The Good Earth: Evolution of the Connecticut Farm, From Harvesting to Hedge Funds

April 4, 2014

In an increasingly technologically advanced world, it is not surprising that farming occupies a diminished portion of working life. The role of agriculture in our society has changed significantly as we move into the information age. Our economy has moved from harvesting to hedge funds, and Wall Street dominates main street markets.

A Department of Agriculture census shows that the number of farms nationwide declined dramatically between 2007 and 2012. But in New England the number of farms has actually grown over the same period, and Connecticut leads the region with a 22% increase in the number of farms since 2007.

The number of women owned farms in our state, such as Hitchcock Farm in Ridgefield, has also risen from 1,161 in 2007 to 1,501 in 2014. This is a promising development that underscores agriculture’s continuing importance to Connecticut. Since colonial times, farming has been central to our state’s history. Farms supplied local communities with fresh food and provided the means through which many families supported themselves. Even to this day, Connecticut’s part-time legislature continues to meet on an agricultural calendar from January to May.

My own personal connection to farming has informed my belief in its enduring value to our state. Having been born on a farm in the rural countryside of Italy before immigrating to America, my earliest memory is playing on pastureland and in the midst of vegetable gardens and olive groves.

In America, a good portion of my youth was also spent at an apple orchard in Woodbridge owned by one of my uncles, and at another uncle’s dairy farm in Wallingford. The smell of fresh milk from his cows lined up in long stalls and freshly plowed earth under slow bumpy rides on red farm tractors were unforgettable childhood experiences. The farming life is far less common today than it used to be. In the early 1940s there were 6,233 working dairy farms around the state. This number had fallen to 500 in 1990 and now there are 212.

A basic human instinct, affinity to the soil, has inspired a renewed interest in farming and the many benefits in provides. Many communities throughout Connecticut and our district have taken advantage of state grant programs to preserve some of the few remaining local farms. Some farms have become learning centers for adults and schoolchildren to explore the state’s agricultural past and present. There has also been a wave of new farmers’ markets that make locally grown produce available to residents and restaurants.

Today, Connecticut has a $3.5 billion agricultural industry that will continue to grow thanks to increased demand for locally grown food. The state recently announced that more than 40 farms, agricultural non-profits and municipalities will receive state funding totaling $880,327. There is a bipartisan effort to promote Connecticut’s farming heritage and to encourage a new generation of farmers. The Agriculture Department’s Farm Transition Grant and Farm Viability Grant programs will supply these grants, which require matching funds from the farm.

This year in our area, Harbor Watch in Westport will receive a nearly $40,000 grant to help eliminate pollution which affects the local commercial and recreational shell fishing industry. In the Weston, a grant of $17,500 will be used for improvements to Lachat Farm. Funding is not limited to producers. Non-profit organizations and municipalities are also eligible. The Department of Agriculture will begin to accept new grant applications in November.