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Farmers in Connecticut are successful, but the workforce is aging

Molly Ingram

Farms in Connecticut grow all kinds of produce: fruit, vegetables, flowers and more. As the farmers get older, it’s unclear if the next generation will step up and take over.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “CT agriculture: New crops, new technologies, (many) old farmers,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Tom. How's agriculture doing in Connecticut? What appears to be staying constant and what appears to be changing?

TC: Well, first of all, in general, agriculture is doing surprisingly well. You know, we don't think of Connecticut necessarily as an agricultural state, like it once was. But there's a lot of farming here. And it's gotten diverse in what is grown. We used to be orchard fruits, tobacco, now does everything under the sun, every herb and vegetable and wineries. I mean, there's just all kinds of new stuff.

WSHU: Even kelp.

TC: Yes, indeed. You know, when we used to talk about weed, it was marijuana. But now it’s seaweed.

WSHU: So we are diversifying. But there's some things that haven't changed, what hasn't changed?

TC: Who farms. What has grown and how they sell, that has changed, but who farms is still pretty much the way it's been for a long time, which is to say, overwhelmingly white and skewing old. As I say, a lot of the farmers in the state are not, you might say spring chickens. So we need new farmers, and we need more farmers of color.

WSHU: So what is being done about this?

TC: Well, two years ago, the state Department of Agriculture began a process to make agriculture more accessible to Black, Indigenous or persons of color in farming.

WSHU: Only about 3% of the farmers are people of color and/or Indigenous people. So how do we change that?

TC: Well, I think a couple of things. Access to land is one, access to capital, you need the capital to get started farming and training. There are people of color who come to Connecticut from all over the world, and some are farmers. There's a farmer from Somalia farming a plot up in Enfield. But people who grew up in a city need to be trained, both in agriculture and in the business of farming. We forget farming is a business. You need to know how to, you know, turn the earth and turn a buck. So, training is key. Access to land is really challenging. Access to capital.

It's interesting to talk about access to land. Most of our major cities have urban farming programs. And what we're seeing in Hartford is, they're starting to use abandoned building lots as growing spaces. Using empty building lots for growing, why not? I mean, maybe we have an image of a farmer — a happy, stocky guy, wearing overalls — but there aren't any rules. And we're also seeing out there a lot of farmers who have college degrees, you know, from Ivy League institutions, so the world has changed.

WSHU: Can you just tell us a little bit about Robert Chang, he's a member of the working group and the owner of Echo Farm in Woodstock. Could you tell us a little bit about his background?

TC: He's very active in promoting farmers of color. He's part of the New England organization. He came from Jamaica originally, and you know, found land in Woodstock. He grows organic vegetables and flowers, and is a successful farmer. He is trying to bring others along with him. He's active in a group of Black, Indigenous and people of color farmers in Connecticut, about 55 of them. As he says, there's more of us than you think. But fewer of us than there should be.

WSHU: So can you talk a little bit about there's this move to try and diversify. How successful has it been?

TC: So far? It hasn't been very successful at all. You have people who do it, people who manage it. I mean, there is a successful farmer in Danbury named Hector Gerardo who is from the Dominican Republic. And Hector started with a garden and expanded to a farm. So it can be done. You look across the country and there's flooding in the growing regions of the West. There's drought in the Midwest. Having locally grown food gets more important every year.

WSHU: The farming that we have in Connecticut, is it sustainable? Because you talk about people deciding to form co-ops to try and make it more commercially viable to farm locally. Could you just tell us a little bit about that movement?

TC: Sure. Co-ops are a great model because you can achieve an economy of scale. Several smaller farms can pull resources and save money and do much better marketing. I mean, the great example is the Farmer's Cow in Eastern Connecticut that's made up of five family-owned dairy farms. The products are excellent. I buy them all. They're in stores across Connecticut and in several other states.

The milk is great and it's fresh, which is a good selling point. A lot of milk you buy at the drugstore spent much of his life on a truck from Texas but the idea of fresh fresh milk right from down the road is very appealing. So Farmers Cow, economy of scale, they work together for marketing, and it works. I mean there are a lot of co-ops for shellfish. The Cabot Creamery is a co-op, and there’s even a co-op for cut flowers.

WSHU: What about farmers markets? We've hear a lot of talks about farmers markets. Are they actually working in Connecticut?

TC: Oh, very much. So last year in 2022, there were almost 100 farmers markets across Connecticut. And people love them. They're great. You know, when you go out you see your neighbors. Usually there's a guy sitting in the corner playing Beatles songs or whatever, it's a social activity. Markets have been social activities since time immemorial. And you get some wonderful fresh food. They're very popular, and a great way to connect with agriculture.

WSHU: And you could actually use food stamps to buy a lot of the produce, right?

TC: Yes.

WSHU: So where do we go from here? I mean, it seems as if the intentions are great, but achieving the diversification of farms is a problem and getting young people involved in farming as well seems to be a problem.

TC: Well, there are younger farmers out there. And, you know, UConn has a nationally known agricultural school, producing people interested in farming. I mean, I think that first of all, the keys are to protect the farmland we have left. If there's no farmland, all the rest of it is academic. And we have to protect it from climate change, because climate change is playing havoc with agricultural land across the country. So those are two things. We need to protect the land.

Now, there's a farmland acquisition program in the state that is trying to preserve as much as it can, but it's way short of its goal at the moment. Some land trusts are saving farmland. So the idea is to fund this movement, keep and preserve the land, and then make some of it available to new farmers. The state Department of Agriculture has a farm Link program. And you can log onto it if you're interested in finding a farm. And it lists the farms that are available for either lease or sale. So that is a good asset, but preserving the land and then making it available to new and diverse farmers is the key to moving forward.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.