On an early fall day in 2014, more than 300 guests convened at the University of Connecticut to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the UConn Extension, the program that brings agricultural research, education and other services to the state’s farmers and gardeners.
The festivities included a dinner in which all the food — vegetables, herbs, seafood, poultry, wine, cheese, fruit, and even a special “Centennial Crunch” ice cream — was grown and produced in Connecticut.
Two or three decades earlier, such a locally sourced spread would not have been possible; many of those things either weren’t grown in quantity or weren’t grown at all here.
But agriculture has been changing in Connecticut, a quiet revolution that’s not just about legal marijuana. As the UConn banquet demonstrated, there are changes in what is grown. Along with traditional dairy, orchard fruits, tobacco and ornamentals, growers are now producing everything from kohlrabi to kelp, choi to chard, and many others.
There also is much more direct-to-consumer marketing and sales. There are new business models, such as co-ops, and new farm industries and technologies, such as anaerobic digesters. Urban agriculture — small growing centers in cities — is on the upswing.
The thing that hasn’t much changed is who farms. The industry skews older and overwhelmingly white. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, less than 3% of the state’s farmers identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC), while about a third (depending on who is included in the count) of the overall state population so identifies.
“There is room for improvement,” said Agriculture Commissioner Bryan P. Hurlburt, with purposeful understatement. “There’s been a change in what is grown. Now we need to increase the diversity of who is growing,” said Hurlburt.
Improvement may be on the way.
In 2021, the department created a working group that has spent two years developing recommendations on how to engage and support current and future BIPOC farmers. Their report is expected soon, with a number of proposals involving access to land, training, capital and other resources.
“Our work is to figure out ways to make Connecticut farmers reflect the rest of the state population,” said Robert Chang, a member of the working group and owner of Echo Farm in Woodstock, where he grows flowers and organic vegetables.
A native of Jamaica, Chang is active with an organization called the Southern New England Farmers of Color Collaborative and an informal round table of about 55 BIPOC farmers in Connecticut.
“There are a lot more of us that you think, but a lot less than there should be,” he said. “We need creativity, and we won’t get it if a large segment of the population is excluded.”
Hurlburt said he hoped the study will change the industry and allow BIPOC farmers to “see themselves at home and welcomed into the agricultural community.”
But all of this will become academic if the state cannot preserve its farmland and protect it from climate change.
Ever since Yankee farmers pried glacial stones from the ground and used them to build walls around their fields, farming in Connecticut has taken hard work and creativity. That is still the case. One obvious challenge is what to grow.
Consider the Jones Family Farm in Shelton, one of the state’s great legacy farms. Owner Jamie Jones is the sixth generation of his family on the 500-acre site. Jones’ grandfather planted a few evergreens in the late 1930s as part of a 4H project. After World War II, neighbors asked if they could buy them for Christmas trees, and he sold them for $1 apiece.
Gradually, a few trees led to hundreds, then to thousands. When the family decided to drop its century-old dairy operation in the 1960s, the Christmas trees filled the gap (as they filled some of the former pastures).
In 2004, Jones started a winery, which now produces an average of 5,000 cases of award-winning wine a year. It is one of almost four dozen wineries in the state.
The farm also grows strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins, squash and gourds, along with the trees and wine grapes. Almost everything is sold directly to consumers, in the pick-your-own format.
Jones, who is 47 and holds a degree in plant science from Cornell University, also hosts wine tastings and some other public activities, as many other farms do. Farmers need to find as many revenue streams as they can generate, and one is what is called agritourism, which can mean everything from hay rides and corn mazes to farm dinners and weddings.
“It’s a family experience, and also educational, to see how a sustainable farm works,” said Jones. Anyone who has trudged through the snow with the kids to cut down a tree and drag it back to the car can agree on the family experience.
At the Maple Lane Farms in Preston, one can rent the renovated post-and-beam barn for a wedding or other event and stay in a restored 18th-century home on the property. This is akin to the Italian idea of agriturismo, in which guests stay on farms.
“We do about 20 weddings a year,” said owner Allyn Brown.
He also grows Christmas trees and has a hydroponic greenhouse in which he grows lettuce for the Big Y and Bozzuto’s supermarkets. Though there doesn’t seem to be an exact count, hydroponic growing is increasing in the state; advocates say they can grow certain crops such as leafy greens faster and in less space using less water than growing in soil.
Another feature beginning to appear on farms is the anaerobic digester, a device that creates a revenue stream from the waste stream. Microorganisms in the appliance break down organic materials in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas that can be used to produce energy.
Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, a large dairy farm, has one of the first farm-based digesters, which converts manure and food waste to electricity, which is fed to the grid, said co-owner Kristin Orr.
“We power a couple of towns in Connecticut,” she said with a smile.
She said food waste comes from restaurants “from here to Newport.” The process also produces fiber that is spread on the fields as fertilizer.
The farm also offers a number of visitor activities, including nature walks, movie nights and a history-themed corn maze. Orr also grows and sells lavender.
“You can’t Google agriculture. You have to visit a farm.”
Co-ops and CSAs
Fort Hill Farms also is a member of two cooperatives: Cabot Creamery and The Farmer’s Cow. The latter is a consortium of six family-owned dairy farms in Eastern Connecticut. Formed two decades ago, the co-op’s milk, eggs and ice cream can be found in major grocery stores all over New England and several other states as well as at their own outlets.
The point, said Orr, is fresh milk, milk that “doesn’t spend a quarter of its perishable life on a truck from Texas.”
Co-ops achieve an economy of scale and “are a great model,” said Commissioner Hurlburt, who noted that there is even a co-op for cut flowers. The award-winning Arethusa Farm in Litchfield announced on its website that it was partnering with other local dairies.
Two business models that have taken off in recent years are farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs.
In 2022, there were nearly 100 farmers markets across the state, offering an array of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and other products, sometimes accompanied by music. The markets also are a social event, a place to meet friends and neighbors, as outdoor markets have been for a very long time.
Outdoor sales got a boost during the pandemic because “some people were more comfortable going to the farm stand than the grocery store,” said Kathleen Dougherty of the nonprofit Connecticut Farmland Trust, but whether the change is permanent remains to been seen.
In a CSA, customers buy a share of a harvest and typically pick it up each week. The format has become very popular. Along with fresh vegetables, there are CSAs for meat, cut flowers, shellfish and dairy products, said Hurlburt.
There are other ways to get local fresh food to consumers, from the traditional farm stand and farm store to grocery stores that stock local produce to farm-to-table restaurants and farm-to-school programs.
Hemp and kelp
It took decades for public officials to realize that hemp was pot without the pop, a variation of the cannabis sativa plant that doesn’t contain enough of the psychoactive component known as THC to create the “high” associated with marijuana.
Hemp does contain a non-intoxicating compound called CBD, which is used in lotions, pills, tinctures, candies and other things. The federal government legalized hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill, with restrictions, and Connecticut followed suit the following year.
It’s been a kind of boom and bust for hemp farmers. In 2020, there were more than 80 licensees, but in 2022 only about three dozen actually harvested a crop, said Becky Goetsch, who grows hemp and other crops on her Running Brook Farms in Killingworth and is head of the Connecticut Hemp Growers Association.
She identified two issues facing the new industry: competition from cheaper, unregulated out- of-state products and lack of a processing facility in the state. She and other hemp growers are supporting a bill in the General Assembly that would enable licensed hemp farmers to apply for licenses to grow marijuana.
Goetsch said if the bill passes she’s not sure if she would switch; she said she likes growing CDB-rich hemp for therapeutic uses.
Hemp is a remarkable plant; different varieties of it can be used to make clothing, plastic, building material (Hempcrete) and animal bedding, among other uses.
“I believe in the plant,” Goetsch said.
While most of the discussion about growing “weed” in recent years has centered on marijuana, there is another one in cultivation: seaweed, specifically kelp. According to the Department of Agriculture, there are now 10 licensed commercial kelp farming operations in the state, with more in the pipeline.
Kelp can be used in a variety of foods, from seaweed salads, kimchi and snack bars to dried whole leaf, flakes and powders. It can also be used as fertilizer.
As with hemp farming, kelp is still not a mature industry, and there are issues with processing, marketing and regulation that are still being worked through. But its rise is an indicator that aquaculture in Long Island Sound is on the upswing.
“It’s definitely back. It’s been a good six years,” said Bill Lucey, the nonprofit Save The Sound’s Soundkeeper, who advocates for water quality and fisheries.
There is still some lobstering, he said, though nowhere near the level that existed before the 1999 die-off due to warming water and pollution. He said some former lobstermen are now fishing for whelk. There is an effort to restore scalloping. But the main products are oysters and clams.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Connecticut’s annual shellfish harvest exceeds 450,000 bushels of hard clams and 200,000 of bushels of oysters, providing more than 300 jobs and generating $30 million in sales. More than 70,000 acres of the Sound are in shellfish cultivation.
While most of the state’s larger farms are in rural or semi-rural areas, virtually all of the state’s large and mid-sized cities have community farming and gardening programs: Green Village Initiative in Bridgeport, GROW Windham, New Britain Roots, Yale Farm in New Haven, Urban Fresh Gardens in Waterbury, the Keney Park Sustainability Project in Windsor/Hartford and others.
One of the oldest is KNOX, Inc., in Hartford. Founded in 1966 by the late city council member Betty Knox, it has turned many acres of unused urban land into growing space. At present, KNOX manages 21 community gardens across the city, where more than 300 residents “grow food for themselves, their families and their friends,” said KNOX executive director Patrick Doyle. The growers are from more than a dozen different countries. Some don’t have easy access to grocery stores.
The nonprofit also has begun an urban farming program, in which residents are trained in both the agricultural and business aspects of farming — “in-ground and hydroponic.” He said there are currently 23 people in the three-stage program. They train on larger plots in the community gardens; the next challenge is finding more land for them to farm.
Across town, the Keney Park Sustainability Project teaches an array of agricultural skills, from beekeeping and maple syruping to growing mushrooms. Executive director Herb Virgo said he has 200 to 250 “home growers” in his programs at any time. He said most are hobbyists, but some are interested in becoming farmers.
It’s not easy to start as a gardener and expand to a farm, but it can be done. Hector Gerardo, a native of the Dominican Republic and former labor organizer, started with a garden in Danbury and expanded to a three-acre farm, where he grows vegetables and hemp and raises goats.
He invites people to his farm because “too many of our people think food starts at the grocery store.”
Virgo said he connects his aspiring farmers to resources. He said he’s worked with the Hartford Land Bank to turn three empty building lots into growing spaces for three of his clients. He said about a half dozen of his growers also have growing space outside the city.
For urban growers and others interested in becoming farmers, a major resource is the Agriculture Department’s FarmLink program, which connects farmers to available farmland.
There are more than 400 people currently seeking farms and nearly 80 parcels of varying sizes available for farming, according to the program’s website. The nonprofit Land For Good also maintains a New England clearinghouse for those seeking farms or making farms available.
The state needs new farmers because many of the incumbents are not, as French farmers might say, poulets de printemps. According to an American Farmland Trust study, the average age of a Connecticut farmer is 58, and about a third of the state’s 5,500 “principal farm operators” are over 65. More than 90% of the “senior farmers” don’t have a younger farmer poised to take over.
Allyn Brown of Maple Lane Farms in Preston is in such a situation. He is 67 and does not have an heir interested in taking over the farm. He has cut back. He once was the largest grower of black currants in the country, which he processed into juice at a beverage company he owned in Norwich. He has stopped growing currants, sold the company and ended his pick-your-own fruit operation. He continues with his other activities. What will the future bring?
“I don’t know.”
Farming has never been an easy way to make a living. Farmers have many of the same challenges as other business owners, such as meeting payroll, plus some appurtenant to farming. One — a fairly new one — is bears.
The ursine raiders are wreaking havoc on farms in Litchfield and Hartford counties, going after everything from sheep and cattle to sweet corn and, no surprise, bees, said Joan Nichols of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. Her nonprofit supports a bill that would allow the extirpation of invasive bears on whom lesser protective measures have failed.
Then there are solar panels. The wide open spaces on farms can lend themselves to solar installations. And clean energy is simpatico with sustainable farming — except when the panels are installed on prime growing soils. Trying to keep panels off prime farmland is “a very contentious issue” because it delves into private property rights, said Nichols.
Nichols said her organization is looking into ways to “disincentivize” the practice and is looking at ways to mount panels that are compatible with farming. Jamie Jones solved this problem by putting solar panels on the roofs of his buildings on his Shelton farm.
A broader problem is climate change. The warning planet may allow a longer growing season, but it brings erratic weather that can play havoc with crops. For example, this year’s warm January caused many peach blossoms to bud, only to be killed by a February cold spell, noted Chelsea Gazillo, New England policy manager for the nonprofit American Farmland Trust, who also directs the Working Lands Alliance. She said this isn’t the first time the peach crop has been so imperiled.
Native peaches are gong to be hard to come by this year. Hurlburt noted that maple trees were tapped earlier than ever this year.
But some help is on the way. The Alliance and others, including Gov. Ned Lamont, successfully pushed for funds to to help farmers and foresters cope with climate change.
Last year the legislature allocated $7 million, and authorized an additional $7 million in bond funds, to support Climate Smart Agriculture production and practices, which, as the name suggests, are measures — cover crops, water management and many others — aimed at countering the effects of the warming planet.
The first $7 million round received 78 applications requesting more than $55 million in grant funds. Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz announced the 12 grant recipients in March, during Climate Action Week. Advocates are seeking more funds this year.
No farms, no food
Connecticut has been losing farmland for centuries, particularly to post-World War II suburbanization, sometimes called sprawl. Drive through the suburban and rural parts of the state and you almost cannot miss a big warehouse, shopping mall or residential subdivision built on a former farm, sometimes named for the farm it displaced.
According to the state Council on Environmental Quality’s 2021 annual report, the state lost an estimated 45,000 acres of “agricultural fields,” about 16% of the total, between 1985 and 2015. The American Farmland Trust’s 2020 “Farms Under Threat: A New England Perspective” reports that 23,000 acres of Connecticut farmland were converted to urban development or low-density residential use between 2001 and 2016.
There are about 380,000 acres of cropland, pasture and farm woodlands left in the state, on about 5,500 farms. As the studies suggest, the acreage keeps dwindling, and no one has as yet turned a subdivision back into a farm. In 1978, the state recognized the problem and started the Department of Agriculture Farmland Preservation Program. The goal was to preserve 130,000 prime acres, thought at the time the amount of land needed to feed the state, by buying development rights.
To date, the program has preserved about 48,000 acres on 410 farms, with a couple more in the pipeline, said Hurlburt. Also, the Connecticut Farmland Trust has saved an additional 73 farms covering 5,600 acres since 2002, said Kathleen Dougherty of the Trust. It is the largest agricultural land trust in the state, but some local trusts have also preserved farms. (The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has a separate open space acquisition program, mostly aimed at saving land associated with the public parks, forests, wildlife management areas and water access areas.)
Though the farmland preservation program has made steady progress, it is still nowhere near its 130,000-acre goal. The Council on Environmental Quality’s 2021 annual report projects that at the annual rate of acquisition over the preceding 10 years, it will take 66 years to reach the goal.
Which raises the question of whether the goal is still meaningful, given the changes in farming since the 1970s.
“Great question,” said Hurlburt. He said he plans to have his farmland preservation advisory board study it.
But even with new farming methods, the goal may be worth keeping. With water shortages in the growing areas of the West and climate-related, crop-destroying flooding in the midlands, locally produced food may become more of a necessity.
“As we learned during the pandemic, food from other areas may not be available for a host of reasons, so having a local market is critically important,” Hurlburt said.
Farms bring a number of environmental benefits: they provide habitat for wildlife, help control flooding, protect wetlands and watersheds and maintain air quality by removing carbon from the atmosphere. They are scenic and soul-calming landscapes.
Also, the economic impact is not small potatoes. A 2015 study by the UConn Department of Agriculture and Health and Natural Resources found the total impact of Connecticut’s agricultural industry on the state economy was between $3.3 and $4 billion and that it generated more than 20,000 jobs.
Finally, there is history and tradition in those fields. There are farms, such as the Maple Bank Farm in Roxbury, that long pre-date the American Revolution. Kristin Orr said her Mountain Farm in Thompson was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as a favor to his friend John Wesley Doane, the Thompson native and 19th century railroad financier who then owned the land.
The popular Sub-Edge Farm in Farmington was once owned by Theodate Pope Riddle, the state’s first female architect. An agricultural practice begun in the 19th century, the gathering of witch hazel in the lower Connecticut Valley, continues in state forests, under DEEP supervision.
In an effort to reconnect with its agrarian history as well as provide fresh food for its members, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has created a large farm in North Stonington called Meechooôk Farm. The farm, created in partnership with UConn, also has a training component.
The stories are many. To keep them coming, and to eat well, support Connecticut agriculture, said Jamie Jones of the Jones Family Farm: “Vote with your fork.”
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.