The most valuable soils for agriculture in the state
My job as state soil scientist for the Natural Resource
Conservation Service is to inventory soils across the state of
Connecticut, keep that inventory of maps and technical
information updated and provide it to
people to help them make better land-use
decisions. I also manage two federal programs that help purchase
development rights to agricultural land.
Here in the Connecticut River Valley are some of the most
valuable soils in Connecticut for agriculture –and some of the
most productive in the United States. People say that
Connecticut farmers farm stones. And, yes, we do have soils
that are stony, but some of the best soils are on the flood
plain where people have been farming for a very long time.
This specific soil, which is a well-drained floodplain soil,
has some unique properties. One is you see this nice dark color.
Every time the Connecticut River floods it deposits some silty,
sandy material and new nutrients. So it’s always very productive
for agriculture. And since it doesn’t flood during the growing
season, so you can plant a crop and get a crop out of it. Plus,
many of the fields on the flood plain have a water table is deep
enough that it doesn’t interfere with plant growth. We call
soils that have those kinds of features prime farmland soils.
The Native Americans farmed here as long as 1000 years ago and
knew that these were some of the best soils in the state.
The Connecticut Valley has the highest concentration of prime
farmland soils in the state. About 45 percent of the Valley and
Lowland is prime or important farmland soils. Those are the best
soils for agriculture with the fewest limitations. Statewide,
only about 28 percent of the state is prime and important
farmland soils that have the highest potential for agriculture.
So that’s one of the challenges: How do we protect that land
base of prime and important soils so that they’ll be available
for future agricultural needs?
“Open space” is a term that I dislike intensely because it
really doesn’t tell you what you’d like that land to be doing. I
would like working agricultural lands to be called just that,
because that puts them in their proper context, because they
need to be managed a certain way. It takes agricultural
equipment and farm workers and an input of goods and services to
make them be productive. Working agricultural land is a
different landscape than forestland and working forests are
different than forests that are just managed for wildlife
habitat. Some people would consider golf courses open space. I
know they need to be managed a specific way. Some people would
consider parking lots open space. I don’t. So, I think it’s
best to define those terms and to call agricultural lands
“agricultural lands,” not call open space or vacant land.
Connecticut has between 11 percent and 12 percent farmland.
Some of it is certainly is owned and farmed by farm families. A
lot of it is leased to farmers. They don’t necessarily own all
the land that they need to use. So, because of the development
pressure in Connecticut, there’s a constant challenge for farmer
to have the land that they need while competing for land with
developers at development prices. So, there are huge challenges
right now in protecting the land base for future generations and
helping agriculture through the transition from what it has been
to what it needs to be. Certainly we’ll need to have that land
base and the best agricultural soils to help agriculture in the
People would traditionally think of an agricultural base in
Connecticut of dairy, they would think of poultry, they would
think of tobacco. And because of international trade agreements
and USDA policies, and so many different factors, that
agriculture is going through a transition nationwide. We’re here
on the front lines, ground zero, as relates to agriculture
transition to what it needs to be to be both profitable and
viable for the future.
Within two hours of Connecticut you have something like, I
don’t know, 20 million potential consumers. So, it seems to me
that there’s a huge potential for direct marketing, added-value
products, what some people would call specialty crops or niche
agriculture. Yes, we probably will always have some large
dairies and some very large agricultural operations here. I
would hope so. Though I think there’s a huge potential to
directly reach consumers. And part of that challenge is to have
consumers that appreciate and value locally grown foods.
The challenge of farmland with potential
Is all the agricultural land that we have being used and how
well is it being used? You will see land that looks like, well,
why isn’t someone farming it? And it can be for a variety of
reasons. It could be being held for speculation for development.
In that case no farmer could get a long-term lease on the land;
or, because they could only get a one-year lease, they’re not
willing to make the investment in removing brush and lime and
fertilizing and planting. So that’s part of the challenge: We
have a lot of land that’s being held and is not available to
people who want to farm it.
We have some other areas where there’s land that could be
farmed but there’s no infrastructure, there’s no affordable
housing for a farmer. There are no buildings to store equipment,
no well for an irrigation system.
And, we also have some municipalities that are not
particularly farm friendly, that actively discourage the active
use of agricultural land. So, some areas in the state there is
great competition among the agricultural community for the land
base that is available. And then in other areas for reasons
that I talked about, it’s not being used.
I would say it’s in areas around the urban centers, around the
first-ring suburbs and second-ring suburbs, that you’re more
likely to see land for which either agriculture has lost its
infrastructure or land that’s is being held for speculation. Or
you have communities that are discouraging its use for
Support for agriculture varies
I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding among the
municipalities of what agriculture is and what agriculture can
provide to them. I would say there is agriculture probably in
all 169 municipalities. Even in cities, there’s community
gardens and urban agriculture. And there are varying degrees of
Towns like Woodstock and Suffield come to mind that are very
supportive of their agricultural community, that see it as
important to their economic development and their quality of
life and all the things that well-managed agricultural land can
provide. And then you have a percentage of towns that are
discouraging agriculture and are not supportive of agriculture,
who don’t understand what it means to keep working lands working
– you know, allowing the farm stand to exist or granting a
zoning variance for a sign for pick-your-own operation.
I would say you would expect that some of the more rural
communities would be more supportive of agriculture and I would
say, in general, they are. But they’ll sometimes…you know . . .
what’s in your own backyard sometimes you forget about. They may
be busy trying to bring in economic development of other sorts
rather than working with their agricultural community and seeing
that as part of their economic development.
How farming benefits a community
Agriculture in the community can bring many things. It
certainly can bring economic development. Think of the number
of people that can visit a pick -your-own operation for
Christmas trees and for strawberries in the summer. Those
people are going to stop and eat at restaurants and go into
stores when they’re leaving at the end of the day. So that needs
to be considered as part of economic development.
And agriculture is important from a quality-of-life
standpoint, when you think about what makes Connecticut special
and feel like home, of having that mix of residential and
agricultural land and forestland and wetlands. The scenic
vistas, I think, are really important too.
Then there’s how people feel about their community and the
sense of identity and protecting our heritage and our cultural
resources. So much of Connecticut’s history is tied to the
agricultural landscape and a number of our historic sights,
archeological sights and historic buildings are tied to that
colonial period and pre-colonial settlement period.
There are other things people don’t talk about that
well-managed agricultural land provides, such as wildlife
habitat and absorbing storm water so that it recharges the
ground water and recharges our aquifers – so that we don’t get
flooding and we have water in the streams in the summertime.
So, agricultural land does that as well.
And then from a perspective of balancing the tax base,
agricultural land doesn’t require as many services as it
provides in taxes.
Finally, there is a growing interest in local foods and
products not only from an economic standpoint but also from a
food security standpoint, and a health and nutrition standpoint.
Food tastes better, it’s fresher, and it’s more nutritious when
it comes from a local source. I think there’s a huge potential
that’s relatively untapped, but the value of locally grown and
produced foods and other agricultural products is starting to be
Knowing your own
Right now, it’s very difficult to identify in a supermarket,
and even in some of the local farm stands, exactly where the
products came from. And I think part of that has to do with
educating the consumer so they’ll want to know where it came
from and that they’ll value it. I think valuing regional foods
and regional agriculture is much more evident in Europe than
here in the United States.
I’d say probably in California you see more of that than you
do here in Connecticut, but I think that trend is growing. So
if we can get restaurants to use Connecticut-grown stuff and
talk about where it came from – what farm, what farmer – and if
people have easy access to the agricultural products, hopefully
they will respond.
Foreseeing sustainable farming
Because of some of the land base that’s protected and because
of the need for fluid milk, there’ll always be some large dairy
farms in Connecticut, and one way to be profitable is to be big.
I would also say that there’s also a great opportunity for the
increase of specialty crops, of fresh fruits and vegetables. In
Connecticut we have a fairly moderate climate, particularly here
in the Connecticut Valley. One of the reasons it’s such a unique
agricultural resource is that it has a longer growing season.
So, we can probably meet a large part of our demand for
strawberries, blueberries, fresh fruits and vegetables, I think,
and added-value products from them,
One of the programs I manage is the Federal Farm and Ranch
Land Protection Program. Basically, Congress and the federal
government decided that our soil resources and our best
agricultural land close to where people live is of national
security and national importance. So there’s a federal
cost-share program to work with states, municipalities and land
trusts to purchase conservation easements on working
We’ve partnered with the State of Connecticut, municipalities,
land trusts to preserve 53 farms in Connecticut, and we’ve
brought $12.6 million into Connecticut to help purchase
development rights. I think there’s an unmet demand for those
landowners and farmers who would like to permanently protect
that land for future generations. One of the challenges because
of land values was how do we get the money and a consistent
source of money? That was one of the things that was very
exciting about Bill 410, which I guess was Public Act 228 – that
it’s going to hopefully provide a consistent source of funding
for municipalities, the state of Connecticut, to be able to
partner together and work with the federal government to protect
farmland, protect those best soils for whatever agriculture is
going to be in the future.
I’ve been in the state since 1983, and I’m very optimistic
about the future for agriculture and for farmland protection in
Connecticut. I would say there is a show of overwhelming
support at all levels, of an understanding of what agriculture
brings to the state and what agriculture can bring to the state
in the future. If I’m wrong, I think we lose a strategic natural
Having a mix here in Connecticut of different landscapes and
land uses, having village centers and residential and cities
with agricultural land, active working lands and forests and
wetlands in-between, to me, is what makes Connecticut feel like
home. And, the quality of life would be diminished if it wasn’t
here. Being able to stop at a farm stand and buy some sweet corn
and run home and put it in a pot and eat it – there’s nothing
like that. And I think everyone deserves that opportunity.