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PODCAST: Farm Bill could help diversify CT's agricultural sector

Jan 10, 2024

Connecticut's farming community may be small, but it's a vital part of the state. As the next generation of farmers look to plant their crops, they are having trouble with land access and climate change. A federal farm bill could help.

WSHU's Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror's Lisa Hagen to discuss her article, "CT farmers have a wish list, and the new Farm Bill could help," as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read her story here.

WSHU: Lisa, Connecticut is not known for farming. Why is the new Farm Bill of interest to the state?

LH: That's exactly what I would keep hearing from farmers in Connecticut, and the lawmakers that represent Connecticut, is that people don't typically think of farming and Connecticut as synonymous. And so a lot of the time, lawmakers in Connecticut have not traditionally had spots on the House Agriculture Committee. Joe Courtney was the first one in 100 years when he was on it in 2011. And now, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes sits on it. They have been constantly faced with the same kinds of questions about being there.

But in fact, Connecticut does have a lot of farms. And they’re just very different from other farming states across the country, especially when you compare it to those Midwest regions. Those Midwest states, they are farming for soybeans, and wheat and corn and soy. It's just very different in Connecticut. It's a lot of specialty crops, a lot of diversified farming, so not just focusing on one or two types of crops. And so it's a state where a lot of younger and newer farmers are really trying to break into it. And they want to see themselves reflected in this upcoming Farm Bill.

WSHU: So what is in this 2023 Farm Bill?

LH: We don't know exactly yet. This is the beginning stage. And so I spoke to a bunch of farmers and saw what they wanted. And they have relayed those same concerns and issues to lawmakers. Lawmakers like Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, Joe Courtney and Senator Chris Murphy, and all of them who are taking those concerns and issues and bringing them back to Congress. And we’ll probably start seeing negotiations pretty soon. But again, the two biggest issues I heard constantly were land access and climate resiliency. And so I imagine those will come up in discussions and negotiations and could very well, in fact, be in this upcoming Farm Bill.

WSHU: Well, we have about 5,500 farms in Connecticut, and 381,000 acres, is that not enough? The farmers feel that we need to have more?

LH: I think the bigger issue is access to land. And so what happens is a lot of these farmers want to break into it, I mean, again, Connecticut is a small state, not all of it is suitable for farming. So you’re looking specifically at prime farmland. And so a lot of times, those things exist, and farmers and people trying to break into that industry are competing with a really tough real estate market. And so it's competing against developers, people who have the money to be able to put up a house or a bigger estate on acres and acres of farmland that they have no intention of farming on. And so it's really the access to that.

And then the component that goes with it is farmland preservation. So making sure that farmland that is suitable for farming basically stays in the hands of farmers. And that you know, when that farm, farmer or landowner wants to leave, it could only be used for agricultural purposes. So I think that one of the bigger issues that stem from all this is, hey, there's a lot of land in Connecticut that's good for farming. Let's keep it in those hands.

WSHU: And then there's a lot of pressure from the real estate market in Connecticut. Housing is a big problem in Connecticut, we’re looking for land for more housing. You spoke with Congressman Courtney, does he have any solution for this?

LH: Yeah, he's definitely looking very closely at land access, and also access to capital for farmers. You’re exactly right. I mean, I think when we think of the real estate market, we think of people trying to buy homes, but farmers face the same issues. And so there is no doubt, housing prices are an issue as are affordability and availability in Connecticut. But farmers are trying to make sure that the land that would be good for farming, again, stays in those hands and can be used because a lot of the time a developer or someone can buy that land. Once it's used for whatever purpose it is used for, maybe eventually they’d want to bring it back to a farm or agriculture, but it might be unusable. The soil might not be right anymore.

Congressman Joe Courtney has heard from a lot of the farmers he spoke to, one of them being Susan Mitchell of Cloverleigh Farm in Columbia. I know that it's something that he is going to be keeping a close eye on and trying to make sure ends up in the Farm Bill, and he feels pretty hopeful that it could get some bipartisan support.

WSHU: Now the Farm Bill is a federal legislation. What's the state doing, what are Connecticut lawmakers doing for Connecticut farmers?

LH: Yeah, I think it's always like a two-prong approach. A lot of the time these federal agricultural programs, they’re giving money directly to the state and then the state is figuring out what to do with it. So I think, you know, the state is doing that same thing. As I mentioned, with farmland preservation, they have a specific program that they’re working with landowners who want to preserve it and protect that land for farming purposes only. So that's a big one.

There's also the Connecticut FarmLink, which basically has been described to me as a matchmaking service. And so it's landowners who either just want to get out of the farming game who are retiring, who want to turn that over, and it's basically matching and finding people who are interested in purchasing that land. And so they’ve preserved tens of thousands of acres of land for just farming, they still want to do more, they want to do about 130,000 acres preserved. So we’ve seen all that stuff happening at the state. And I think the issue and what farmers want to see is the federal government really helping to plow money and to build on that support for the state and keep benefiting them and supporting them.

WSHU: Now, resiliency and sustainability are big issues in Connecticut. Is there a push for urban farming in Connecticut as well?

LH: Yes, definitely. I spoke to two farmers, Richard Myers and Shawn Joseph, who are urban farmers in the Trumbull Bridgeport area. That's been a big push for them, they had the same exact issue. They’re first generation farmers, they want to have access to land. They were telling me that when you talk about land access, it is synonymous with rural parts of the state. And so they’re facing those same exact issues.

I think what's a unique potential issue for urban farmers is that a lot of the time they’re trying to fill these holes and voids in food deserts. And so they want to be able to supply food directly to their communities. And specifically for those two who work with Park City Harvest in Trumbull they are trying to grow what they say are culturally appropriate foods. So making sure that the community sees the food that is native to their homelands or where they are from and being able to have access to that. So that has been a huge push. Again, because I think when you think of farming, you think of rural parts of the country. Connecticut is very dense and has a lot of cities. And I think a lot of urban farmers are trying to break into that space.

WSHU: So are we going to see more young farmers coming in? Is the Farm Bill going to do anything to help that?

LH: I think that all depends on if they can include things like land access. There's definitely a growing, changing reflection of demographics in farming. A lot of people I spoke to, are younger people, they’re Black, they’re Indigenous, and they’re Hispanic. They’re trying to break into the space, but they’re confronting hurdles that don't exist for a lot of other farmers in the state.

I think Connecticut farmers no matter who they are and where they are face major challenges, but a lot of them have been on land for centuries, it's been in their families. And so access just isn't an issue for them. It's climate resiliency and a lot of other issues. But for these new and beginning farmers, these are people who have been farming for 10 years or less, they’re having trouble finding land to own or even just to lease. And so I think if they can have access to capital growth, if they can have a little bit of financial assistance, I think you would see a lot more people look into farming as a really viable career path.

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Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU's Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror's big investigative pieces.

WSHU's Ebong Udoma CT Mirror's Lisa Hagen WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: WSHU: LH: