A lot's happened over the past ten years. Republicans and Democrats swapped control in Washington and in Hartford. Wars started and ended. Housing and land prices went up and then crashed back down. The stock market went for a ride up and down and is now back up. It seems things are always changing. But for the last decade, one constant has been the efforts by the Connecticut Farmland Trust to save the dwindling number of farmland acres in the State of Connecticut.
The core of what would become the Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT) had its beginnings in 2001 when a group of concerned citizens got together, with the help of the Hartford Food System, to urge legislators to support the state’s fledgling farm preservation program. Through this effort the group discovered that while the State’s program worked well – some farms were not qualifying.
“What we found was that the state was able to preserving large tracts of land and larger farms, but smaller family farms were not qualifying under the formula,” says Gordon Gibson, an original board member of CFT and its first president. “These smaller farms are just as important and often were one of the few remaining working farms in a particular town, but there was no way to find funds to save them. Then some of us got the idea that maybe it was time for us to start our own land trust to help target these smaller parcels.”
That idea led to the incorporation of the Connecticut Farmland Trust on March 1, 2002. With just a board of directors and no permanent staff or office space, the group started to create the state’s only statewide land trust with the specific goal of saving the smaller working farms that would fall under the state’s radar.
“I was chosen to be the first president of the organization because of my background working with the State of Connecticut buying land for state parks and forests,” says Gibson. “We started raising money by any way we could. This included working with the Working Lands Alliance on their Celebration of Connecticut Farms for the first few years until we took the event over as our major fundraiser. We started looking for farms to save and took our first chance by preserving the Scaglia Fruit Farm in Glastonbury in 2002. This 16.5 acre orchard had been active in the town for over 80 years and our purchasing of a conservation easement on the farm ensured that it remains in production and free from development for future generations. With this first project under our belts we started moving forward on expanding our funds and hiring permanent staff.”
The way a land trust works is simple. To preserve the working nature of the land, the trust purchases an easement on the property. This allows the land to continue to be used as a farm but prevents the land from being sold in the future for non-farm use. The easement gives the farmer funds, which he/she can invest in their business and it creates a partnership between the land trust and the farm to steward the land for the use of future farmers.
“Our farm, Humphrey Evergreen Farms in Hamden, was another of the first farms protected by CFT,” says owner Dick Jaynes. “We were a smaller parcel of land and didn’t qualify for the state farmland preservation program, but we wanted to make sure that the land would stay in agriculture. The farm was owned by a family trust and there were some who wanted to turn over the land for the construction of new homes. The rest of us didn’t want to see that happen and that’s how we came to work with CFT.”
Humprey Evergreen Farms actually donated their easement to CFT to help ensure its future protection. Jaynes says the majority of the family found it comforting to know that their land would stay in farming long after current members had passed away.
“Anyone who owns farmland is making a mistake if they don’t explore how to preserve it forever,” says Jaynes. “There are so many reasons to do it. But to me, the number one reason is if you don’t take steps now, the only thing you’re guaranteed to grow in the future is houses. And once agricultural land is lost, it’s lost - you can’t get it back and that isn’t in any of our long term interests.”
By 2006, CFT had been pounding the pavement for five years and was working hard to raise money to preserve additional farms. It had nine farms in its portfolio and realized that the time had come to hire a permanent, full-time director to manage the day-to-day operations and help raise the organization’s visibility. That person was Henry Talmage, a New York native whose family had been farming land on Long Island for generations.
“When I came on board, CFT had grown to two full-time staff members. The organization was being recognized for an impressive start for a young land trust and had a highly-functioning board and knew where it wanted to be. But to get to the next level, more work was needed,” says Talmage. “My job was to focus on the outreach and improve our name recognition. We wanted to strengthen our relationships with the state government and local towns, and with farmers who were considering efforts to protect their land.”
Talmage says that the biggest challenge facing a land trust like CFT is building relationships and trust so that farmers know that their land will be safe once it’s in the hands of CFT. “Every land trust needs more money to preserve land and fund its operations, so we’re not alone in that struggle. But good partnerships with farmers and the agricultural community are even harder to come by,” says Talmage. “Under my direction we were able nearly triple the number of farms we saved to 26 by 2011. None of these could have happened without our staff building the relationships that led farmers and government agencies to our door looking to make a project work.”
“CFT’s biggest strength is they are familiar with the way farms work and know that a working farm will need to evolve to stay viable,” says Chris Hopkins, owner of Stone Wall Dairy in Cornwall. He sold his easement to CFT at a steep discount to allow his farm to be preserved and to let him focus on growing his dairy operation, which includes raw milk sales. “Since I preserved the farm in 2007, CFT has been an important partner, working with me to help my farm expand its operations, yet also keep the land open and free. It was a great decision to work with CFT and I’ve told other farmers that they are an organization that really understands how to keep a working farm in business.”
In the middle of 2011, CFT was faced with its first ever major staff change when Talmage announced that he had been chosen to become the executive director at the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. After an extensive search, Connecticut native Jim Gooch was chosen to take the reins after four years at the Trust for Public Land in Maine.
“I was attracted to the mission of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. You really can’t argue with it. The organization is one of the best conservation stories in Connecticut,” says Gooch. “Farms are so important both economically and what they bring to the character of our state. But at the same time the amount of farmland we continue to lose is worrisome. We continue to lose more land each year than is saved. We need to constantly improve the way we operate. We need to grow CFT so we can do more work and this means growing our acquisition fund and our staff to handle the stewardship of more farms."
One way that CFT is preparing for the future is by seeking accreditation from the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. This independent certification will allow CFT to show donors that their operations and procedures meet a high quality standard. Gooch says that by becoming certified, CFT will be among the select few land trusts in the country to do so, and that is a competitive advantage.
“Accreditation is a big step and will place us in a whole new class. Very few land trusts are accredited and it’s a clear signal to your supporters that you have the integrity and stability for the long haul to back up the promise of protecting the farmland ‘forever,’” says Gooch. “It’s my hope that accreditation will allow us to raise the funds we need to grow to protect more farmland. We are at the point where we need to expand our staff to help steward any additional farms we wish to protect. It would be shame to have an opportunity to save some farmland but have to pass because we simply do not have the staff to take on another project. That is our biggest challenge moving into the immediate future.”
Talmage says that he predicts a bright future for the Connecticut Farmland Trust. “As the organization builds financial capacity and expertise and saves more farms it will result in more and more projects and a bigger financial capacity,” he says. “I’m hopeful that this progression will continue and will improve over time. There’s no question in my mind that the board knows where it needs to go and that makes all the difference. They are committed and focused to make CFT one of the star land trusts in the country.”
Gibson, who has been there since the beginning, says that he is encouraged for the future. “It’s been 12 years since a group of us sat down in a room and came up with this crazy idea to form the Connecticut Farmland Trust. We’re now recognized as a mature, responsible land trust by other groups in Connecticut and we’ve been able to save 2,100 of acres of farmland at 26 farms across the state. In short, the crazy idea worked,” he says. “But our work needs to continue because there are so many pieces of land here in Connecticut that we need to preserve before they disappear.”
About the Connecticut Farmland Trust
Founded in 2002, the Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT) is the only private statewide conservation organization that protects Connecticut’s working lands. The non-profit organization protects farmland through the acquisition of farm property and easements. To date CFT holds easements on 26 properties across the state, protecting more than 2,100 acres. The group works with farmers, landowners, land trusts, town officials, and state agencies to protect agricultural land and has become the state's leading resource on farmland conservation. For more information visit www.CTFarmland.org or call (860) 247-0202.