Agriculture’s star rises in Malloy administration

In an era when jobs haven’t exactly been growing on trees — Connecticut is betting that they just might. And on bushes. And even indoors.

Some half-dozen years after the Rowland administration tried to all but eliminate the state’s Department of Agriculture, the Malloy administration is embracing the state’s $3.5 billion, 20,000-job agriculture industry as a potent component of job creation.

That effort seems to be centered on the reconfigured Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development. Once an unwieldy and largely unknown absentee group, legislation passed in the last session streamlined it to a svelte 15 members headed by Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky and bolstered by members from all walks of farming, interest groups and academia.

The legislation also specifically tasks the group with providing recommendations to increase the percentage of Connecticut consumer dollars spent on locally produced farm products from the 1 percent of all money spent on food now to 5 percent by 2020.

Agricultural Map

Combined with renewed legislative interest in agriculture, girded by Connecticut’s energetic embrace of the local food movement over the past several years and a personal pep talk from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy himself, there was optimism all around the room as the council gathered for its first meeting just days after the new year.

“I’m excited, and it’s hard to excite me; I’m a beat up farmer,” said Kevin Sullivan, a member of the council, a board member of the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association and owner of Chestnut Hill Nursery in Stafford. “This right now, right here could be the genesis for modern agriculture in Connecticut.”

But there are serious hurdles that Sullivan knows all too well. “Our production farms have moved away; our average age is 57.5 years,” he said. “I have a son who’s going to college for agriculture. We don’t think we’re going to get him home, because I can’t give him the economic opportunities.”

Such opportunities are often stymied by balky distribution and infrastructure systems, a frequent complaint by the mainly small farmers in the state. The average size of a farm here is 82 acres.

Another persistent problem is contradictory and redundant regulations among the various departments that share supervisory roles with the Department of Agriculture — Consumer Protection, Public Health and Energy and Environmental Protection. There is also the issue of local health departments, long a thorn for farmers who can face rules that differ from town to town.

The council is also battling back from decades of second-class status. No one can remember the last time there was an agriculture committee in the legislature. Related issues currently reside, often as an afterthought, in the Environment Committee. And there are turf battles that are only starting to be smoothed over.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle, however, are praising Malloy for his commitment to agriculture.

“We don’t really have any farmers in the legislature right now; we have ‘ag day’ once a year,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who has a large farming constituency and who recalled that his first job at 14 was picking tobacco. Kissel is not on the Environment Committee. He said he is considering proposing the creation of a select committee on agriculture, similar to the one on aging.

“The select committee on aging totally changed the dialogue,” he said. “I think we need the same thing in agriculture.”

Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, a member of the Environment Committee, said he’d prefer to see a full agriculture committee. “We have to look at the agriculture industry,” he said, “not as Farmer John down the road, but as a huge industry that is multinational at this point.”

Much of the pressure for revamping policies and streamlining systems comes from farmers themselves, he said. “The issues that we go through when dealing with sister agencies, trying to get things through is horrendous and unproductive at times,” Hurlburt said. “I think that would probably take creating a task force to overhaul the regulations.”

Non-edible agriculture

Food actually accounts for less than half of Connecticut’s agricultural revenue stream. Nearly half comes from the nursery and greenhouse industry and about 10 percent from tobacco.

There was little concern among those at the council meeting this month, despite a presentation by the Farm, Food and Jobs working group that focused solely on edible agriculture, that sexier notions of local peaches, pears, wine, ice cream and fresh turkey would trump hay, daisies and Christmas trees.

Agricultural Pie Chart

“Really the canvas is wide open for the council to address all the issues,” said Reviczky, who established two subcommittees: Supply — production, investment and infrastructure; and demand, which includes education and research. There are work groups under each looking at dozens of sometimes overlapping subjects from distribution to energy to agritourism to regulations to restaurants to waste management to taxation and to the agriculture department itself.

Ideas for how to increase the job potential of agriculture, the difficulties and other considerations, are just starting to percolate. Many point to the category of “value added” — processing raw material, such as tomatoes, into less seasonal products, such as sauce. Greenhouse growers point to potential providing more plants for green infrastructure projects.

“We have to improve the ability for getting food from Connecticut farms to consumers working through wholesalers and retailers and re-examining how that happens today,” Reviczky said. “Certainly there’s room for improvement.”

But Sullivan raised a few eyebrows with his assertion: “The first and foremost recommendation for agriculture is for the people at (the state Department of) Economic Development to actually realize that this is an economic development,” he said. “It’s so often treated as a hobby.”

DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith said she “completely disagreed” with that assessment, noting that farms accounted for two stops on the governor’s jobs tour last year and that the jobs bill included $5 million to put agricultural lands back into production. “We are absolutely committed to helping agricultural interests in the state grow,” she said.

She admitted the process for development of new agriculture and new forms of agricultural jobs was at a “fledging stage,” but she pointed to unusual ideas such as housing indoor agriculture in unused industrial buildings or in outdoor locations in economically hard hit downtowns.

“I think their attention to this is improving every day,” Reviczky said of DECD. “One of the things the governor demands is cooperation among agencies.”

Numbers of farms rise

It’s not that agriculture has languished during the past several years. The Farm, Food and Jobs group’s report cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data that the number of farms in the state increased by 17 percent to more than 4,900 from 2002 to 2007. Rigorous farmland preservation programs exist, most recently Farmland ConneCTions, which seek to match towns and land trusts with farmers who want to lease land.

“I know a handful of farmers who, had they been able to find suitable land, would have stayed in Connecticut; I have seen them leave the state,” said Jennifer McTiernan, coordinator for the project, run jointly by American Farmland Trust and the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. “That’s the story we hear here in Connecticut again and again.”

Seemingly small changes can have a large impact on business models. These include recent legislation to allow canning of certain acidic foods without a commercial kitchen; a new state-run system for processing poultry without USDA inspection; and permitting farms to sell each other’s wines.

Council member Gregory Weidemann, dean of UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, thought Europe and Canada were models the state should consider. Europe and Canada have embraced the ideas and advanced the technologies of growing more food year-round in greenhouses.

“The way they’re tying that to energy conservation, they’re doing much more innovative things than frankly we are here in the U.S.,” he said, explaining that the state suffers under high “input costs.”

“The land’s expensive, the energy’s expensive, labor’s expensive,” he said. “So we have to find very efficient ways of doing business.”

Henry Talmage, executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut Farm Bureau and the other council subcommittee leader, said regional approaches that exploit Connecticut’s position halfway between the behemoth markets of New York and Boston should be explored. But first, he said, identify the industry’s historic growth barriers.

“We should say, just like we would in any other economic development proposal, ‘Here’s an industry we think is important to the future of our state, what’s holding it back,'” he said. “And if it’s regulatory, it’s a matter of ‘OK, how do we fix that?'”

And he said it was important to look at the agricultural system as a whole — which means more than just food. It’s marketing and human resources and all the related industries that make it run.

“This is better than having the argument as to whether or not we should roll the Department of Agriculture into some other agency,” he said. “Even with all the challenges, I’d much rather have the opportunity to figure out how to do it.”