"Farming is where you are," Susan Mitchell, left, said. "You can open up a restaurant anywhere, but you can only farm in the ground. So it's been very challenging, and we're still on the path to ownership." Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Farmers in Connecticut want Congress to increase their access to land, particularly for younger and first-generation farmers entering the industry — and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is pushing a bipartisan bill to address the issue.

Access to land, and preserving it to remain as farmland, are among the biggest challenges facing farmers, ranchers and forest owners throughout the state, especially with a competitive real estate market in the Northeast and more limited viable farmland in smaller states like Connecticut.

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Many of them say they do not have the institutional knowledge, connections or money to afford land for leasing or owning.

Because he sees it as a “national issue,” Courtney is introducing The Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act on Friday alongside Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill., and Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Iowa. The legislation would authorize $100 million for each fiscal year between 2024 and 2028 to expand related programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This would allow it to make grants to and form cooperative agreements with local governments and various groups to help with land acquisition.

The bill would provide direct assistance and services to deal with closing costs, down payments, subsidized interest rates, business technical assistance and training. On the preservation front, it would assist with the transfer of farmland to new generations. And it would task the Secretary of Agriculture to work with a stakeholder committee to look at proposals and fund distribution to make sure they are addressing the priorities of “underserved” farmers and those in high-poverty areas.

“Farmers across eastern Connecticut have repeatedly told me that acquiring affordable land is one of the greatest barriers to starting and continuing to farm. This is particularly true for young and under-resourced farmers,” Courtney said. “The Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act will give farmers — including shellfish producers — a better shot at acquiring land and building their farm.”

Every five years, Congress negotiates and passes a new Farm Bill, which is a wide-ranging piece of legislation authorizing funding for nutrition and agricultural programs. The latest version was enacted in 2018, and some funding levels will start to expire in September. The bill mainly consists of nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, while the remainder focuses on agriculture and conservation.

Unlike most bills before Congress, the sweeping package is traditionally bipartisan, though certain issues get more politicized on party lines as well as regionally. But Courtney believes this is one area that will get broader support because most states are facing land access issues.

The National Young Farmers Coalition has been pushing for federal action on land access, and has endorsed the legislation along with the American Farmland Trust.

“Investing in secure, equitable access to land for farmers is an imperative insurance policy for all other public dollars spent by Congress in the 2023 Farm Bill,” said David Howard, policy development director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “This is the moment for Congress to take action and ensure that the 2023 Farm Bill delivers material benefits for historically underserved farmers, ranchers, and forest owners striving to establish and grow their operations.”

That group and Connecticut farmers like Susan Mitchell are rallying behind the One Million Acres campaign, which calls on Congress to authorize $2.5 billion in spending over the next decade in the latest Farm Bill to assist in transferring land to newer generations.

Naomi Ford, 23, and Sarah Medeiros, 24, work on the land after laying the black plastics. They are both the first generation farmers in their families. “As the National Young Farmers Coalition, we’re trying to advocate for this next generation that’s younger, that are people of color, that are women, that are LGBTQ, that are entrepreneurial, smart, hardworking individuals,” said Susan Mitchell, who hired the employees. “But it can be very difficult to break into this industry sometimes.” Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Mitchell started Cloverleigh Farm in 2014 after changing careers as a high school science teacher. As a first-generation farmer, she has confronted the issue of trying to acquire land either through leasing or owning. She ran her organic farming business on several leased properties before ending up on four acres of her current farmland in Columbia in 2021.

Courtney said his bill would aid farmers like Mitchell and help them overcome the initial hurdles of breaking into agriculture. Many of them say they are competing with major developers or people who want more space for vacation homes and estates. And without more access to capital, they can lose out on buying farmland because they are not going through a conventional lender and getting pre-approved for loans through the federal government, which can take a while.

“Land access is the issue that we have been hearing about and it’s gotten really even more loud because of just the cost of land in Connecticut. Interestingly, it’s really become a national issue,” Courtney said in a recent interview. “That’s why I do think that there will be action in this Farm Bill to address this issue, because it really isn’t just a sort of Northeast, high-cost-of-living kind of issue now.”

Compared to states in the Midwest region that focus on commodity farming of wheat, soybeans and corn, Connecticut has much smaller farms that grow more specialty crops. The state has more than 5,500 farms spanning over 381,000 acres, according to the 2022 state agriculture review from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average size of farms is 69 acres.

Supporters of land access measures believe it could benefit new farmers and help more farmers of color break into an industry that is predominantly white, male and older. Of the 9,526 producers in Connecticut, 59% were male, 90% were 35 or older and more than 98% were white, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Richard Myers, left, and Shawn Joseph feed food scraps to worm castings, which in turn they use to fertilize their plants at the farm. “This way, we know we’ll be able to provide a product that is both fresher and safer as well,” Joseph said of his farm. “It feeds both ourselves and our community.” Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“A lot of farmers are leaving the field in the next 20 years,” Mitchell said last month. “Who’s going to get that land? We want to be able to see that next generation who might not have institutional connections or knowledge” like urban growers, farmers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and others who have been “historically and systematically disenfranchised.”

Courtney remains involved in advocating for agricultural policy since leaving his spot on the House Agriculture Committee in 2015. He said he was the first member from Connecticut to serve on that panel in 100 years when he joined in 2011.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, is currently the only member from Connecticut serving on the panel, and is also the ranking member of the Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture subcommittee. She has said her priorities in the Farm Bill are around funding for SNAP benefits, land access, climate resiliency and rural broadband connectivity.

“In my committee, we’re talking about large corporate farmers, about global impact,” Hayes said in a recent interview, “and we really have to be more intentional about making sure that small farmers are not left behind.”

Lisa Hagen is CT Mirror and CT Public's shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline. She is a New Jersey native and graduate of Boston University.