A farmer revives a lifelong passion
I grew up in a mill town, Naugatuck,
Connecticut. When I was a kid, I really wanted to farm,
probably, since I was four or five years old. I think that was
when I had my first gardens.
I went to agriculture school at Penn
State in the middle of the dairy crisis. Farms were going
bankrupt left and right, and people said you canít farm Ė forget
about it. So I looked for other ways to be involved in
agriculture that maybe wouldnít be production farming. I was a
plant scientist for a long time, and worked in laboratories on
plant molecular biology. In the late í90s, I became aware of
these small-scale organic farms that were doing the kind of work
I liked and were making a go of it economically.
Crop diversity is one of the most
important principles of organic farming. We grow 40 different
crops from about half a dozen plant families Ė brasca crops like
broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, all kinds of cucurbits like
summer squash and winter squash, solinacious crops like
tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant. We keep them together and
then we move them around and we confuse the pests that way.
Economically viable models for
organic farming generally involve using organic methods and then
directly selling your harvest to people in the community. When I
saw that, I saw a way I could farm. I just, cold turkey, quit
what I was doing and went back as an apprentice. I worked for a
buddy of mine for a couple of years on a farm he was getting
going, then worked for another farmer, learning his system. I
managed farms for a nonprofit organization then started my own
business about three and a half years ago.
The reception weíve had is
phenomenal. Iíve never advertised, and every year Iíve sold out
the community-supported agriculture program we do. They love the
fresh vegetables. They love the fact that weíre organic. They
love bringing their kids and going out and picking flowers,
herbs and strawberries.
Weíre happy to have them come here
because theyíre making a commitment to the farm for the whole
season. That commitment to the farm allows us to grow the wide
range of crops we do for a whole season, rather than
concentrating on sweet corn or tomatoes.
There arenít too many people getting
into agriculture and making a living at it full-time. I think
this model works in that way. We could have dozens of farms like
this in the state because weíve got an interested population.
Thereís a lot of demand for local produce in general, organic in
particular, and if we save the land, we could be doing a lot of
these farms. I find that really exciting.
These are the things that a farmer needs
They say a farmer needs to be an
electrician, a plumber, a carpenter, a mechanic. Those things
are all true, but I think at the core, a good farmer needs to
really understand the biology of the soil and the crops heís
growing, and needs to understand the market and the financial
situation involved in growing these crops. All those skills Ė
the plumbing, the mechanics, the carpentry Ė Iím lousy at and I
admit it. But I have a good understanding of soil, I have a good
understanding of my crops, and I have a good understanding of my
And I can cover my weaknesses. When I
have to wire something, I know who to call. If the power
steering goes on the tractor, I know who to call. Those are
costs Iím prepared for rather than skills Iím trying to master.
I think what young and beginning
farmers need in this state is a secure source of agriculturally
valued land. And thatís something weíre sorely lacking. Land
values in this state have skyrocketed, and it has nothing to do
with the lands ability to produce food or any other agricultural
product. We need to stop that trend immediately.
Agricultural land has incredible
value to our state, in terms of its scenic beauty, in terms of
wildlife habitat, water quality, and the fact that weíre a small
state with lots of people and should be thinking about our
food-security here. You go to the store now, things are from
Peru, Guatemala, wherever. That is not a sustainable system
unless we come up with some really interesting answers to our
energy situation. The Connecticut River valley has some of the
best farmland in the world and we have a decent growing climate.
Weíve got a long winter but weíve got six, seven solid months
when we could be growing some real world-class crops.
The second thing any new farmer would
need is several years of training. The best place to get
training for production agriculture is on a farm. Iím convinced
of that. Iíve been to agriculture school and that was a great
theoretical framework, but the nuts and bolts Ė a lot of the
biology you learn by seeing and doing Ė needs to happen on a
farm. We need to support the farms that are offering
apprenticeship opportunities for people.
The third thing a new farmer would
need is access to capital, some source of secure credit. Organic
farmers generally work as apprentices, which doesnít allow them
to accumulate a lot of capital to put into a business. I started
this farm on my life savings, and I blew it all in three months.
Then I started maxing out credit cards, and then I asked my
father for some money, and thatís how I financed the farm. You
need tens of thousands of dollars to start a farm on an
economically viable scale full-time. Thatís a place where state
agencies could really help out a lot, with capital Ė loans or
grants to get farms going.
My business is on firmer ground, but
I wouldnít call it solid. Iím still working to get back on my
feet financially from the investments Iíve had to make. Iíve
been surprised at how much Iíve had to put into the business
every year. You get more shares, you need a bigger truck, you
need more tractors to cover more ground, you need to hire more
people. Things just kind of add up,
The future of agriculture, the future of Connecticut
Iím optimistic for some forms of
agriculture in this state, for sure. I think itís just a matter
of changing from a commodity-based agriculture to a
direct-marketing approach. The more producers that make that
switch, the better off Connecticut agriculture will be because
we have a lot of people here who want to support their local
agriculture, who want local food. If we can tap into those
people and give them good products and good produce from our
farms, then weíre going to do okay as farmers. So, Iím
optimistic in that sense.
But Iím afraid of what weíre doing to
land in this state. Iím crushed by it. If you go down Route 7
and you look Ė there was a farm field that was growing sweet
corn three years ago, now thereís a sign that says ďPremium
topsoil for sale.Ē Theyíve scraped the topsoil off. Theyíre
going to build a big building there.
Itís greed, and itís
shortsightedness, and it really has to stop or weíre going to
find ourselves in a situation where weíre living in a place that
we donít like anymore.
Thereís more than just money at stake
here, itís what quality of life do we want to choose for
ourselves? The sad part is weíre choosing that for our children
and their children. So we really ought to think with a little
longer vision about where we want to see the landscape go, and
our food production and the agricultural heritage we have in
this state. Do we protect that or do we want to see it go away?
I think thatís a big decision we have
to make soon. It shouldnít be a tough sell.
Who owns the land?
Itís been hard for me to say I might
not ever own a farm. I have a lease on 20 acres, and Iím very
happy about that. I have a good relationship with Sunny Valley
Preserve and the Nature Conservancy, the land owners, so Iím
able to farm and itís worked out okay. But there is something
about owning land that itís hard to deny. Itís an important
thing. So what Iíll do down the road, I donít know.
The big problem with leasing is
knowing where the landís going down the road. I have an ideal
situation because the Nature Conservancy and Sunny Valley
Preserve want to see this land in agricultural production. Other
producers on rented land are not so fortunate. That is a big
problem in agricultural production systems because investments
you need to make in land Ė in time and machinery and compost and
fertilizers and all these things, especially in organic systems
Ė are often two, three years before you do a crop. If you only
have a one- or two-year lease, youíre forced into a
short-sighted economic take on the land.
Although Iím happy with my lease, Iím
sort of boxed in to this piece of land. I donít really see any
additional land that I can go to, so Iíve been trying to look
inward and try to be more intensive on the land that I manage.
Still, I donít have access to any more land so I canít grow the
business further, which is too bad because we sold 225 shares
this year, we have a waiting list of 100 people. And we havenít
As I said before, the future of
farming in Connecticut is going to hinge on our ability to
convert from a commodity-based, anonymous agricultural system to
a local, relationship-oriented take on farming. There are all
kinds of ways to do that Ė farmersí markets,
community-supported-agriculture farms, natural food stores that
identify Connecticut grown products so consumers can say,
ďThatís the local one. I want that.Ē Then they know that theyíre
supporting farmers and their efforts to stay on the land in
We just need to connect those people,
get the farmers on the land, get the word out there, and I think
itíll take off.