Building a Farm for the Future

In 2020, more than 20 million Americans reportedly picked up a trowel and tried gardening for the first time. The pandemic inspired unprecedented interest in the outdoor activity, which resulted in a surge in demand for the wholesale plants produced by Judges Farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut—a business owned and managed by Matt Griswold XI ’85 and Martin Griswold ’91 since 1990.

In 1640, Matthew Griswold I established his property in Old Lyme on what became known as Griswold Point—a beautiful peninsula that projects into Long Island Sound where it meets the Connecticut River. Matt and Martin planted Christmas trees in 1990 on a 10-acre parcel of Griswold Point first farmed in the 1790s by their fourth great-grandfather, a former Connecticut governor and Supreme Court justice (hence the name Judges Farm), and later owned by their grandfather, Dr. Matthew Griswold, Taft Class of 1914.

In 1998, the brothers shifted their focus from retail Christmas tree sales to wholesale plant distribution—a decision based on economics.

“Literally on the back of a napkin, we figured out how many one-gallon perennials we could grow in the space that one Christmas tree took up (6 feet by 6 feet) over eight years,” Matt says. “I think we came up with 400, and that was all it took. We didn’t have to do any more math. It was 400 to 1. We could sell 400 one-gallon perennials at that time for $4 each versus one tree for $50. That was a fun little exercise.”

The Griswold brothers tending one greenhouse.

The business took off from there, doubling in size each year for several years—an especially impressive feat considering that some of the brothers’ competitors are 50 times larger than Judges Farm. Matt oversees production, and Martin handles operations for the business, which now has 30 employees who work together to grow, package, and transport more than 750,000 one- and two-gallon perennials, more than half a million 3.5-inch herbs and vegetables, and nearly half a million one-quart summer and fall annuals to the farm’s customers, independent garden centers across southern New England, Cape Cod, the North Shore of Boston, the Berkshires, and Westchester County, New York.

“COVID spurred us on to vegetables,” says Martin, who, like Matt, lives with his family in a historic house adjacent to the farm and rides his bike to work. “We wondered whether people would still want black-eyed Susans and echinacea for their gardens, but we figured that if we planted vegetables, maybe customers would want tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.”

“And they did,” Matt says. “In fact, they wanted them in spades. The residual COVID effect is upon us now, and we are inundated with business.”

While the brothers are happy that demand is higher than ever, getting their products to all of their garden center customers is quite an undertaking. Judges Farm owns and maintains a fleet of five diesel trucks, which leave Old Lyme by 5:30 a.m. every weekday during the growing season of April to October with between five and eight orders. After they return to the farm by 5 p.m., employees load them up with the following day’s deliveries, “and then it’s Groundhog Day all over again when the trucks leave full in the morning,” Martin says.

“These trucks are old, likely to break down and spend time in the repair shop,” Martin says. “They burn an average of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year and require $50,000 in annual repairs and maintenance. As they weave their way down regional roads, they spew tons of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and other nasty airborne pollutants. Not very green, especially for a ‘green business.’”

That’s why the brothers are planning to replace them with four Tesla semi trucks, which the electric vehicle company has told them to expect in 2023 or 2024. Each heavy-duty truck will have a 500-mile range, which is just enough to cover the longest round-trip route.

A few of Judges Farm’s many greenhouses with thousands of plants in containers, indoors and outdoors.

“With the goal of cleaning up our act and setting an example for cleaner commercial transportation, we’ve embarked on a plan to transition our delivery system to a fully sustainable electric model,” Matt says. Phase one of the plan involved installing a 120-kilowatt, grid-connected array of solar panels, which the brothers built themselves and installed last winter with the help of an electrician and their four sons—Matt’s sons Matthew XII and Eli, and Martin’s sons Ali ’24 and Huck ’25, who are Taft students.

The Tesla trucks are phase two of the plan, and the existing solar array will provide enough electricity to power two of the trucks for an entire year. “Those two trucks will emit zero generation emissions thanks to the farm-grown solar power, and zero localized emissions for the region as they ghost around delivering our wares,” Matt says.

Finally, phase three of the plan will add an agrivoltaic solar array to provide additional clean power for the remaining two trucks. This array will double as a growing area shade structure, enabling a dual use for the footprint. “Our small operation alone will eliminate not only 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, but also all of the upstream generation and distribution pollution and waste associated with that fuel,” Matt says.

The brothers have high hopes for the implications of their approach. “If two small farmers and their kids can build their own solar power plant over a holiday break, and then funnel that zero-generation-emissions electricity into a fleet of electric trucks, there is no reason why bigger businesses, municipalities, and agencies can’t do the same,” Matt says. “We have an opportunity here to serve as a model for others in accelerating the world’s rapid transition to sustainable energy.” j

—Sam Dangremond ’05