by Eileen Weber
We have a nationwide epidemic and it’s not the swine flu. We are losing our farmland at an alarming rate. One of the main problems fueling it is overdevelopment. This is something we can change, but we don’t. We’d rather have the subdivided housing developments next to the new mall in the same oversized parking lot as yet another Starbucks.
Let’s look at some scary statistics from NumbersUSA, a non-profit organization dedicated to a sustainable environment and economy. The 1990s saw the biggest population boom and we’ve been feeling the effects of it ever since. Over two million acres of land were lost in that decade alone. According to the organization, if this rate continues the equivalent space of the top half of the Eastern Seaboard will be lost by 2050. That’s only four decades from now. Not as long as you might think.
“It’s tough,” said Bill Duesing, Executive Director for Connecticut’s Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (CT NOFA) . “We need to move to a more retail agriculture. The CSAs and the Farmers’ Markets all help. It matches the food farmers grow with the food we eat.”
But it’s not enough. What a farmer can make from a weekend morning at the Farmers’ Market is a couple of hundred dollars. That’s just a drop in the bucket. Nothing more than grocery money.
Duesing said programs like Working Land Alliance and American Farmland Trust along with state-run preservation and protection programs have made a difference in saving farmland from becoming a needless housing development. “The Working Land Alliance has certainly had success getting the state to give more money. But all these programs could use more money,” he said.
The good news is that the government is listening, at least a little bit. This past summer, Governor Rell signed a bill granting $10 million in aid to the state’s dairy farmers. That certainly helps, but it won’t last forever. The bill covers only the next two years.
According to information provided by the USDA Census via Working Lands Alliance, dairy farms make up nearly 20% of the farmland in Connecticut. That’s a sizeable chunk when you consider the rest is made up of cropland, animal production, as well as undeveloped wetlands and woodlands. Ten million dollars may sound like a lot of money. But when you spread the wealth, it’s not as much financial help as these farmers need.
“We are going to miss Governor Rell,” said Terry Jones, who runs the Jones Family Farm in Shelton and is a member of the Steering Committee for Working Lands Alliance. “She’s been very supportive.”
But there’s another problem facing farmers today besides overdevelopment. Too often retiring farmers are unable to leave the farm to their children. They’ve grown up and moved on to careers far more lucrative than farming. That’s when the farm gets sold. Most likely, the one who can afford it is a developer. And the vicious cycle continues.
And for those that are bequeathed a farm, there’s a hefty tax that goes with it. According to an article dated January 24th in the Hartford Courant, Democratic legislators voted nearly two months ago for an estate tax bill that would only exempt estates up to $3.5 million. This means that if your estate amounts to less than that, you would have a large sum to pay the government. For example, having an estate valued at $2 million could mean having to pay nearly $100,000 in estate taxes. There aren’t too many farmers-or their adult children-who can afford that. Fortunately, Governor Rell vetoed the bill and requested a postponement.
But when a farm goes under, it stays under. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), nineteen dairy farms in Connecticut sold off their animals last year. Those are nineteen farms we won’t get back. “Dairy farms utilize much of the cropland in the state,” said Jones. “When they go under, there’s more opportunity for sprawl.”
There are state-based non-profit organizations that are fighting against suburban sprawl. “Organizations like Working Land Alliance and Connecticut Farmland Trust are working hard to get purchase rights to protect the land,” said Henry Talmage, Executive Director of Connecticut Farmland Trust. “But it’s a short term fix. Land protection is only one piece of the puzzle.”
Talmage said other factors come into play. You can protect the land from being sold, he says, but you need a sustainable business model to keep it. “I don’t think the future of agriculture is doomed. But it has to be a consumer-driven model.”
Talmage echoed Duesing’s sentiments that it’s the CSAs and the Farmers’ Markets that keep people interested in where their food comes from. And they both agreed that it’s a growing sentiment, especially in this area. “We live in an affluent area along a very marketable corridor between New York and Boston,” said Talmage. “The future of agriculture is supporting your individual farmers so that each one is thriving.”
Farmland is a precious commodity. It is the largest area of open space we have in this tiny state. And when farms go under, we don’t just lose the land. We lose the wildlife. We lose the natural resources. And, what we replace that open space with adversely affects our environment.
Ten years ago, the town of Cromwell purchased a 55-acre property for $2 million with a nearly $500,000 grant from the state. Originally a farm, the property is now in the line of fire. According to an article dated on January 20th from The Middletown Press , the town bought the property with the intention of keeping it as open space including a community garden and hiking trails.
Some residents are thinking it might be a better idea to pay back the purchase price to the state, put in a senior center and a community pool, and sell the rest off for housing. Others are supporting the protection of open space. But with a growing retiree pool and a decrease in space at the current senior center in the Town Hall, that open space is looking more and more attractive.
According to The Day in an article dated January 20th, open space that was originally farmland is also being vied for in the Mystic/Stonington area. For the fourth time, the Planning and Zoning Commission rejected David Lattizori’s $70 million bid for the development of shops, offices, townhouses, and a hotel. In his plan, fifty percent of the 70-acre land, which is across the street from the Stone Ridge retirement community and formerly the Perkins Farm, would be left as open space. But many of the retirees think the plan will still mar the landscape and affect existing local businesses.
These are just two examples of what’s happening in this state. For far too long, we have looked at an open tract of land and seen it for its lucrative potential. We don’t see it for the animals that roam across it or the birds that fly above it. We don’t see it for a space that kids can run freely. We look at how we can carve it up and make money off it. Pretty soon, though, there won’t be anything left to carve.
“Agribusiness has been agribusiness for so long,” said Craig Floyd, who raises pigs on Footsteps Farm in Stonington, “we’ve forgotten about the small farmer who’s toting the bucket to feed the animals. Without him, we’ve got nothing. We have no farms.”
But for some farmers, working the land, growing vegetables, or raising animals is not necessarily a money-losing proposition. Fred Monahan, who runs Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton with his wife Stacia, said there’s definitely a future in farming in this state. “There’s a possibility to make a good living,” he said. “You’ve got to sell retail. Go directly to the public. It’s more profitable when you eliminate the middleman.”
Monahan shared the sentiments of Duesing, Talmage, and Jones: When the farmer focuses on the business of the farm, he can make money. A consumer-driven farm is a farm that thrives. CSAs. Farmers’ Markets. While it may be only a few hundred dollars at a time, these outlets create a regular cash flow. But it’s more than that. They create a connection between the consumer and the farmer. Just as Monahan said, you are eliminating the middleman and becoming more aware of where your food comes from. “Farmers have to realize,” he said, “we need to be connected to the consumer.”
“You’ve got to have an attitude that’s supportive of your local community,” said Jones. “It goes a long way in making farming viable.”
One person can make a difference. And you are that person every time you buy directly from your local farmer. Think about that the next time you visit the supermarket and the items in your shopping cart are shrink-wrapped in plastic.