Digging In Locally

WILL O’MEARA ’12 IS THE PROUD owner of Hungry Reaper Farm in Morris, Connecticut, just a few miles up the road from Taft. He cofounded the small-scale vegetable farm with his fiancée in 2020, after nine years of experience farming in New England.

O’Meara got his start in the agricultural industry in 2011, when he was 17. His biology teacher at Taft, Carly Borken, noticed how well O’Meara responded to hands-on work and suggested he spend the summer as a farmhand at Waldingfield Farm in Washington, Connecticut, where her husband Jed, is farm manager.

“It was the ideal summer job, one where I could be around young people and work outside every day,” O’Meara says.

O’Meara, who attended Taft as a day student, spent each summer through college at Waldingfield. Halfway through his degree, he transferred from the University of Southern California to the University of Massachusetts’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture, in Amherst.

“My program at USC focused mainly on marine ecology,” he explains. “And the fall of my junior year, when I was back east for Thanksgiving break, I realized that this program at Stockbridge would be a much better fit for my interests and that I’d benefit from transferring schools even at that stage.”

O’Meara managed the UMass Student Farm, and went on to graduate with a B.S. in sustainable food and farming in 2017. He then happily returned to Waldingfield to fill the assistant farm manager position, until leaving to start Hungry Reaper.

Hungry Reaper Farm’s tomato sauce made with their heirloom tomatoes.

O’Meara’s work in farming is clearly much more than a job. It’s his passion, his calling, and an industry he wholeheartedly believes in and strives to improve. He’s a field agent for Land For Good, a nonprofit assisting farmers and landowners in farmland access. He’s also the sitting board president of the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance (NCTFA), a chapter of the National Young Farmer Coalition. The NCTFA’s mission is to connect emerging farmers across the state to network, exchange resources, and identity common challenges and opportunities in the agricultural community.

“Connecticut is a bit of a different animal than more rural states,” O’Meara says. “It’s much more densely populated, and farming isn’t a big identity of the state the way it is in northern New England. It’s a real challenge to find farmland that’s affordable and available here.”

O’Meara emphasizes that this has become an even greater hurdle during the pandemic.

“COVID has absolutely made land in the area more expensive,” he says. “There’s also a constant risk of development in Connecticut. Farmers and developers are typically attracted to the same type of land: flat, not rocky.”

Another difficulty has been building his business during an unprecedented year of uncertainty.

“When COVID entered the picture, Hungry Reaper Farm was still in its infancy,” O’Meara says. “There hasn’t been nearly as much of an opportunity to do wholesale through restaurants, but luckily we’ve been able to pivot and meet a need in local grocery stores, plus increased demand for local food through farmers’ markets.”

O’Meara and his high school sweetheart turned fiancée, Jill Verzino, have had an excellent first year with Hungry Reaper, despite an anxious start. As business partners, they share a passion for providing fresh, nourishing, sustainably grown vegetables to their customers, as well as an interest in equity.

“Historically, obtaining local, organic foods hasn’t been attainable for working-class people with poorer backgrounds,” O’Meara explains. “At Hungry Reaper we’ve incorporated a sliding scale providing CSA shares so that more customers can afford to buy from us. We’ve been overwhelmed by the popular response.”

Going forward, O’Meara and Verzino hope to find a permanent home for their farm, which currently operates on leased land.

“We’d like to expand and feed as many people as possible,” he says. “And until local food evolves from its status as a luxury item, we hope to become more diverse in our offerings and include staple products like grains and beans.”

—Carola Lovering Crane ’07