

“Our food is pollinated by insects,” Eric says of the new focus on bees, contemplating the dire consequences of a die-off.

“Really and truly, it’s this web.”

The family farm

When Frisk followed a job opportunity in finance from Texas to Fairfield 20 years ago, he brought with him a love of gardening. His first exposure to farming was on a childhood trip to his grandfather’s family’s farm in Sweden in the summer of 1961.

The farm, he says, “was being worked without mechanization. We used a horse-drawn plow to plow under the dung pile, and we planted potatoes by hand.”

Carl Frisk examines one of the frames in a hive to see whether the queen is healthy and laying eggs in a dense pattern. (Kina Taylor photo)

Carl Frisk examines one of the frames in a hive to see whether the queen is healthy and laying eggs in a dense pattern. (Kina Taylor photo)

Frisk says that experience “imprinted on me the way things used to be. It gave me a frame of reference to go back to once I started doing this” — the organic vegetable gardening he took up at Drew Park. “I look at it and say, ‘that’s the way we used to do it.’”

Frisk started gardening in a serious way in Houston, after his children were born and he needed a hobby close to home. “I dug up my back yard and started growing stuff,” he says in the Texas twang that has held on through his years of living in the north.

It was Fairfield Tree Warden Ken Placko, friendly with the Frisks through both the children of both families, who got Frisk involved in the community garden. Placko says at that time the garden was something of an “eyesore,” and Frisk worked hard on its clean-up to “make the garden look like a garden,” helping other gardeners and taking over abandoned plots.

Frisk contributed to the garden in many other ways over the years, Placko says, by, for example, applying for grants for fencing and other supplies, and building raised beds so senior citizens from the housing complex across the street could garden without having to bend over.

According to Placko, Frisk “is an unknown volunteer who has taken on himself” many of the garden’s improvements.

Climate change

The warm Texas climate allowed for a long growing season, and Frisk looked for ways to extend the short Connecticut planting and harvest times when he began his work at Drew Park.

“At that time,” Frisk says, there was a common local saying that “you plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day,” which led him to wonder whether other things could be planted then, too. Frisk began to study different varieties of vegetables that could grow in cooler weather, along with ways to alter the soil temperature.

Meeting First Church Congregational member Sandy Wakeman further inspired Frisk in this direction. Wakeman was using the church’s community garden plots to grow food for local food pantries, and Frisk, a congregant at Fairfield’s Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, decided he wanted to try to do that with his fellow parishioners as well.

“We had to think about who was going to be eating and using the produce,” he says, explaining that the diets of many of the food pantries’ beneficiaries did not include the vegetables most often cultivated in the community garden: “They don’t grow kale and spinach in Latin America.”

Frisk says he used plastic tunnels to warm the soil, and studied to find the right varieties of tomatillos and cerrano and jalapeno peppers that would mature in shorter growing seasons.

Gone to seed

Frisk’s exploration of  Latin American vegetables capable of surviving in New England “got me into the seed thing,” he says, referring to the seed libraries he started at the Fairfield Woods branch library and the New Canaan and Darien public libraries.

The goal of the libraries, Frisk says, is to combat the effects of consolidation in the seed industry, ensuring that cheap seeds are available to growers and that different varieties are preserved.

Frisk also developed the demonstration garden at Drew Park to select and test new and different varieties of vegetables and flowers, and to expand the seed libraries. The demonstration garden, he says, can “naturally determine which seeds are suited to the local environment.”

Holding ears of dried corn grown in the community garden, Frisk describes their pedigree. “This is a non-GMO corn that’s probably 125 years old,” he says, gesturing to an ear of Heirloom Hickory King Dent corn. The corn is not sweet, Frisk says, and is often used in polenta.

Pointing to an ear of blue corn, Frisk says it’s Inca Blue — Indian corn — and is what’s used to make blue corn tortillas. Frisk has also grown the Sonora White variety of wheat, originally brought to this continent by Portuguese missionaries in the 1600s.

“Every seed has a story,” says Frisk. “It’s really kind of cool.”

Public service

Frisk had enlisted Our Savior’s church members for years in growing food for donation in their community garden plots, but last year he took his mission to serve the food pantries to a higher level by persuading the church to dedicate some of its land to farming. The church agreed to let Frisk turn one-third of an acre on an unused field, once part of Hadu’s farm, into what Frisk calls a “mini-farm.” Frisk likes the fact that he’s helping to “revitalize the farm” that once was there.

Reverend Mark Christoffersen, pastor of Our Savior’s, said in addition to reinforcing the congregation’s interest in the environment and local agriculture, Frisk provided “an opportunity for doing ministry” by setting aside a portion of the church farm for cultivation by autistic young adults from the group Ability Beyond. With Frisk’s help, an Eagle Scout in the congregation built special enclosures and other customized requirements for the special needs beds.

Christoffersen and Frisk said the primary goal of the farm is to provide fresh produce for area food pantries. According to Frisk, in 2014 alone the community garden plots produced more than 2,500 servings of organically grown fresh vegetables for  donation, mostly to Operation Hope, and once farming gets under way at the church that amount should increase significantly.

Frisk’s lectures at the Fairfield Public Library and other area venues include the talk “Compost Happens,” and “Three-Season Growing,” which he says draws on his research and experience in extending the Connecticut growing season, as well on as  Eliot Coleman’s book “Four-Season Harvest.”

Frisk also teaches preschoolers about composting and gardening, a project his son Carl supports. Says Carl, “He’s laying the foundation for future farmers with the preschoolers, just like he did with me and my sisters — getting them looking at the dirt and the bugs early.”

New-bees

Frisk’s latest endeavor, beekeeping, has him following his son’s lead. While looking for a full-time job after graduating from Parsons School for Design in 2010, Carl went along with his father to area talks and presentations about gardening and farming. He says, “every time farmers would talk they would talk about pollinators and CCD (colony collapse disorder).”

A bee from one of the Frisk's hives readying to go on a foraging flight. (Kina Taylor photo)

A bee from one of the Frisk’s hives readying to go on a foraging flight. (Kina Taylor photo)

Carl says at that time the CCD crisis was at its height, with commercial beekeepers losing up to 50 to 60% of their hives to the epidemic, which is thought to affect the neurological systems of bees adversely, depriving them of their ability to gather nectar and make honey.

Carl and his father joined the Wilton-based Backyard Beekeepers Association and began to learn how to raise bees. According to Carl, hobbyist beekeepers can help solve the CCD problem. “On a smaller scale you get to know the personality of each hive,” he says, and can better learn what practices make the bees happy and healthy.

By raising local queens that are well adjusted to their local climate and pollen, Carl says, backyard beekeepers can increase the population of genetically strong pollinators. “The more you learn about them,” he says, “the more fascinated you become.”

Carl and his father now have eight active hives on the church farm, down from 11 in August. Last year, the long wet summer resulted in a bumper honey harvest of 300 pounds —  more than 22 gallons — which the Frisks have been selling at local farmers’ markets.

When Carl first told his father he wanted to take up beekeeping, Frisk says he assumed his son’s interest was financial. But he learned  Carl was at least as motivated by concern over CCD.  That, Frisk says, speaks to their generational difference.

“Carl is 29,” Frisk says.  “That generation is more environmentally aware, from their teaching in school and the realization that there are a lot of things that might not continue to be around.” Frisk says people his own age tend to adopt more of an attitude of  “use it up and let later ones worry about it.”

Frisk has watched as community supported agriculture and organic vegetable growing have become more popular. When he started, he says, “you would just hang out with weird people and learn a lot of stuff.” But that has changed over the years.

“We were more idiosyncratic. Now it’s more mainstream.”

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