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Marketing perspective predicts sustainable future
Many trends pave the way for continuing markets for Connecticut farmers
Connecticut is second among New England states in gross receipts for its agricultural products. The state also has a significant number of nationally notable producers of products from mushrooms to oysters. The growing consumer interest in local foods, the increase in niche markets for organic and heirloom products, and farmers’ growing ability to market their products directly to the consumer and other buyers bodes well for the future.. (CONTINUED BELOW)

Rick Macsuga

Marketing representative

CT Dept. of Agriculture

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Agricultural outlook is good in Connecticut

 Agriculture in Connecticut today is in pretty good shape. There are 3,800 active farms in the state with about 38,000 acres in production. That covers every aspect of agriculture, from greenhouse to shell fishermen to orchards, farm markets, dairies.

USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] figures show that Connecticut is actually second in gross receipts for agricultural products in New England, right behind Maine and right ahead of Vermont. Every year when the statistics come out, Connecticut is in the top three, which is pretty surprising. Most people don’t think of us as an agricultural powerhouse, but we are.

We have some outstanding statistics to back that statement up with. We have the fifth largest mushroom farm in the country. We have the largest rhododendron grower in the country, the eighth largest producer of pears, second largest producer of oysters, tenth largest producer of maple syrup. And then, when we get into New England statistics, we really round the charts out with first in tomato production, mushrooms, peaches, pears, poultry. So it’s just amazing to people that we have that much agriculture right here in the small state of Connecticut.

In addition to being diverse, the agricultural community here is keeping up with the latest trends and working within a very, very productive marketplace. Being in a small state with good access, good highways, and being so close to New York and Boston, our markets are right here.

Local, organic food phenomena are growing

There’s a lot of work going on right now throughout the state to promote Connecticut-grown and locally grown, and it seems to be working. We definitely have a portion of the population that’s always been very interested in buying from their local producer, and that trend has actually ballooned out into nontraditional areas, such as the Farm to School program, through which we’re trying to get more local schools to buy direct from farmers. We’re also working with large grocery store chains to buy direct from farmers, and farmers’ markets are growing at an incredible rate. You know, in the mid-1980s, there were 20 farmers’ markets. Today there are more than 70. People understand that their food system is right here in our back yard, and they definitely want to protect it and use it.

One of the biggest challenges is really having people understand the seasonality of product. You know, you can get strawberries year-round at a grocery store now, blueberries, peaches, all that sort of thing; but you really have to understand that some of those products are very seasonal here in Connecticut. We also want to make sure that people understand our products that are year-round, like milk, eggs, mushrooms, seafood, make sure they don’t forget about those things in the traditional farming season, the spring and summer months. So it’s basically education, both on the farmer’s end and the consumer end.

The organic industry is an industry that has gotten unbelievable growth, compared to any other industry in the country. The organic industry is growing anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent a year, and anybody would be happy with those types of numbers. In Connecticut, we have about 36 to 50 organic farms, so that’s a small number. The majority of them are doing direct marketing, and every one of them is in great demand. Every farmers’ market is looking for an organic grower. They’re everywhere in the state. We have one organic farm right in the downtown area, city of New Britain. We have them in very rural areas, but they are everywhere and it is definitely a growth industry.

View from the rear-view mirror

Statistics suggest that the peak of Connecticut agriculture was probably in the 1920s, with over 1 million acres in production and, I believe, around 30,000 farmers. Those numbers have changed quite a bit.

Our crops have also changed a bit. When you look back at the statistics, you see farms that were growing a lot of products we don’t see here in Connecticut anymore: carrots, lima beans, spinach. The beef industry was much bigger, and there were a lot more broiler-type poultry farms in the state. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, pumpkins and Christmas trees were minor crops. Now they’re major crops. And now we see a lot more direct marketing in the state: pick-your -own, farmers’ markets, farm stands.

Even the varieties of apples we eat today has changed. Back in the 1920s and 30s, during the peak of agricultural activity in Connecticut, Baldwin was the No. 1 apple in the state. Today there are very few Baldwin trees. There’s an unbelievable number of new varieties present here – McIntosh, Empire, Delicious, Fujis – and that’s because of market trends. The whole orchard industry has changed quite a bit with just the change in technologies and varieties they produce. They’ve really gotten into diversifying the number of varieties and expanded into nectarines, peaches, plums, Asian pears, besides their apples.

It’s interesting that because of technology and growing techniques, we’re in many cases producing more than we did back then. So it’s kind of unique that we may have less acreage but our production is still very high. The fruit trees provide better fruit and more fruit. Cows, because of breeding and farmer techniques and technologies, produce more milk. Chickens lay more eggs because of better breeding and conditions in the coops.

Some of the industries that we’ve really seen growth in is the green industries. The nursery and bedding plant industries are just incredible here in Connecticut. The highest producing agricultural receipts come from the green industry today.

The tobacco industry has diminished but is now holding steady. Our shade tobacco industry is very unique here in Connecticut. The tobacco produced here is produced nowhere else in the world – this type of quality and flavor and taste – and it’s still highly sought after. The numbers have gone way down, but they’re definitely making probably more money with less acreage. Tobacco is one of the cash crops in the state that are doing very well.

The dairy industry, however,  seems to be the industry that has diminished the most – even since I started with the Department of Agriculture 20-plus years ago. When I started, I think there were probably around 350 dairy farms in the state. Today there are approximately 180, so that has really been a big change.

We’ve been in the aquaculture business since the 1800s, basically harvesting of oysters. Oystering, under state statute, is considered farming because they are actually harvesting the oysters and then replanting the seed. Amazingly, Connecticut is the second largest producer of oysters in the country. There are about 48,000 acres of oyster beds in Connecticut, which is pretty amazing. When you look at some of the bigger ag industries out there, when you talk California crops, we’re talking the 40,000 acre range. So it’s pretty neat to have that right here in our back yard. We are No. 1 in price per oyster, and our oysters are sought-after throughout the country and the world. The growing conditions in our region are very, very good. Even with all the development along Long Island Sound the whole industry is thriving.

Today’s lay of the land

We have farms in every county in the state, but there are definitely counties that are stronger in agricultural base than others. Fairfield County is probably the least productive, except for aquaculture. That is their strong point.

Windham County is really our dairy county. The Lebanon, central Windham County, area has still got a very, very strong dairy industry going.

Hartford County, the Connecticut River Valley,  is definitely the vegetable valley in the state. Most of the big vegetable farms in the state are located along the Connecticut River on the flood plains. Very productive land, it can never been built on. It’s kind of the saving grace of agriculture in that part of the state.

Middlesex is still very strong in orchard and greenhouse industries. Litchfield County is still pretty strong with direct farm marketing, dairy and some livestock industries. New London is still very strong with poultry, fishery industries. Mushroom farming is actually very big. We have one of the largest mushroom farms in the country. In Tolland County, we’re still very strong with livestock, dairy, greenhouse, and still have some very good orchards country left there.

In New Haven County, agriculture is still very strong, believe it or not, with a lot of vegetable farms just north of New Haven. Very fertile valley there. We still have lots of aquaculture going on and a fair amount of orchards. Another big industry in New Haven County is the bedding plant industry, which is huge, largest in New England and at the cutting edge of greenhouse technologies – right here in New Haven County.

Types of farms and farmers

Farms in Connecticut are very diverse. We have large vegetable production farms, what we call truck farms, that grow just for the wholesale market, just grow for outlets like supermarkets. We also have very small niche farms that are growing heirloom tomatoes organically or specialty basils for the restaurant industry.

We’re seeing a lot more direct-market type farms, where the farmer is actually doing the direct sales.

We have some very large farms and we have some very, very small farms. The average size farm, I believe, is around 90 acres. We have some very large dairies, the largest being 3,000 cattle; the smallest being two or three cows for making custom cheese. So there is room for everyone.

There are farms that are very, very successful in the state and there are some farms that are struggling, but overall we’re in very, very good shape. We’re about 50-50 on the number of farmers in the state between full-time and part-time, and we’re right in line with the rest of the nation. A lot of our part-time farmers, on the off season, if they’re fruit and vegetable farmers, are taking other jobs to make ends meet

We have very few farmers coming into the state buying that 200-acre farm, but we do have farmers coming into the state buying that 10- to 15-acre farm and doing direct marketing. We have families, which is very important, in which mom and dad are the original farmers and the kids are stepping into place. I know of farmers whose kids I met when they were two or three years old and now are actually running the farm. That’s a really cool trend.

We’re seeing a lot of women involved in farming, and husband and wife teams in farming. The husband may be concentrating on doing the row crops or the feeding of the cattle and raising of the cattle, and the wife may be in charge of the marketing of that crop, selling it direct to consumers, so that next generation is important. We do have a very good backdrop for that through our agricultural education through high school and then the School of Agriculture at UConn. There is a mechanism in place to keep those farmers here, and it can be profitable here in Connecticut because our marketplaces are so good.

We’re working with some of the minority growers in the state. We’re trying to get more new immigrants in the state to farm. There are challenges involved, but we have a Jamaican farmer in Bloomfield who is growing traditional Jamaican crops. He grows callalu, which is Jamaican type spinach. He also grows Scotch bonnet peppers and calabasa, which looks like our winter squash. He’s very successful. We have large West Indian populations in urban areas that haven’t seen these crops since they were home. This farmer brings them to a farmers’ market and, I mean, literally can dump a truckload out and sell it within minutes. It’s kind of neat.

But still, there are not many minority farmers in the state, a handful at best. We’re still working on the challenges.

Farmland preservation

I believe there’s about 27,000 acres right now in the farmland preservation program. It’s a very important program. We are buying the development rights to that farm: What we’re really buying is the production part of that farm, setting it aside for future generations, either farms and/or open space. In a state our size, it is extremely important because once this land comes out of production, chances are it’s not going to go back in. It is very important that we have a chunk of that preserved for future generations and our own food security system.

The nice thing about farmland preservation is that farmers could potentially sell that land for a lot more to developers, but they want to keep it open space and farming. So we usually get it at a very, very reasonable price, which is key. I mean, farmers are a funny breed. They really believe in their land, and their production, and their way of life: It’s not the almighty dollar all the time.

Having farmland in production is part of our tourism, the rural character of Connecticut. And it’s very important to our local food system and our food security. I keep on coming back to that. It is important to have food produced right here in Connecticut, and I think people really realize that.

Growth potential

There is the potential for growth in the extension and diversity of crops in the off seasons. It’s something we’re doing here in the state. A lot more farmers are using techniques and technologies to produce fruits and vegetables and other crops much earlier than in the past. Basically, the farmer is using some very simple techniques, using plastic and row covers. For the past eight years, we’ve actually had commercial sweet corn in the state before the 4th of July. We’ve had it before New Jersey and New York, which is incredible.

Famers are starting crops in greenhouses and high tunnels to get a jump on the market, to get that product to the market earlier, to get that product to the market in better quality. We are seeing greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, some peppers.

I have a couple farmers growing winter raspberries now. An incredible crop. Going into a greenhouse in March and picking fresh raspberries is kind of a trip.

When that will become a norm here, I don’t know. One of the things holding us back is that the Canadian market in greenhouse technologies is incredible, and they’re heavily subsidized. That’s really kind of putting a pinch on our growth in the large market.

Specialty crops fuel farmers’ markets

At Lyman Orchards we have jostaberries. A jostaberry is a cross between, I believe, a currant and a gooseberry. They make a jam out of them that’s found nowhere else found in the state. Some other really unique niche crops in the state are heirlooms. Heirloom tomatoes grown by organic growers are just unbelievably varied in color, size and texture. They are definitely grown for their flavor. We’re seeing farmers who are going back to antique apple varieties because they make a very good cider or they produce a very good pie. We’re even seeing niche markets in the green industry, where we’re experimenting with different types of bedding plants, changing their colors and the seasonality.

Niche marketing is very important. People are looking for those new trends, those new flavors, and in many cases old flavors being reinvented. It’s the slow-food generation: They actually look for food that tastes good and is a little bit unique. It may not be the same shape. It may not be same color. That’s what makes our farmers’ markets so successful – everything is different shapes, sizes and flavors

When I started back in the early 1980s, we had around 20 farmers’ markets in the state. Today we have more than 70. We’ve had some very extraordinary clusters of farmers’ markets appearing in some nontraditional agricultural parts of the state. Fairfield County was on fire throughout the ’90s with farmers’ markets. Everybody wanted them. They were all very successful. New Haven is the hotbed right now: Just all of a sudden everybody in New Haven is into farmers’ markets and wanting local foods

We also are seeing a great diversity at farmers’ markets. They traditionally sold fruits and vegetables. Now we’re seeing egg producers, honey producers, maple syrup people, people with cut flowers, farm bakeries. We have a couple of people producing their own beef, having it processed under USDA regulations, and selling it at farmers’ markets. So farmers’ markets have really diversified. Every year I say they’ve peaked, and every year I’m wrong.

Farmers’ markets are pretty spread across the board, demographically and economically. We run a program called WIC, which is Women, Infant and Children Nutritionally at Risk. We give young moms and kids vouchers and they can redeem them for Connecticut-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. That’s really opened up a lot of markets in some very urban areas.

And then we have our upscale markets throughout the state – Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, West Hartford – where the people there are just very, very knowledgeable about the latest food trends. You can find those food trends at the farmers’ markets, and people really go to the markets. It’s almost a social event.

We have a new trend with city downtown councils, as in the city of Waterbury. Their local merchants association begged us to start a farmers’ market there and it has been incredibly successful. They do it on a Thursday, right on the town green. They have the support of the city administration and the merchants’ association members stay open late on Thursdays. So the farmers’ market is just another draw to the downtown area.

Essex did the same thing with its local merchants’ association. Their local merchants’ association is the sponsor of the farmers’ market in Essex, and they think it’s another draw to the Essex downtown.

The cost of business is more expensive in Connecticut, and for some of the large wholesale-type farms that can be a major challenge because we are competing in a global market. That’s why a lot of my farmers have scaled down and gone to direct farmer marketing, cut out that middle man, don’t deal with the big competition, sell direct to the consumer who is definitely looking for your product.

Marketing makes a difference

The women that I’m working with in agriculture are basically on the marketing end of it, doing the direct marketing through farmers’ markets, roadside stands, or dealing direct with buyers. Their numbers are increasing and in many cases it’s the reason why the farm is successful. I have farmers out there that are incredibly good growers but do not market their product very well. By using a team effort – husband and wife, wife and husband, whatever it may be – they have a successful farm.

The marketing part is extremely important here in Connecticut, a small agricultural state, competing in the world market. Letting people know that food was produced here in their state is important. Farmers are keeping in touch with the trendy markets and the niche markets: Why are you buying it from me and not from the guy down the street or the guy across the ocean?

Some of the good marketing approaches I’ve seen are farmers that have gotten into markets using technologies like the early corn crop or the raspberry crop in March. Some of the other ones are doing direct marketing, scaling down on their wholesale accounts and maybe taking some acreage out of production but actually making more money with direct sales, which takes a load off the farm’s labor costs.

Some of the other marketing trends that have been developed here in the state are the new mushroom varieties that we’re seeing, like the portabellas and the maitakes and shitakes. Also agritourism and marketing to people in New York City. We have a lot of people from New York City that will come to Connecticut to visit our agriculture.

The Farmer’s Cow is a coop of dairy men who are going to market their own milk. There is another one called Coag, which is an organic coop. What they’re doing is dealing with upscale grocery stores and upscale restaurants and combining a group of organic growers to meet the demands of those facilities. A chef may know a farmer who grows heirloom tomatoes, but he says, “Well, that’s fine and dandy but I’m also looking for garlic, carrots, celery, herbs, and some other things.” By combining efforts with other organic farms, farmers can get into those markets. But coops are still a pretty small phenomenon here in the state.

Looking into the future

Agriculture in Connecticut is in surprisingly good shape. Legislatively, more money is being devoted to agriculture – more moneys for farmland preservation, more moneys for marketing of Connecticut-grown. We’re in a lot more nontraditional marketplaces than we’ve ever been in. Local school systems are buying direct from farmers. We have college and universities that are big-time excited about buying from local growers. Hotels and conference centers are buying from local farms. We have co-ops being developed to produce local milk and deliver it directly to the consumer.

We have challenges ahead with labor and costs of production; but overall, Connecticut agriculture is in a growth spurt at this moment.

If funding stays as is and/or increases, I think agriculture will be fine. I believe we’re seeing that farmers who are making a go at it today will make a go at it tomorrow. Many of them are in place right now where the next generation will take over – which we think is pretty exciting – to have that next generation on the farm. So, in the next 25 years I think more moneys will become available for preserving farmland and I think we will probably stay pretty competitive in our total acreage in production.

My gut feeling is that local foods will become stronger in the future. I think as our population becomes better educated about what we produce here, I think there will be greater demand for it. We’re already seeing that, and I believe that trend will continue. I don’t think one day they’re going to say, “I can get my peaches for a nickel cheaper down the street, I’m gonna buy them from Chile. I think they’ll say, I’m gonna pay that extra nickel and buy it from Connecticut.” I really believe that will happen.

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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