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Meriden ARPA panel reviews relief fund request from High Hill Orchard

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MERIDEN — Public discussions on a local farm’s request for American Rescue Plan Act funds to allow its owners to make improvements to sustain and improve its current operations on Fleming Road will resume in early May.

High Hill Orchards’ owners Wayne and Denise Young submitted an $875,000 funding request that would cover a series of improvements at their farm including renovations of its aging farmstand, the installation of new fencing for wildlife control, the installation of a new irrigation system, upgraded cider press and more. 

The Youngs presented their proposal before the American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee Monday night. After considerable back and forth discussion between the committee and the Youngs, committee members motioned to table the application to its May 8 meeting, allowing the applicants to present a revised proposal that ranked by priority the items they seek to fund. 

The Youngs are the fourth generation to maintain the family-run farm, which is located on several dozen acres in the southeast corner of the city.

In their application and presentation to the ARPA committee they described challenges spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic to their operations, including significant declines in customers who visited the farm during its pick-your-own fruit season. They observed that customers who did visit were fearful of shopping in the farmstand itself, “perhaps due to its small size.”

“A more spacious farmstand will provide a safe space for our customers to gather, shop and regain a sense of community that we all need & want,” the application stated. 

The owners also noted that the pandemic negatively impacted High Hill’s customer base economically, causing many to drop out of its pre-paid community supported agriculture, or CSA, program. The farm relies heavily on that revenue to generate income for its upcoming planting seasons. The loss of revenue has made upkeep and maintenance more difficult.  

Wayne Young told the committee he’s run the farm, which is one of the few remaining in Meriden, for more than 35 years. In addition to growing apples, peaches, blueberries, and other fruit, the farm also cultivates a variety of vegetables, and provides educational programming for area youth, Young explained. 

Denise Young said the farm needs updates. “The farmstand primarily. The machinery — my husband will fix it until it can’t be fixed anymore,” she said. 

City Councilor Michael Rohde, a member of the ARPA Committee, asked the Youngs a series of questions regarding the farm’s operations and customer base, before asking them how they would prioritize the items sought in their application.

Denise Young answered the items on their application are there because they’re either at risk of “completely failing or need to be updated.”

“They’re not just there because we want a new tractor, or want a new cider press,” she said. “That’s there because we need a new cider press.”

She described ongoing destruction to the farmstand’s siding that was caused by carpenter bees. Meanwhile, a lot of the equipment the farm now uses was either donated or passed down by previous generations. All of those things, Denise Young said, “is pretty much on its last legs.”

Members of the public and committee who spoke were generally supportive of the proposal, describing the farm as a gem for the city. 

Mayor Kevin Scarpati indicated that while he was mostly in support of the application, funding the request in its entirety is “not something that’s sustainable or feasible, when we’ve got a packet of other applications and other businesses waiting to be heard.”

“We’re trying to spread the wealth,” the mayor said, asking the Youngs what their application priorities are. Scarpati noted farmstand renovations seemed to rank high on that list, as did wildlife control. 

Wayne Young, in response to Scarpati’s comments, described the renovations, including electrical repairs, as priority items. He elaborated on the issues with wildlife the farm currently experiences. 

“It’s the deer that come in. We haven’t been able to plant any trees for the last 15 to 20 years. They’ve been so voracious — they’re always going for the young trees,” Young said, adding that older trees are the ones that he’s leaving. 

Meanwhile, coyotes continually damage the farm’s current irrigation system. 

The mayor said he thinks the farm renovation is a priority item, as are the new fencing, new cooler and new irrigation system. 

Scarpati said he would be comfortable funding about one-third of the total ask, between $300,000 to $400,000. 

“I want to see you succeed,” he told the applicants, adding he did not just want to see the farm get by over the next two to three years, but to grow in the years beyond that. 

“I think this is an awesome asset for the city of Meriden,” Scarpati said. 

During discussions, committee members questioned whether the vehicle purchases sought in the request are allowable expenditures under ARPA funding rules. 

Finance Director Kevin McNabola said officials would need to research that. He added, based on the application, “the vehicles aren’t even the priorities. It sounds like there are higher priorities.”

Denise Young said they are not looking for handouts. When a previous round of federal COVID-19 relief funds were released for farmers, they did not seek those monies. 

“My husband always has been [driven by his] work ethic, not getting handouts if we don’t need them,” Denise Young said. “We were very thoughtful when we put this list together.” 

Wayne Young added that the biggest problem for the farm moving forward is going to be inflation. “The cost of food doesn’t keep up with the cost of other materials we need to buy to maintain the property. I think that’s where COVID has really hit us hard — just pushing us into this hyper-inflation period.”



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