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Connecticut agriculture: an overview

The stateís agricultural history is well documented

Connecticut is not an agricultural state, but itís had a very important agricultural history because in the earliest years, most of the people were farmers. Technology advances helped make working the land easier. Advances in teaching scientific agriculture and in agriculture research encouraged more successes. The development of extension services based on this teaching and research further promoted the development of agriculture and especially horticulture as practiced by many Connecticut residents today.


Rudy Favretti,
Prof. Emeritus Landscape Architecture

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Back in the day, most of Connecticut farmed

Connecticut is not an agricultural state, but itís had a very important agricultural history because in the earliest years, most of the people were farmers, about 90 percent when the first census was taken 1790. 

Farms in 1790 were quite diversified, they werenít specialized the way they are now. People had some cattle, they also had some sheep, perhaps, they also had hogs, they had chickens and they had the whole range. 

And then as we get into the middle of 19th century, instead of 90 percent of the people being engaged in agriculture, youíre already down to about 45 percent of people. And the figure drops very, very fast.

When the railroads come in you have refrigerated cars that also come along after a while and this changes agriculture appreciably because food can be shipped from one area to another and areas can begin to specialize and with all of this technology, it took fewer and fewer people to do the work on the farm and the farms could also get larger and that in a very simplified way is why today we probably have less than 5 percent of the population feeding the whole country, if not a better part of the world. 

So we begin to get changes and also we begin to get more of the specialization that starts to develop Ė dairy farms and poultry farms.

The farms change also because we are getting into the era of technology at that time as well.

But even after the railroads came in and food products could be shipped, Connecticut still had an important role in agriculture.  It was one of the leading states in the production of shade-grown tobacco, for example.  And for many years Connecticut was one of the leaders in the Northeast in the area of poultry production.

There have been a lot of changes in agriculture in the 20th century from post-World War II that have occurred in that period. For example, while perhaps some of the dairy farmers have declined, there has been an increase in horses and even as you drive around the countryside, you see sheep. Connecticut used to be a huge sheep producer back in the days, 200 years ago, because people had to grow sheep for wool.

And in recent years it has been a very important state from the standpoint of the production of bedding plants. The nursery industry and the florist industry and all of these things are parts of agriculture. 

A typical day in the life of a Connecticut farm

The typical day was quite similar to what it is for farming today.  A lot of the work was done by hand.  The cows, maybe a dozen needed to be milked, in those days probably twice a day Ė morning and evening.  And then after that was done, the milk had to be dealt with Ė either made into cheese or butter.

A lot of the milk was made into cheese and a lot of it was exported to cities and other communities where farms did not exist.

And the women of the farm were doing their part too.  They were perhaps working on treating the cheese, because it needs to be treated as it sits on shelves.  They had all the role of tending the gardens and doing the spinning and the weaving and all that sort of thing.

Then it all starts over again in the evening when the milking has to be done again and so on.  And there is no let up, there is a constant cycle.

In the summertime there was the hay to do, there were the crops to till and so on. 

Hay was cut with a scythe. Until you started getting horse-drawn mowing machines and hay rakes for example, and that was a great boon to the farmer, when that occurred.  Before that, the hay was cut by scythe.  You often had a team of men working together, cutting rows of hay.

And then all of this hay had to be turned over so it would dry properly and then of course it had to be raked by hand.  And as I said before when the hay rakes came in it was a very useful device because instead of raking up 2 Ĺ feet to 3 feet wide with a rake, you had a hay rake that could do about three times or four times that width. That was a great boon.

Agriculture education and research expands

The land grant college movement began in the 1860s and this meant that the state colleges could develop programs in teaching a scientific agriculture.  And Connecticutís agricultural college started in 1881, which was later than many.

But that is another factor that changes agriculture considerably, is strong teaching programs in the agriculture, but also strong research programs of agriculture.  You have the research, the teaching and then in 1914, with the Smith Lever act, you get the extension service which is when you began to get the county agents, for example, and the extension specialists at the University, who would go out and work with farm men and women and children through the 4H Club program. This was another way that agriculture and home life and all aspects of life were greatly improved. 

As technology develops, also the breeding of better farm animals comes along at that time. 

The expansion of horticulture

Connecticut has always had a pretty good horticultural industry.  Connecticut has cold winters, but we also have a pretty high percentage of sunny days in the wintertime compared to some other parts of the country.  And so Connecticut became a big producer as did Massachusetts and all of Southern New England in the production of cut flowers.

Carnations for example, survive very well at a cooler temperature, but need as much sunlight as possible.  And so we always have a nursery industry.  But then after the Second World War, there is a big upsurge that comes forth with regard to gardening as a hobby.  I can remember reading an article in Newsweek in the Ď60s that stated that it was the number one hobby for many people.  And with this you get an increase in the bedding plant industry. By bedding plants, Iím talking about the plants that you purchase in flats in the spring like pansies and zinnias and petunias. And today Connecticut is a big bedding-plant producer.

As an area becomes urbanized and you get a lot of house lots and a lot of individual gardens, that increases the demand for this sort of thing.  And so that is why that happened.  It is sort of ironic, we are losing a lot of farm land and we need to be concerned about that, especially as we project into the distant future.  And not only is agriculture important from a dollars-and-cents point of view, but it is also important from the standpoint of open space, open land: it gives the rural character that we characterize to this part of Connecticut. 

As an area becomes urbanized, a lot of things happen.  The park movement develops also, which began in the middle of the 1850s.  Hartfordís Bushnell Park, for example, is the first public park purchased with public funds in the nation.  And of course Central Park was developed at basically the same time and several other parks too.  So that with urbanization you get things like parks and street-tree development and planting. 

An extremely important part of life and itís very heartening to see more monies being spent by the average homeowner on things like bedding plants, perennials, and cut flowers.  Those are all important for the quality of life.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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