by George Looby, DVM
A program has been developed in northeastern Connecticut to encourage, foster and develop agricultural activities of all types. From its modest beginnings it has grown from a program with seven participating towns to over 14 and growing. The Agvocate Program evolved from a grant to the Town of Thompson five years ago and is now a well-defined program that is supportive of agriculture in many ways. The Agvocate Program has been defined as a grassroots program that empowers farmers, citizens and municipal decision makers to leverage partnerships, enact farm-friendly policies and regulations, provide tax incentives and revive the agricultural culture within towns.

The purpose of the workshop was to train local citizens to act as resources in communities seeking to establish Agriculture Commissions and/or pursue more farm friendly policies in Connecticut towns and cities. These local Agvocates will be called upon to provide the dissemination of information and provide technical support to their own and other towns.

Among those who were encouraged to attend this training session were volunteers, municipal staff, nonprofit staff who had a commitment to land use and agricultural issues, County Farm Bureau Members, Regional Planning Agencies, Conservation Districts, Planners and Agriculture Commission Members.

Individuals involved in the program for several years developed a core curriculum that would allow anyone interested to become familiar with the many resources available to them. A call then went out to those who had expressed an interest in the program to come forward and take the training program. This call was successful and 45 volunteers attended to participate in the one day session to become qualified to act as instructors in their towns. This session was entitled, “Training the Trainers Boot Camp.”
The all day program was held on the River Campus of Goodwin College in East Hartford to introduce the attendees to the myriad of issues that confront those involved in the Agvocate program.

Jennifer Kaufman, Natural Resources and Sustainability coordinator for the Town of Mansfield, presented an overview of the program. It was Jennifer who was hired as the first coordinator of the program and it was through her perseverance and determination that it matured. As a Mansfield Official, Jennifer presented an summary of some of the programs and actions her town has put in place to strengthen the role of its farms. Mansfield is home to a diverse group of agricultural activities including dairy, beef, Christmas trees, vegetables, maple syrup and nursery stock. In addition it is home to the College of Agriculture and Natural resources at the University of Connecticut and the E.O. Smith High School, which has a very active Agricultural Education Program with an outstanding FFA Chapter. The Town holds agricultural events, has a leasing program for town land and includes agriculture on the town website.

Art Talmadge from nearby Ashford, co-owner of Cranberry Hill Farm, a diverse vegetable, egg, hay and maple syrup operation serves as Chairman of the Ashford Agricultural Commission. Since its inception in 2010, the commission has accomplished several important things. Working with the Town PZC it assisted in the preparation of “farm friendly” zoning regulations. It brought to the Town Meeting an ordinance which was approved allowing a tax exemption of up to $100,000 of assessed value on farm buildings. Art attends regional Agvocate meetings and other meetings that are of value to the Ag Commission.

The Town of Lebanon has more acreage devoted to agricultural production than any other town in the state. To oversee and promote this activity is Town Planner Phil Chester, a most enthusiastic advocate of agricultural activity of all types. Phil shared many of his innovative ideas with the trainees in order that they might explore initiating some of them in their own communities.

A number of programs, policies and guidelines were reviewed to give those in attendance a better idea of the depth and scope of the regulations on the books that pertain to agriculture.

Elisabeth Moore, director of projects for the Connecticut Farmland Trust gave the attendees an overview of her organization and how it fits into the overall farmland preservation program. Hers is the only private statewide conservation organization dedicated solely to permanently protecting the state’s working farmland. To achieve this mission the organization works with Connecticut farmers to protect their land by acquiring agricultural conservation easements and farmland. Further it shares its expertise and technical knowledge to assist landowners, land trusts, town officials and state agencies in protecting agricultural land.

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture, represented by Katherine Winslow, has four programs in place that offer a variety of options that directly affect farmland preservation. The first is the well established farmland preservation program which was initiated in 1978 under which the state purchases the development rights to a property. Under the terms of this agreement the land is preserved in perpetuity, can be used for agricultural purposes only with no subdivision or non agricultural development. To date 313 farms are in the program with a total of 40,102 acres preserved. The goal of the program is to purchase 130,000 acres of farmland containing 85,000 acres of cropland.

A companion program is entitled the Community Farms Preservation Program which is focused on preserving smaller farms that meet a quite specific designated list of criteria. Connecticut has much land that was previously in production and has for a variety of reasons fallen into disuse. The Farmland Restoration Program assists owners in bringing this neglected land back into production.

The Connecticut Farm Bureau plays an important role in acting as a strong advocate for agricultural activities at all levels and especially in the state legislature where all bills pertaining to agriculture are carefully scrutinized to insure that their intent and purpose is favorable to famers and the land which they till. Public Act 03- 490 is a law enacted by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1963 which is concerned with the taxation and preservation of farm, forest or open space. To assist anyone involved in the details of this important piece of legislation, the Connecticut Farm Bureau has prepared a manual which outlines in detail the provisions of this act. Joan Nichols, Government Relations specialist for the Farm Bureau, gave the audience an update on the importance of this act to Connecticut agriculture.

Dawn Prindell serves as county executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and her presentation touched on a variety of topics including the services offered by her agency. FSA offers farmers assistance in the preparation of eligibility forms and farm and tract numbers for USDA programs.

Farmers report crop acreages for farm history and program participation. They obtain insurance like coverage on crops through the non-insured disaster assistance program. Loans are available to those eligible to cover a number of situations that arise in the course of doing business.

Participants in the “boot camp” came away with a clear picture of the roles they are being asked to play, involved, complex but for those who have an appreciation of their roles it was time well spent.

Only time will tell if those who need to hear the message are willing to listen and participate in supporting agriculture throughout the state.