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Originally published in

June 9, 2006

How to Support Your Local Farmer

By GEORGE SAPERSTEIN

Op-Ed Contributor      

POMFRET - Toward the end of the "I Love Lucy" television series, which ran from 1951 to 1957, the Ricardo family moved from New York City to "the country" Westport, to be exact and Lucy started raising chickens. From then on, all of America saw Connecticut as "the country."

Oddly enough, that moment marked the beginning of the mass exodus of upwardly mobile New Yorkers to the suburbs of the metropolitan region and the beginning of the end of animal agriculture in this state.

When I moved to Woodstock in 1978 as a large-animal veterinarian, I marveled at the beauty and fertility of Connecticut. But it was immediately obvious that what had happened to farms in Fairfield County during the previous 20 years was sure to creep diagonally to the northeastern part of the state.

Of the approximately 1,000 dairy farms in the state in the late 1970's, 169 remain. But while skyrocketing land values are an acute problem for farmers, the biggest threat to animal agriculture in Connecticut is not development, it's the loss of businesses like slaughterhouses, feed stores, milk processors, veterinarians, tractor dealers and refrigeration technicians that support agriculture. Recently, the owner of Franklin Mushroom Farm in North Franklin announced plans to move the company to Reading, Pa., largely because such businesses are disappearing.

So who's to blame? Aggressive real estate agents? Greedy developers? Consumers who want strawberries in January? While we can try to place blame, it's not productive. The system is what it is, and farmers have struggled to adapt to it.

There's an old saying in New England: "Farmers live poor and die rich." Given the poor profitability of Northeast farming these days, land is no longer the family legacy farmers sell to finance their retirement, the children who inherit sell because there's no money in farming. We all lose out in the end.

Making farming in New England profitable is the only way to make agriculture sustainable. And consumers who care about the quality of food, the way animals are raised and the conservation of farmland have the power to bring farming back to life in this state. Proof of that comes from the recent introduction and success of the Farmer's Cow, a higher-priced milk brand produced by a Connecticut farmers' cooperative, in the face of falling national milk prices.

With a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, my university is collaborating with the University of Connecticut and other New England state colleges to create branded livestock products produced by local farmers for local consumption. The goal is to give consumers the opportunity to support local agriculture directly with their food dollars while enjoying the best fruits of our farmers' labors.

The master brand is called Azuluna, and we are using production methods more typical of 1950 than 2006, getting the animals back outside grazing instead of cutting the feed and bringing it to them in the barn and letting calves raised for veal nurse from cows on pasture rather than confining them and feeding them milk replacer. These kinds of animal husbandry procedures from our grandparents' era create the highest-quality, best-tasting products on the market.

The animals in this program spend their lives with access to fresh air and sunshine while consuming a balanced diet. We are now test-marketing Azuluna pork from pigs rooting in fields, lamb fattened outdoors on the farm of their birth with grain and mother's milk and blue-shelled eggs from chickens that are truly free-range, not simply cage-free, which usually means kept on the floor of the barn instead of in cages.

As these tests prove successful, we are recruiting New England farmers to adopt similar practices and earn premium prices for their products. We'll then encourage these high-quality producers to form a private cooperative and negotiate equitable prices with distributors, helping make agriculture in our region financially sustainable.

State and local governments and Connecticut residents can support farmers in a number of ways. Even in tight budget years, legislators must provide enough money for our vocational agriculture education system, which we depend upon for the next generation of farm owners and employees, and parents should be proud to send their children to these excellent schools.

Local planning and zoning boards should recruit and accommodate businesses that directly support agriculture. For example, if a landowner requests a zoning change from agricultural to commercial for a parcel to build a farm supply store, the proposal should be viewed as supportive of farmers, not as a ploy to sell out to Wal-Mart. State grants, tax incentives and other forms of assistance could be created to attract and retain more of those businesses.

If we want locally produced meats, we need local slaughterhouses and meat cutters, and the state should offer tax breaks, initial financing and training to people interested in creating these kinds of small businesses and pursuing these jobs.

Unfortunately, there's a sense among the agriculture community that it's too late to save our farms and that soon all our meat and dairy products will be trucked in from out of state. But I'm here to say that it's not too late we just need a little more optimism and some good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

George Saperstein is the chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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