The Third Annual Connecticut Agriculture Commission Conference was held on April 5 at EastConn located in Hampton, CT.
Chairman John Gudskowski opened the Conference with words of welcome to those in attendance and then introduced Commissioner of Agriculture Steven Revizcky who gave the audience an update on some of the happenings in his department. He noted that Connecticut has experienced a 22 percent increase in the number of farms since the time of the last survey and a significant increase in the acreage under cultivation. New England as a region has undergone a significant increase in both areas but not as dramatic as that which has taken place in Connecticut. Nationally the number of farms has declined by 4 percent. The commissioner went on to say that the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development is now functioning as originally designed and is making significant contributions.
The Regional Market located near Brainerd Field in Hartford has served the needs of producers and wholesalers for many years but age is beginning to take its toll, the present facility being 65 years old. Plans are underway to revamp the physical plant and make it more user friendly and incorporate several new features that better meet the needs of the present occupants and attract new ones as new marketing trends evolve. One feature will be a food processing area where farmers can prepare their produce to make it consumer ready. To insure this renovation is done in the most cost effective way possible much of the equipment used to serve this area will be removed from state facilities that no longer use them.
Bryan Hurlburt, State Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency was the next speaker bringing news of two new programs his agency is offering to farmers in Connecticut. The first of these is an insurance program designed to offset crop losses suffered by small producers, losses that if not insured could have serious economic consequences for the smaller operation. The other program is a loan program for small businesses in situations where it has exhausted other sources of financing, in Bryan’s words, “the lender of last resort.”
Lisa Coverdale, USDA-NRCS State Conservationist, provided an update on in her agency that impact those in attendance. The state is divided into four districts, each having rather unique characteristics and needs. Last year 17,000 acres were placed in conservation planning with much of that planning the result of volunteer efforts. In the offing is a soil health playbook which will assist in making informed decisions regarding soil issues. Contained in the recently passed Farm Bill are provisions that address applicant equality and this is significant as women are playing an increasingly important role in addressing conservation issues in the state.
The next segment of the program was devoted to the reasons Connecticut is so well suited for “local agriculture”. The first speaker addressing this topic was Kip Kolesinskas, consulting conservation scientist for the American Farmland Trust. Kip cited the Jones Farm in Shelton as an example of what resourceful management can do to meet the needs of a high density population area and achieve a desirable life style for the operators. The Jones hold themselves up as ambassadors of agriculture in a major metropolitan area. Agriculture is a major player in the state’s economy with a yearly gross impact of 3.5 billion. Located within the state is some of the best farmland to be found anywhere and the shift in the hardiness zone suggests that the growing season will likely be extended over time. Situated as it is in the New York City food shed with the strong movement towards farmers markets, Connecticut farmers are well positioned to benefit from this trend.
Stacia Monahan, owner-operator of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, gave her impressions as to why local farming is so important. Stacia spoke with considerable authority having just been selected as the states Outstanding Young Farmer for 2014. One of the aims of those involved in Connecticut agriculture is to retain more of the food dollars spent annually, thus insuring that it be returned to local farmers. The present target is 10 percent up from the current estimate of 2-2.5 percent. An ambitious goal but one which those involved believe is attainable. The marketing program for the produce at Stone Garden Farm consists of three outlets. Some produce is sold through farmers markets but an ever increasing volume is sold as CSA with 600 shares sold for the summer season, 400 shares in the fall and 130 in the winter. Major corporations are participants with deliveries made to the corporate offices, a major benefit of being located in Fairfield County. A local chef conducts educational cooking classes at the farm with volunteer assistants.
Next was a panel discussion discussing the topic, “Communicating the Message of Local Agriculture”. The lead off speaker was Amanda Freund of East Canaan who presented an update on BuyCTGrown.com. This group has several events planned for the upcoming season which have been designated Connecticut Trails.
Included in this group is one featuring barn trails, another a cheese trail and yet another a beer trail all designed to allow the visitor to experience the wide diversity of Connecticut agriculture. Amanda reinforced the 10 percent campaign whose goal is to have Connecticut consumers spend 10 percent of their food budget on produce grown within the state. There are guidelines in place to assist growers in achieving the goal that has been set. First is to understand the audience and what we (the producers) expect them to do and secondly to have them view themselves as partners in the overall program.
The Farmers Cow is a group of six Connecticut dairy farms that joined together to market their dairy products with strong emphasis on the fact that they are locally, fresh, and of the highest quality. Kathy Smith serves as marketing director for the group and she offered her ideas as to how local producers can compete successfully against the large operations which have economies of scale in their favor.
The third member of the panel was Winter Capanson representing the Coventry Farmers Market. One of the features incorporated into the market is the sale of value added products which can do much to increase income of those offering such products and add to the overall customer appeal of the market. Coventry makes it a point to make its customers aware of other markets and also offer for sale a Connecticut Cookbook.
Congressman Joe Courtney gave the attendees an update on the Washington scene. In the big picture the word is that the agricultural economy is good. The passage of the Farm Bill had a number of positives for New England, one of which was a definitive definition of rural. Without this clarification many of the USDA support systems that have long been in place here would have disappeared. The Congressman went on to say that the school lunch program will have increased emphasis placed on fresh fruits and vegetables which should favor local producers. Full crop insurance will offered to those with diverse operations and immigration reform will be structured so that the USDA will manage the program rather than the Department of Labor.
The time allotted to lunch was designated a working lunch thus giving towns and regional programs an opportunity to share their programs with the rest of the group. Frank Anastasio, Chairman of the Killingly Agriculture Commission reported on some of the activities that have been initiated by his group. Among them: Planning and zoning regulations throughout the town have been significantly modified to be made more farm friendly. A grant was obtained to assist in paying for a series of open houses at various agricultural activities around town together with cooking demonstrations and samplings at various venues. This group also developed a website, started a farmers market, held a bee keeping session and initiated the process to start a community garden.
From Granby came Ag Commission member Lucy Lindeyer to report on activities in her town. One of the highlights of the year is a town-wide open house featuring all of its agricultural activities. The diversity of agricultural activities in that town is quite remarkable and 2014 will mark the third year this event has taken place.
Colchester is doing a feasibility study regarding establishing a food hub with a processing facility. Woodstock hosted Congressman Courtney in the fall and many of the ideas exchanged during that visit assisted him in fine tuning many of the regulations incorporated into the Farm Bill.
See our next issue for information on the afternoon speakers at the Third Annual Connecticut Agriculture Commission Conference.