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Connecticut farmers farm more than stones
Connecticut River Valley soil is among the best for farming

Well-drained flood-plain soils have excellent properties for agriculture that have been recognized since Native Americans farmed the land. In fact, the highest concentration of prime and important farmland and the state is found in there. The challenge is how to preserve the land for future agricultural production. Soil scientist Kip Kolesinskas explains why he is very optimistic about the future of agriculture and farmland protection in Connecticut.     . (CONTINUED BELOW)

Kip Kolesinskas

Soil Scientist

USDA

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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?

Defining terms

“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 future.

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 agriculture.

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 support. 

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 recognized. 

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 agricultural lands. 

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 resource.

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.

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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