2nd biggest increase State sees huge boost in farmers
More people are deciding to start a farm in Connecticut, a trend seldom seen around the country.
Connecticut had a 15 percent increase in beginning farmers between the two most recent agricultural censuses — second only to Rhode Island which had a 27.2 percent growth. Only eight states recorded increases in this percentage during that time.
“More young farmers are realizing they want to start their own farms, or take over a relative’s farm,” said Kies Orr, chair of the CT Young Famer Committee with the Connecticut Farm Bureau. “It’s growing rapidly.”
She said it’s important to keep that momentum though because not every farm has a younger generation to take over.
Orr is the fourth generation of dairy farmers at Fort Hill Farm in Thompson.
To help, the young farmers committee moved their meetings to the University of Connecticut.
Farmers in their first 10 years of operation are considered beginning farmers. In Connecticut, this includes Millenials joining the business, part-time farmers who farm after work and retirees looking to remain active and outdoors, said Bonnie Burr, the assistant director of the University of Connecticut’s agriculture extension program.
“It’s a broad range of folks,” she said.
Burr said the biggest portion of the group in Connecticut are Millenials who are passionate about the local food movement and looking to be more involved in what they’re eating.
Types of farms
Connecticut has nearly 6,000 farms, according to the 2012 census, which is nearly 1,000 more than in the 2007 census.
Generally, these new farms are between five and 10 acres, Burr said.
She said she sees fewer dairy operations in the state and an increase instead on vegetable and small livestock farms. This is because vegetable farming is easier to start since it requires less space and equipment than larger livestock.
Livestock also need barns, a way to dispose of the manure and its not easy to find a slaughterhouse in the region, she said. Fruit also takes a few years to establish.
Vegetables often have an easy market too because they are sold as part of Community Supported Agriculture operations and at local farmers markets.
Burr attends the Bethel farmers market every Saturday and sees the passion for local produce.
“I want to see my neighbors be successful,” she said. “You feel good buying because you’re supporting farmers in your area. You feel good knowing the produce is grown in a manner that’s nutritious.”
Connecticut’s location and support offered by governments in the region have both contributed to the rise of new farmers.
“People looking to see if Connecticut can host them want to come in aggressively because they recognize the area’s buying power,” Burr said, adding these are generally larger operations who recognize the importance of the nearby Boston and New York City markets.
Resources, training and financial assistance offered to farmers are more important factors for the smaller operations just starting out.
Burr said some towns are really embracing new farmers.
There’s a program in Danbury that helps immigrants farm and some towns are providing new farmers with five to 10 acres, such as Sullivan Farm in New Milford. Brookfield also provides hay, she said.
The state also offers training for farm equipment, business planning and community supported agriculture.
One of the things that’s helped new farmers is the co-op approach where a group of farmers get together to share farm equipment or purchase supplies, such as seeds, together to cut down on costs, Burr said.
Orr believes Connecticut is seeing more farmers because of the financial assistance Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has offered.
There’s also more federal money. Burr said the U.S. Department of Agriculture shifted its focus in recent years, offering money to smaller operations across the country and not just the large farms out west. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy also ensured his proposal to help new farmers with their student loans got into the recently passed Farm Bill.
The Agriculture Appropriations Act of 2019 also includes $300 million for the Smith-Lever program, which supports UConn’s beginning farmer outreach.
Encouraging young farmers
Just over the state line, Betsey Ryder, the owner of Ryder Farm in Brewster, has been helping new farmers for years.
She said the organic farm needed the extra hands for its herbs, vegetables and flowers and saw the internship program as a chance to introduce newcomers to the industry without having to make big investments of their own first.
Three intern farmers are there now, either just starting their farming journey or continuing an effort years in the making.
Ben Grinberg, 34, said he lived in Queens for five years and decided he had done everything he wanted to do there.
“I was free to return to a lifestyle I truly enjoy,” he said. “I like traditional ways of life. You don’t get much more down to earth than farming.”
Hannah Miller, 25, of Portland, Ore., has been able to travel around the country through a farming program. She said too many young farmers are more worried about raising the money to start a farm of their own than take advantage of opportunities already available to grow.
She said she appreciates the community and therapeutic elements of farming and that other young farmers should farm however they can if it’s what they enjoy. She suggested they start at other operations or on whatever land they have, instead of thinking about how to get a farm.
“If you’re a grower, be a grower,” she said, encouraging people to stay with it through the struggles.
But even with more younger farmers, the average age of the principal operator is rising. In Connecticut this age is 58.7, up from 57.6 in 2007.
There were 281 principal operators 34 years or younger in Connecticut, or about 5 percent of the total primary operators, according to the 2012 census. This is up from 185 in that age group in 2007.
The bulk of the principal operators in 2012 are 55 or older. There were 3,794 principal operators in this bracket, which accounted for 63 percent of the total principal operators. This is up from 2007 when there were 2,785 in that group, or 57 percent of the total primary operators.
Across the country, farmers are getting older and there aren’t younger farmers to step up and take over when they retire because younger people aren’t choosing farming as a career, according to the USDA.
Another factor for this increase is the retirees who took on farming after leaving their original jobs. The retiree group generally transitioned to farming by expanding their personal gardens and selling some of the flowers or produce they grow, Burr said.
“It becomes this great opportunity for people who want to stay active and be outdoors,” she said.