By Rita Savard | Photos by Tory Germann
Traffic might be backed up on Littleton’s Great Road, but some 30 yards away from honking horns and gridlock, life moves at an easier pace for creatures on four legs.
Goats, sheep, pigs and chickens roam cage free and frolic, including a 1,000-pound pig named Patty, which, at the sight of her human friends, beelines for a friendly scratch on the head and a tasty treat.
Welcome to the cultivated rusticity of Springdell, where dirt-dusted beets are status symbols and the animals lounge, play and feast. As a third-generation farmer, Paula Cruz, along with her daughters Jamie and Jodee and her son, David, is leading one of the region’s most ambitious grass-fed-beef operations.
“The future is local,” Paula says. “To create an economy of scale, small farms are teaching sustainability and banding together to share resources and help each other grow in other communities.”
The byproduct of today’s local food is that local hands, like Cruz’s, are more likely to be producing, harvesting, packing and marketing. And that, adds Cruz’s oldest daughter, Jamie, has a lot to do with a change in the way people think about food.
“Our customers like to know their farmer, and know that they can ask questions about where their food comes from and get honest answers,” Jamie says.
The land at 571 Great Road has been farmed since 1781 and owned by the Theodoros family since 1931, when Greek immigrants James and Marea Theodoros purchased it during the heart of the Depression.
Whenever someone would show up trying to buy the land, “Grandpa Jimmy” made sure to stretch the truth and say how rocky and poor the soil was.
“Terrible for farming, he’d say,” laughs granddaughter Paula.
James and Marea managed to ride out those tough years and kept their land and, with the help of James’ brother Tasso “The Corn Boss” Theodoros, added corn, strawberries, grapes, watermelon and several other varieties that turned the old “dirt path” into a blossoming fruit and vegetable farm.
Growing up on a farm, everyone has chores to do. Before she was 10, Paula was taught to work on tractors with her grandfather and her uncle. She liked solving puzzles, taking things apart and putting them back together again. When she was old enough, she studied to be an automotive machinist. The first female in her class, she quickly rose to the top thanks to already having years of hands-on experience under her belt.
When she received a call that her grandfather had fallen ill, it was strawberry season. Paula returned home to help on the farm.
“I never intended to stay here, but farming is in my blood,” she says. “It’s not just about money. We feel a genuine connection to the land.”
In 1981, when Grandpa Jimmy died, Paula took over the role as head operator, and would eventually dive into a lifelong passion — raising livestock the way nature intended.
“When you spend your life growing your own food, feeling secure in where it comes from and knowing it’s safe to feed your own children, well, I wanted to help bring more healthy food options into other people’s kitchens,” she explains. “There is a lot of bad stuff going into crops and livestock on large farms all over the country. Our mission here is to respect the land and nurture the land and the creatures that live off the land and in turn, the land provides.”
Now Paula watches over an entire herd of hormone-and-antibiotic free Black Angus cows from birth to butchering. She began developing her herd in 2003, which can be seen grazing along the vast grassy pasture outside the Gibbet Hill Grill restaurant in Groton. When the time comes for processing, the cattle are transported to another local landmark — Blood Farm in Groton, which has been in the Blood family since 1724.
Some of the cattle that graze along Gibbet hill are Paula’s personal pets — rescues and misfits that became a permanent part of the herd. On a walk through the pasture, a large tan-colored bull eyes Paula coming and trots over. He lies down in front of her and she strokes his snout.
“Watching cows chew cud lowers your blood pressure,” she says. The bull snorts and nudges Paula’s hand back to his face.
Some of the cows are part of the original Gibbet Hill bloodline. And all, she says, know human kindness from their first day to their last.
“That is the backbone of our farm,” adds Paula’s daughter, Jamie.
Growing up on a farm, you also learn about life and death young. Grandpa Jimmy was a stout guy, big and muscular. Paula remembers him waking her up in the night.
“I need you,” he’d say.
And she’d be in the barn, helping a female sheep through a difficult birth.
The family business taught her to juggle the past and the future. These days, there are mornings when she might be helping to deliver calves, then tackling sustainability. Farmers like Cruz have given legs to the locavore movement, which has skyrocketed in New England thanks to chefs redefining the region’s cuisine with farm-to-table menus that spotlight local farms where their ingredients come from, and point out offerings like grass-fed beef and humanely raised livestock.
Teaching is a large part of Springdell’s sustainability program. Jamie spearheads year-round classes and summer programs to show school kids how to care for animals and grow their own fruits and vegetables. The farm’s popular Community Supported Agriculture program also keeps seasonal produce on people’s tables all year long.
Women, Paula says, have always been an integral part of farming, you just didn’t see them taking the lead as much in generations past. At one time, farming might have been a man’s world, but not anymore. At cattle shows in other parts of the country, where herders are still predominantly men, Paula always remembers her grandmother Marea’s sage advice.
“If you lose your cool, you lose your edge,” Marea once told her. “Always call it like you see it, without losing your cool. Let them call you a bitch, but don’t ever let them call you a dumb one.”
Following in Marea’s footsteps, three Cruz women have become the guardians of generations of family handiwork, and someday, Paula’s youngest daughter, Jodee, will most likely take over the herding operation. Most of what they eat and drink is produced on the premises, and nearby. The farmers are happy to let you see their animals, and tell you how their sausage is made, perhaps let you get your hands dirty in their vegetable fields if you want to.
“It’s the way we’ve been doing it for more than 80 years,” Paula says. “We’re pretty determined, I guess.”
Visit Springdell at 571 Great Road in Littleton and learn more at springdellfarms.com