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For a Unique Vacation, Check Out

by Dale Athanas

My youngest son, Nick Athanas, paid us a visit recently.  Nick is one of the owners of which is located in Quito, Ecuador. He only gets home to visit once or twice a year so his visits are always special. Nick and the other guides at Tropical lead tours all over the world for people interested in seeing rare and unusual birds. Nick has become something of an expert on South American birds. His photography is excellent  as can be seen by the accompanying photos and he is particularly well known in the birding community for his audio recordings.


Crimson Hooded Manakin                                Nick Athanas ©2010

I visited Nick two years ago and spent ten days with him. We went from the high Andes to the Amazon rain forest. It was a great experience. It is difficult for someone from the U.S. to comprehend the incredible number and variety of bird species in South America. Here in Connecticut, we have one hummingbird, the Ruby Throated. During my ten days in Ecuador, I saw over 50 different hummingbirds - there are over 140 in Ecuador alone and many more throughout South America!


Bronzy Jacamar                                                Nick Athanas ©2010

My favorite part of the trip was my stay at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge which is affiliated with The lodge was built in 1999 on a steep ridge at an elevation of 6000 feet in the Andes cloud forest. There are twelve fully furnished rooms and a spacious balcony that looks out over the forest. Meals are included in the room rate and the food here is excellent. Whether you have an interest in birds or not, this is a great place to just relax and get away from it all - no internet, no telephone, no interruptions! You can just enjoy the lodge and the balcony or you can walk the many trails and dirt roads - the mountain views and wildlife are spectacular. However, if you are looking for nightlife and/or tourist attractions, this is definitely not the place to go!

Hyacinth Macaws                                             Nick Athanas © 2010


So, if you are looking for an unusual vacation in South America or any of a number of exotic locations world wide, contact Tropical You won’t be disappointed - I know I wasn’t.

Balcony at Tandayapa Bird Lodge  As many as 20 different hummingbirds can be seen at these feeders at the same time!

Returning to the Land

by Loretta Waldman, Mick Marsden

Foreword by Mick Marsden: I had a wonderful experience meeting and getting to know Pete and Mary Concklin. I gained incredible insight and experience helping them locate and buying their pick your own berry farm in North Windham. Below is the article that was written by Loretta Waldman for the Hartford Courant's Sunday Home magazine. Read it here or at the website by clicking here:,0,943875.story

When the economy was humming, stories of family farms being sold off and cut up for subdivisions were commonplace. The downturn seems to have slowed that trend and produced at least one story of an entrepreneurial couple buying a family farm, well, to farm it.

Mary Conklin, a former Pennsylvania State University agricultural extension educator, and her husband Peter, a fruit farmer-turned-IT professional, became owners of a 65.7-acre spread in NorthWindham last August. Since then, the couple, 56 and 65 respectively, have been hard at work refurbishing the two barns on the former hay farm and preparing a flat, open field next to their home on Route 203 for 4,800 raspberry plants.

They can't say exactly when their pick-your-own berry operation will open, but expect it to be sometime around July 2011. Blueberry plants will be added next year, said Mary, as well as a farm stand where they plan to sell herbs, flowers and some vegetables.

"Our goal is for it to be sustainable, to do little or no spraying," she said, "minimal spraying to the degree possible."

Mary Conklin, who grew up outside Boston, has an unadorned, no-nonsense style. Peter hails from New York state and is more sparing with words.

Peter Conklin knows a lot about family farms. The farm he grew up on in Rockland County had been in his family since 1712. He worked that land as a young man, but as more and more of the rented acreage was sold off for housing developments, he bought a farm in the Hudson Valley, where he grew vegetables, apples, cherries and pears.

Mary Conklin was working for Cornell University's Agricultural Extension Service at the time, and Peter Conklin was one of her growers. The two married in 1983, a year after she took the job.

Peter Conklin sold the fruit farm in 1995 and, after a short stint in Virginia, moved to Pennsylvania with Mary and their two children. Mary took a job with Pennsylvania State University's Agricultural Extension Service and Peter switched from full-time farming to IT work. He picked up the skills developing software for tracking costs, inventory, payroll and other records on his own farm, which he sold to other growers.

Combing The Internet

It was during that decade in Pennsylvania that their dream of a pick-your-own berry farm took root.

"We knew we wanted to get back into farming," explained Mary Conklin. "We wanted to grow berries. We always live in our garden."

They chose Connecticut because their daughter and Mary Conklin's parents live here. The couple combed the Internet for potential properties for five or six years, sending Mary's parents to check out those that sounded promising.

Mick Marsden, a real estate agent with the River to Shore Group of Page Taft Real Estate, recalled how well-prepared the Conklins were when they arrived to look for themselves. Along with information on the farm, they carried data about the soil, what had been grown there and much more, he said.

"It was a real education for me," said Marsden.

Shift To A Retail Model

Pick-your-own farms in Connecticut are a thriving enterprise. A state Department of Agriculture brochure lists 65 throughout the state, but the actual number may be considerably higher, said department spokeswoman Linda Piotrowicz.

Their popularity correlates to the exploding interest in locally grown produce and the fact that fruit picking is an activity families can enjoy together, she said.

Since the late 1990s, the state's $2.2 billion agriculture industry has been undergoing a shift from a wholesale to retail model, added Ron Olsen, a marketing and inspection representative with the department. Pick-your-own farms and, more recently, the surging number of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture sites and farm stands have all contributed to that change, he said.

Taking Hold

The farm the Conklins bought had been in the same family for generations, and members of the family still live across the street. The couple paid $465,000 for rolling grounds, which also came with a Cape-style farmhouse dating to 1850. Thoughts of renovating it to live in, however, had to be scrapped, the couple said. The structure was so old and needed so much work that they salvaged what they could and had it demolished.

The Conklins instead put up a modular house around Thanksgiving and moved into it in mid December, the day before a major snowstorm. The heart of the house is a large central room with a kitchen, living and dining area and fireplace. Light pours in through its many windows. As the couple sit side-by-side on one of the sofas, Aiden, their 10-year-old yellow lab, nestles sleepily at their feet.

They have renamed the farm Raspberry Knoll Farm. Passers-by asked if they were planning to raise llamas when, in early spring, they began surrounding the raspberry field with deer fencing.

Peter Conklin still does IT work for a bank and shuttles between his new home and offices in Boston and Providence. Finally having their farm and being closer to family is nice, Mary Conklin said. Their daughter and their son, who lives in Vermont, helped them get all the raspberry plants in the ground, she said. The rain and warm, sunny weather in recent weeks have helped them take hold.

"It's like watching babies grow," she said.

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