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December 11, 2023

Farmington quarry owner, who survived a plane crash, diversifies to keep business alive as rock supply dwindles

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Benjamin Dunning, president and CEO of Dunning Industries, with his wife, Donna, who is the nursery manager, in front of an excavator on their Brickyard Road property in Farmington. They’re relocating the business’ nursery and garden center to a larger, more visible location on Route 4.
Dunning Industries Inc. 
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At the age of 24, Benjamin Dunning, a Burlington native, had just graduated from college and was learning to fly small airplanes.

He asked his college sweetheart to marry him. She said yes.

Six days later, he was in a plane crash that could have derailed his life. He shattered both legs along with his spine. Doctors told him he’d never walk again and would never have children.

Twenty-eight years removed, he’s now the fourth-generation owner of Dunning Industries Inc., a Farmington business that has grown from a sand and gravel quarry to a one-stop shop for contractors and homeowners.

He not only walks, but rides motorcycles. He’s married and has two children, who may one day sustain the business into a fifth generation.

As Dunning prepares for the future, he knows the quarry’s rock supply won’t last forever, so he’s focused on developing new products.

A key part of the company’s diversification plan is a recent zoning approval that will allow Dunning to relocate its nursery and retail garden center to a new location on Route 4.

Overcoming obstacles

Dunning defied the odds, making a remarkable recovery from the injuries he suffered in the 1995 crash.

He credits his wife, Donna, who was then his fiancée, with giving him the will to recover. She now helps him run the business and manages the nursery.

Just as Dunning refused to accept his initial medical prognosis, he eschews the idea that a quarrying business should have a finite lifespan.

So, he has focused on new growth channels that involve sustainable resources, such as recycling wood scraps by turning them into mulch and repurposing discarded asphalt and concrete.

“Eventually, the sand and gravel is going to run out, because it’s a finite supply, versus I can always get more plants, I can always get more wood, I can always recycle more stuff,” Dunning said. “But the sand and gravel is the one thing I cannot count on.”

He said the supply of sand and gravel on the hundreds of acres he owns will be depleted within the next 15 to 20 years.

“Securing new reserves around here is almost impossible,” Dunning said. “The towns are so restrictive on mining.”

Dunning Industries’ quarrying operations generate more than 50% of the company’s roughly $11 million in annual revenue.

The company has an average of 36 to 45 employees, some of whom are seasonal, he said.

Nursery relocation

Currently, the garden retail center and nursery — where plants are grown using advanced gardening methods — sit in a corner of the company’s industrial operation at 163 Brickyard Road.

In November, Dunning received zoning approval to move it to a larger, more visible space on Route 4, which sees 27,000 vehicles daily.

The new nursery and retail store will span across three parcels that Dunning Industries owns: 1079 Farmington Ave., the former Walpole Fence; 1085 Farmington Ave., the former Green Tails retail shop; and 1091 Farmington Ave., currently occupied by a residence and detached garage/barn.

The existing buildings will be transformed into retail space, a greenhouse and offices, with a separate area for contractor sales and loading.

Dunning Industries' new garden center and nursery will be on this property at 1085 Farmington Ave. in Farmington.

With a new location and new name — Maple Tree Nursery — Donna Dunning said they’re trying to differentiate the retail component from the company’s industrial arm.

Renovations are already underway, and they plan to open the new facility in spring 2024.

After that, they’ll begin phase two of the project, which includes opening a coffee shop and cafe at 1079 Farmington Ave.

The largest parcel, 1085 Farmington Ave., extends 107 acres into a wooded area with a lake that houses Dunning Industries’ active quarry. There, workers use a barge to dredge earth material from the lake.

That section of the property is not accessible to the public, and the Dunnings have been known to patrol it using a drone with flashing lights — an effective tool to deter trespassers, Benjamin Dunning said.

Family history

The company was started by Benjamin Dunning’s great-grandfather in 1917 as Atlas Sand, Gravel and Stone Co., which produced gravel to build the parking lot at Colt Manufacturing’s Hartford factory, which was buzzing during World War I.

He expanded the business and began manufacturing concrete for various uses, including road construction. The business survived the Great Depression, despite suffering financially.

His grandfather and father continued operating the sand and gravel operation, but their product line was limited to seven or eight items.

“It was a very simplified business back then,” Benjamin Dunning said.

He purchased the business from his father, R. Mort Dunning, in 2002.

Since then, he has added product lines that include different types of mulches and soils, customized for golf courses and baseball fields — including Dunkin’ Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats minor league baseball team.

“When I took it over, I saw that construction materials were a commodity and it was all about price and volume,” Dunning said. “I wanted to go for higher-quality and different niche markets to deal with landscapers and homeowners and that sort of thing. So, we kept trying to add products that would enhance landscaping.”

The company sells innovative products, including specialized soil for rain gardens — a landscaping feature that is growing in popularity with newly constructed homes, especially in Fairfield County.

Rain gardens are sunken areas of lawn that collect rainwater runoff from a roof or driveway and allow it to be reabsorbed by the soil.

In addition to selling crushed stone and custom soils, the company produces playground surfacing for schools, recycles construction fill by turning it into topsoil, and composts leaves collected by the town of Farmington and local landscapers.

Dunning Industries has developed creative recycling techniques, such as converting damaged asphalt and discarded shingles into fine powders that are sold to asphalt manufacturers to produce new pavement.

The company also offers a mobile rock-crushing service.

Its customers include contractors, homeowners, manufacturers and municipalities across the state.

The crash

Dunning had a rocky start to his post-college life when the engine failed in the small, home-built aircraft he was flying with an instructor, shortly after taking off at the now-shuttered Johnnycake Mountain Meadows Airport in Burlington.

The plane went into a tailspin and nose-dived to the ground at about 85 mph, Dunning said.

His legs were pressed into the ground, and emergency responders had to dig him out. People who witnessed the crash ran to his aid.

As he recovered from the trauma, doctors reconstructed one of his legs and induced bone to grow to fill a 3-inch gap.

His left leg remains partially paralyzed and he has a curvature in his spine, but he can walk with a cane and has devised a method to operate heavy machinery with a clutch.

Although he still has constant pain — he said he’s developed a “high tolerance” for it — he’s grateful to be living a full life, he said.

The crash has imbued him with fortitude and resolve that drives his business philosophy.

“I think, because of the obstacle of learning to walk again, it made him realize that with any obstacle, he can get over it,” Donna Dunning said. “He’s just like, ‘It’s an obstacle. I can get around that. I can do something.’”

As a reflection of that attitude, every year on June 9, the anniversary of the crash, Benjamin and Donna Dunning have a tradition.

She bakes a cake each year to commemorate the occasion, always with the nose of an airplane figurine stuck into the topping.

“We never dwell on the accident,” she said. “We celebrate it.”

Donna Dunning annually commemorates the plane crash that severely injured her husband, Benjamin Dunning, nearly three decades ago, by making a cake on the day’s anniversary.

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