Saving the farm: Can Connecticut meet preservation goal?

With the increased interest in locally-grown and -raised food has come a recent uptick in preservation of Connecticut farmland-but advocates warn that may not be enough to reach the state’s long-term goals.

Despite preserving 1,370 acres of farmland in 2009, a 100 percent increase over the previous year, and an expectation to set aside even more this year, the state is at just 30 percent of the goal it set in 1980 to preserve 130,000 acres.

At the current pace of preservation and the rate at which farmland being converted to non-farm uses, the state will never reach the target.

But even among those committed to farmland preservation, some wonder if the 130,000-acre goal is still realistic.

Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization, said what the state and federal governments and organizations like his know about farmland and its protection has evolved since the target was set 30 years ago.

“There’s no hard number to really grasp the rate at which farmland is disappearing,” Talmage said. How should land that falls out of agricultural use but is not converted to some other use be counted? And in recent years, including aquaculture among the state’s farmland results in an overall increase in the amount of farmland claimed by Connecticut.

“It’s a back-and-forth,” Talmage said. “It’s not as simple as strictly here’s the amount we’re losing and here’s what we’re protecting.”

There’s also been a change in the kinds of farmlands being preserved.

When the original preservation goal was set, it was focused on large blocks of agricultural land used for what Talmage called “commodity farming.” Preserving those farms, especially ones close to each other, made sense then as state officials, in the face of rapidly rising food costs, became concerned about Connecticut’s ability to provide for itself.

Thirty years later, Connecticut’s agricultural model has shifted away from simply producing as many low-cost goods as possible and toward producing local food intended for local or regional residents.

“There’s a benefit to having food produced locally in terms of food security and the carbon footprint,” Talmage said. “Rural communities have realized that having a viable, local agricultural economy is a good thing.”

A preservation model that sets an acceptable amount of land aside and meets demand for local product is better for the environment and better for the state, even if it means disregarding the laudable 130,000 acre standard, Talmage said.

Others involved in farmland preservation say the goal should be kept-or perhaps even increased.

“We do want to have a goal that we’re trying to reach,” said J. Joseph Dippel, director of the state Department of Agriculture’s farmland preservation program. The state legislature, which authorizes $10 million a year in bonds for farmland preservation, and the federal agencies and private donors who supply a similar amount, “want to see that there’s a goal.”

“We still have 95,000 acres to go,” Dippel said. “If we can do 15 to 20 farms, or between 2,000 and 3,000 acres (per year) that would be a pretty good pace.”

The Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality also has raised alarms about the slow pace of farmland preservation in the state.

“We continually lose farmland, and at the rate farmland is being developed for other uses, we would never get to 130,000 acres,” said Karl Wagener, CCEQ’s executive director. “There wouldn’t be 130,000 acres left by the time we got to that point.”

Making the goal means solving problems inherent in large-acreage farming, not just setting land aside, Wagener said. Wagener said preservationists now play a role in helping make farming profitable, especially dairy farms, which are expensive to operate and thin on profits.

Jiff Martin, project director with the American Farmland Trust and head of the Connecticut Working Lands Alliance, argued that long-term thinking is just as important as satisfying present needs.

The state and land trusts ought to be snapping up as much farmland as possible while land prices are cheap, she said.

“If anything, the goal should be higher,” Martin said. Under the preservation programs, farmers sell the development rights to their property. The land then can only be sold as farmland, so protecting it now keeps it affordable for farmers in the future. Unprotected, “the rising cost of farmland will eventually push farmers off the land,” she said.

Ed Tollmann worked with the Connecticut Farmland Trust to set aside his 22-acre Stoney Hedge Farm in Lebanon, and it was a difficult, personal decision to do so.

“It was a tough decision, and I think it is for a lot of people, especially if you have children,” he said. “I wanted kids and people to enjoy this land the way I have.”

One evening while walking the property, Tollmann heard children playing outside the original farmhouse on the property, which was exempted from the easement and deed restriction and sold.

“I heard kids down at my old house. I sat down and kept thinking, that is what I and my brothers and sister did when we were kids,” Tollmann said. At that moment, he figured protecting the land from development “wasn’t the worst thing to do.”

“I know that when I go, nothing will change here,” Tollmann said.