Nevin Christensen honored for lifetime achievement
By Paul Palmer
There is a corny, old joke that asks: “What’s the definition of a good farmer? Someone who is outstanding in their field!” In the case of Nevin Christensen of West Simsbury’s Flamig Farm, a good farmer is also a teacher, a mentor, an innovator, and someone that does not take no (or in his case, know) for an answer. He was born and raised on a farm in town, and is a 4th generation, farmer, with his sons Chadam and Peter being the 5th.
There were many times he almost lost the farm, but Christensen said they were not setbacks, but opportunities. “The hints are always there,” he said. “You have to pay attention because the answer is right there.” The summer camps for kids started when Nevin said he heard two mothers in Simsbury talking about where they were going to send their kids for a summer. As he told it, a little light came on and he thought, ‘why not to the place where I grew up, on a farm?’
On a hazy morning Christensen, 71, is in a garden at Flamig Farm surrounded by young campers eagerly filling buckets with topsoil and mulch, then gently spreading it around the plants in the garden. Other campers are off collecting chicken eggs, while others are on a hayride and learning lessons about the outdoors. These days Christensen is about growing minds more than about growing crops.
“I explain to the kids that when you feed the soil to keep it healthy, it grows the plants that you eat and you are healthier. I love it when the light goes on in their eyes with a revelation of ‘that’s how nature works.’” He tells the story of one young camper who stopped his father from applying weed killer at home because of what he learned at camp at Flamig Farm. In his commitment to sustainable farming and energy he was one of the first to add solar panels in 2006 and made his own biodiesel to power his tractors.
In addition to spreading the word via the camps that he runs all summer long, Christensen is also working with new farmers and people getting into growing their own food, teaching them the sustainable way. “We’ve learned to create double ground mulch, which everyone wants now, and that keeps the organic cycle going.”
Over the years the farm has had to make many changes to survive and prosper. He credits his wife Julie with keeping all the pieces of the puzzle organized and handling all the paperwork and organization. In addition to the raising money from the summer camp, they run a store that sells everything from eggs (more on the eggs later), to meat (yes from their cattle), and even T-shirts and hoodies with the now famous “EGGS” spelled backwards that has become the symbol of Flamig Farm. According to Christensen, a friend who is an artist, told him that he wanted to create something special for the chicken coops. It turned out to be a rather big sign and when town officials came to inspect it, they didn’t think it quite passed muster. Someone suggested they just spell it backwards, call it art and slap it on the buildings. From that “the hints are always there” mentality, Nevin knew he had a winner and that’s why you will see barns and buildings with the backwards EGGS on them, not to mention bumper stickers, magnets, and clothing for sale in the store.
The land belonged to Nevin’s grandfather, who thought of selling it off in the mid 1960s. He went so far as to remove the topsoil (the first step in closing out a farm) but had not sold the land before he died. Nevin decided he wanted to keep the farm and keep it in the family. He had spent part of his time in college travelling around New England, looking at how people were growing using sustainable techniques and he knew that is what he wanted to do at Flamig Farm and in his community. He struck a deal with the Town of Simsbury to help with financing and in return the land can never be used for housing – or as he likes to joke – for a mink farm.
“Someone on one of the boards added that in; I don’t know why,” he said with a laugh.
A visit to Flamig Farm today can include seeing, feeding, and even petting animals like horses, chickens, rabbits, cattle, goats, and many other farm animals. For some kids it is a first chance to get close to the animals and make a connection that Nevin said lasts a lifetime
For his efforts, Christensen was recently given the Judi Friedman Lifetime Achievement award from People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE). Named after the Canton woman who founded the organization, along with her husband Lou, in the early 1970s, the award reads, in part, “The award recognizes Nevin’s “lifetime of service dedicated to sustainable living in every aspect of his life. Nevin has been a pioneer in clean energy and sustainable farming practices at his family business Flamig Farm. Through personal example and educational programs at the farm, he has trained several generations of environmental advocates and leaders.“
Mark Scully, the President of PACE, said that what you see with Nevin is what he truly believes.
“It’s who he is. Nevin walks the walk,” Scully said. “Every aspect of what he does is an expression of his life.”
That life has not been an easy one, but don’t look to pity Christensen. “We could have sold in the fourth generation and that goes through my mind,” he said. “We came close to selling a few times but there was always a little something saying, ‘stay.’”
Three years ago, he suffered a stroke and said he came close to dying. While recovering he said he learned a very valuable lesson. “I don’t rush anymore. And I laugh a lot more now.”
That wasn’t always the case as the financial pressures hitting farmers across the country are no stranger to Flamig Farm. “The economics used to be terrible and the hardest part of all this was during the incredibly tough economic times.” It was the willingness to try new things that helped to literally save the farm.
“The Halloween Hayride kept us in business and my wife Julie gets a lot of credit as she picks up most of the hard work,” said Nevin.
The newest venture is a wedding/party event location with a breathtaking view across rolling fields leading to the mountains. Eldest son Peter came back to the farm after graduating college and he and Julie are running the event location as the farm continues to evolve.
“The challenges of making it run as a farm doesn’t work without economic sustainability,” Nevin said. “Education and entertainment make it work for us.”
The impact of Flamig Farm can be generational as Nevin said he has former campers who have become veterinarians, others come back as camp counselors including one who first came there at age five. “Our staff is the best and they become friends for life. Building community is what it is all about.”
Nevin Christensen speaks with pride when he talks about having his two sons learning and helping run the family business, knowing that it will be in good hands for a fifth generation. He is also full of hope that the things Flamig Farm believes in, and the lessons that they teach there and in the greater community will make a difference for generations to come.
“I tell the campers to take it as a piece of their being for the rest of their lives. We are so disconnected from nature; they need to know that we are connected with nature and we have to take care of it.”