For Wilton resident Farah Masani, the saying “You are what you eat,” isn’t just a quaint expression, but rather, it is one of her driving life mottos. She believes there is a direct correlation between one’s diet and their physical and mental health, and she’s passionate about sharing that message.
I first met Masani on a ramp foraging expedition. Ramps are wild onions that grow for only a brief period each spring. They are coveted by restaurants and foodies, which has resulted in the plant being over-harvested. Masani led a small group of us into a wooded area in Wilton where she identified what ramps look like and taught us how to sustainably harvest them so not to decimate the wild crop. Foraging outings like this are just one of many ways Masani is trying to enlighten people to the benefits of eating locally grown and seasonally fresh food whenever possible.
Born in Bombay, India, Masani was exposed to agriculture at a very early age and developed a connection with good food. In the 1980’s and 90’s, India was still primarily an agrarian economy. “Many people in India live below the poverty level and often don’t have enough food. But when they eat, they eat real food,” says Masani.
Although she felt happiest roaming and getting dirty on the farmlands, cultural mores about women’s role in society didn’t allow for that lifestyle. So, Masani left India as a teen and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. “When I arrived in America, I was shocked. It wasn’t culture shock but rather because I was living in the world’s best country, receiving the world’s best education, and eating the world’s worst food,” she says. The dismal selections under the fluorescent lights at her local supermarket looked and tasted artificial. “Bread should not be able to sit in your bread box for a month without developing mold. Fresh ingredients are always better,” Masani says.
Food and Self Reliance
Her undergraduate studies as a social worker sent her into areas of Austin mainly inhabited by immigrants, where she discovered that most of this population maintained their own backyard gardens, including chickens and goats, right there in Austin. Witnessing this inspired Masani to make a conscious commitment to grow as much of her own food as possible. She started out small, with what she called a salsa garden: tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. “I was probably the only student with a garden in my front yard,” she says with a laugh.
After spending some time in Vermont and New Hampshire where she created farm therapy programs at schools and shelters, Masani eventually settled in Wilton where she established herself as a farmer; a career not often populated by women, not to mention women of color. Masani began as a farm manager at Millstone Farm in Wilton, where for three years she cultivated not only fresh food but relationships with many restaurants and chefs in the area.
One of those restaurants was Barcelona Wine Bar. In 2011, the CEO and owner of the restaurant group approached Masani about starting a farm that would not only supply their restaurants but would also serve as a training module for their chefs, educating them on where the food they were preparing came from. For a while, Masani farmed on several acres in Westport but eventually that land was used for real estate development. Her farmland today has grown considerably since her front yard salsa garden. She now collaborates with two friends, Jason Long and Scott Sloat, to run Rolling Hills Farms, a 13-acre farm in Freehold, NY. She also runs Farah’s Farm, which isn’t just one location, but rather a network of satellite farms. Due to the prohibitive cost of land in Fairfield County, purchasing farmland is almost impossible. Masani came up with a unique solution. She asks to use a portion of people’s extra acreage to plant a garden. In exchange, Masani shares some of the food harvested as well as her knowledge of farming.
Giving back to the Community
The produce from Masani’s farms not only provides food to the Barcelona restaurants, but to the CSA she organizes for local residents. Weekly pick-ups of food often become social events where people come together to connect and share recipes. Masani also donates a portion of the food harvested from her farms to food banks and women’s shelters. “Preventing food insecurity and providing affordable food that is organic and healthy, is one of the many reasons I went into farming,”
Masani is now the Senior Director of Purchasing for Barcelona Wine Bar, or as she likes to refer to herself, a forager/sourcer-ess because she focuses on finding and sourcing unique food items that are not your generic items at the grocery store. “The exciting part is going around, finding these amazing producers and then making it available on the menu for our guests to taste,” she says. Barcelona now has direct partnerships with over 20 farms, bringing that food directly to their guests.
Masani thinks everyone can make small changes to the way they look at the food they consume. Committing to buying and eating locally can be daunting, so she suggests taking small steps at first. Learn what’s in season and use that to drive what you purchase. “Set aside $20.00 from your weekly food budget and visit your local farmer’s market. Spend that money on
fresh produce and taste the difference,”
she says. •