Connecticut is known for its rolling hills and green farmland. But unfortunately, that farmland is rapidly dwindling. For at least the last five years, Connecticut has been steadily losing this precious commodity. Many experts agree that if this decline continues, the remaining farmland will simply disappear in only a few generations.
According to an article dated July 20th in the Norwich Bulletin, there were as many as 500 active farms in the state in 1990. By 2007, there were less than half that number. And today, we only have 151 active farms registered in the state.
“In the 1940s, there were about 2,000 to 3,000 farms,” said Bill Duesing, Executive Director of Connecticut’s Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA). “The drop off has been significant.”
Part of the reason behind this decline is how much it costs to run a farm and how little the return is. The Norwich Bulletin also disclosed that at the beginning of this year the average dairy farmer was paid only $1.07 per gallon of milk—down 25% in the last decade. With a $1 billion dairy industry in this state that accounts for over 4,000 jobs, the state Department of Agriculture estimates a loss of $1 for every gallon of milk produced. Clearly, the odds are stacked against the small farmer.
“We need to protect our farmland,” said Duesing at a recent showing of the movie FRESH at the Pequot Library. “We’re losing it.”
For Donald W. Fish, owner of Fish Family Farms and DW Fish Realty, the price per bottle of milk is a bit more. He can command as much as $6 because he has his own bottling operation. But he said the average small farmer doesn’t have the money for that kind of machinery.
“It’s impossible for the average farmer to run a dairy farm,” said Fish, who supports himself with realty and building operations and considers farming a hobby. “It’s a joke. But this isn’t anything new.”Just last month, Governor M. Jodi Rell signed a bill to financially aid dairy farmers. It offers a $10 million boost over the next two years. But many see this as merely a quick-fix and not a long term solution. “Rell’s bill helps,” said Fish, “but it won’t be enough to keep things going.”
According to the Working Lands Alliance (WLA), a non-profit organization and project of American Farmland Trust that works to preserve existing farmland, dairy farmers own 18% of the farmland in Connecticut.
Ben Bowell, New England Field Representative for the American Farmland Trust, said the WLA was supportive of Rell’s initiative to preserve dairy farms. “It’s so important to keep them running for land preservation. Land is often lost to development…and sometimes families are forced to sell because the expenses are too high and they see farming as unprofitable.”
Donald Fish said that the overhead costs of running a dairy farm—feed for the cattle, employee salaries, insurance—are more than the overall income. In the Midwest, for example, where the farms can sustain themselves by growing the grain they feed their cattle, there is a different dynamic. In New England, the farmers have to buy the feed, which is just one more added cost.
“We need a different pricing structure,” said Fish. “If we continue like this, there will not be any dairy farms in Connecticut in ten years.”
Adding to the cost factor, suburban sprawl has eaten into our farmland significantly. Smart Growth America, a coalition of national, state, and local organizations working to save open space, cited an October 2002 report from the American Farmland Trust that showed over 6 million acres of farmland were paved over between 1992 and 1997 for commercial and residential developments.
Even worse, our population grew by 17% between 1982 and 1997, which means our demand for food increased. Yet, urban sprawl grew by 47%, thereby decreasing the viable land used to grow food. It seems simple enough: If you stop suburban sprawl, you save the small farm.
Placing a cap on suburban sprawl means utilizing existing space better. That means renovating what you have rather than building out in new open space. Charlie Shafer, a general contractor who founded Charles Shafer Restoration in Madison and has been in the business for about 25 years, said in a previous article on this web site that homeowners can use their existing space more efficiently rather than just building out. “I think you’re going to see people doing more with less,” said Shafer.
Some regions across the country, certainly on the West Coast, have focused on what’s known as Smart Growth within their towns and cities. But too many, as Shafer stated, have not done “more with less.”
The Clean Water Action Council says the impacts of sprawl affect more than just farmland. There is a loss of wildlife habitat. Other open spaces such as wetlands and shores are also being eaten up by developments. Those developments mean more air pollution, water pollution, traffic congestion, and energy consumption.
We are also living longer, which means less people dying and more people occupying their condos. According to an article from the Associated Press on August 19th, life expectancy for Americans is now at 78 years of age. “The death rate has been falling for eight straight years, and is half of what it was 60 years ago.”
The future looks a little bleak when you consider we’re eating up our farmland, losing our resource of fresh produce and dairy, and on average living longer because of better medical technology. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. We eat way too much processed food. And the very thing we need the most—access to fresh food—we are paving over.
We are undermining ourselves. How long before we change?
Photo courtesy of Fish Family Farms.