“You have to leave the land better than when you found it,” said Fred Monahan, who runs Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton with his wife Stacia. The couple sustainably grow vegetables using an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system. They raise cows and chickens. They compost and use their animal manure to enrich the soil. The land, originally a dairy farm until the mid 1990s, evolved to become the thriving farm it is now. “The economic downturn hasn’t affected us,” said Monahan.
But that’s not the case for a lot of farmers in Connecticut, particularly in the dairy industry. When a gallon of milk costs nearly twice to produce than its revenue, dairy farmers have been tightening their belts. And in some cases, they can’t tighten them enough. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), nineteen dairy farms in Connecticut sold off their animals last year. Once the farmland goes, it’s gone.
“It’s impossible for the average farmer to run a dairy farm,” said Donald W. Fish, owner of Fish Family Farms and DW Fish Realty, in a previous article on this site. “It’s a joke. But this isn’t anything new.”
Fish supports himself with realty and building operations and considers farming a hobby. For him, it’s a bit different than other dairy farmers. He can command as much as $6 because he has his own bottling operation. The average small farmer doesn’t have the money for that kind of machinery.
But whether you’re a dairy farmer or not in this state, there are a number of people who think the winds of change need to blow this way. “Why would someone farm just to lose money?” said Craig Floyd, who runs Footsteps Farm in Stonington. “You have to make a change in order to make money.”
Floyd is not alone in his thinking. Bill Duesing, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Connecticut (CT NOFA), said farmers need to be more connected with the business side of farming. “We need to move to a more retail kind of agriculture,” he said.
Henry Talmage, Executive Director of Connecticut Farmland Trust, agrees. “We need a consumer-driven model of farming,” he said. “We live in an affluent marketplace. It’s a corridor between Boston and New York.”
Others see the potential of Connecticut’s location as well. Jiff Martin, the Connecticut State Director for American Farmland Trust, said in a recent e-mail that, while farming may not necessarily be a lucrative business, there’s certainly plenty of opportunity to make a living between the two major cities.
“I'm not sure if farming was ever lucrative, but you can certainly make a decent living at it in the state,” she said. “We still have some of the best land and growing conditions in the region, and an excellent opportunity to market to consumers between Boston and NYC. The industry is constantly evolving. Yesterday it was sheep and dairy and tobacco. Today it is the nursery sector that flourishes, as well as pick-your-own farms, wineries, farmers markets, CSAs, and more.”
“The CSAs and the Farmers’ Markets all help,” said Duesing. “It matches the food farmers grow with the food we eat.”
The growth in Farmers’ Markets and CSAs has been exponential in the last several years. Increasingly, consumers are more interested in buying local products. “More people want to know where their food is coming from,” said Monahan. “There’s definitely a future in farming in this state. But farmers have to realize they need to be connected to the consumer. You’ve got to sell directly to the public.”
And, it’s the public that makes a difference in a farmer’s business. “When we first started, I gave away a lot of chickens,” said Floyd. “My wife asked me why. I said, it’s advertising. Once you taste my chicken, you’ll be back.”
Floyd went on to say that labels can be so misleading. You don’t really know what you’re eating. He said you swing through the McDonald’s drive-thru and you get processed chicken parts coated in chemicals. You get chicken from him and it’s just chicken. Nothing more, nothing less. “We’re deliberately killing ourselves on our food chain,” he said.
But when it comes to farming, Floyd thinks women should pursue it as a career. He said women have a much more humane streak in them. As far as he’s concerned, women are kinder and less willing to tolerate poor treatment of animals. While women may clean up after the family dog when it piddles on the floor, Floyd had a different take on a man’s reaction. “A man sees the dog pee on the floor, he just boots in the ass,” he said.
He also made the point that women can multi-task and that’s what makes them better farmers. “You gotta be able to multi-task if you want to be a farmer,” he said.
Male or female, however, farming is still a business. And with each of these farmers, they recognize that fact. For Terry Jones, who runs Jones Family Farms in Shelton and is a member of the Steering Committee for Working Lands Alliance, he said we need to preserve our farmland as a precious commodity as well as respect farming a business. “It does no good to preserve the land and not be able to support it,” he said.
For many farmers, there needs to be a financial reward for the hard work that goes into raising a farm. But by the same token, farmers make it a career choice because they’re going to make a million dollars. They do it because they love it. Jones boiled farming down to its essential components by quoting William Blake. “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
Image courtesy of Stone Gardens Farm.