LEBANON — After visits to Fortune 500 insurers and manufacturers, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s jobs tour took him Wednesday to Prides Corner Farm, where the former urban mayor talked with 40 farmers about farming as “agri-tourism” and the value of the “grown in Connecticut” label.
“Farms are more and more becoming destinations, rather than just the places you pass on the way to your destination,” said Steven Reviczky, the commissioner of agriculture, one of the administration officials who joined Malloy.
Some farms offer interactive experiences, like “pick your own” food options, corn mazes and petting zoos. Reviczky said an increase in similar agricultural activities can draw tourism to the state, an initiative Malloy launched this summer along with his jobs tour.
“We want a tourism campaign that we can sustain,” Malloy said. “Agriculture needs to be a part of this campaign and it needs to be promoted directly. We want farmers actively engaged in it.”
While agri-tourism could inject new life into Connecticut agriculture, it will be locally grown food and other products that sustain the industry, farmers said. Items that carry the “grown in Connecticut” label require more promotion and a more solid infrastructure behind the market in order to produce more locally grown products.
“We need to get locally grown foods into the hands of consumers,” Malloy said. He said the locally grown label encourages people to spend a little more on food, boosting agriculture and business growth in the state.
“I’ve talked to folks in the grocery business, and they love that locally grown sign,” Malloy said. “It justifies the higher prices. I do think people will pay a little more. Just look at the explosion of farmer’s markets.”
Malloy said an increase in farmer’s markets could prove helpful because they train people to take an interest in locally grown food.
“We want people thinking that every tomato grown in Connecticut is that much fresher,” he said.
Reviczky said the state needs to increase the amount of money spent on producing Connecticut-grown products. He said Connecticut residents currently spend about 1 percent of their food money on locally grown food.
“If we can even just raise that to 5 percent, it will make a big difference in the agriculture industry,” he said.
Ken Pauze, the assistant general manager for the east division of Moark, LLC and owner of Kofkoff Egg Farms in Bozrah, said the grown-in-Connecticut label hasn’t reached its full potential yet.
“We still compete with other out-of-state companies,” he said. “I think people are more willing to pay that higher price for Connecticut grown foods than we think.”
Farmers in the room said the key to producing more locally grown food lies in improving the flagging infrastructure behind the market.
Pamela Dunn, owner of a homegrown dried foods service called Boxed Goodes, LLC based in Litchfield, said her business has grown quickly, but she struggles to keep up with consumer demand.
“We’re growing so quickly but it means nothing for my pockets because business growth is so expensive,” she said. “There’s a huge consumer desire for specialty food. People have a willingness to enter a market for products that make them feel good.”
Dunn said she outsourced some of her business out-of-state because she can’t find the resources locally to produce her dried goods.
“There’s no infrastructure for this market,” she said.
Some state and federal regulations also inhibit the market for locally grown food.
Gary Proctor, owner of GourmAvian Farms, LLC in Bolton, grows poultry known as “heritage birds” bred from chickens originating in France and Italy. He said he can’t label his chickens as raised in Connecticut because they aren’t hatched in Connecticut, although he raises them from hatching. The federal regulation sometimes inhibits his ability to market his product.
Malloy agreed that the locally grown food market needs expansion and the infrastructure behind the market needs some work.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “You’re putting out a great product, but how do you expand the market?”