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State policy-makers should focus on agricultural success
Preserving farmland is a matter of history and economic viability

Connecticut lawmaker Donald E. Williams thinks the state has failed in some of its policies in the past and has let valuable farmland succumb to development, not always in the best interests of Connecticut citizens. Williams talks about why we should care about the preservation of farmland and how the state can accomplish this goal.

(CONTINUED BELOW)

Donald Williams, Jr.

President pro tempore

CT State Senate

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Land is a natural economic resource for Connecticut

Agriculture has been very important to the state of Connecticut throughout its history.  At one point, about half the entire land of the state was farmed. We’ve come a long way since then, but one thing has remained constant and that is the economic importance of agriculture. Agriculture is an approximately $2 billion industry in the state of Connecticut. 

Technology has certainly changed in farming.  However, there’s still a need for land, and we have to take a look at land as a natural resource, not just simply as vacant, open space waiting for development.  Land has been an economic resource for agriculture and for the state of Connecticut. 

We’ve seen many changes in terms of agriculture having to adapt to development. A lot of farms that have remained economically viable have been encroached upon by housing developments. And folks will complain about the odor of cow manure, or chicken manure, things that naturally go with farms and have for hundreds of years.  But, that situation hasn’t come because of the practices in agriculture.  The situation has come because of the encroachment, the development, which we have seen at a dramatic pace in the state.

Unfortunately, I think, in Connecticut as well as elsewhere, we’ve looked at the changing patterns of development – housing developments, business, commercial, strip mall development, etc. – as progress, as a natural evolution in the course of our communities.  

Unfortunately, in years past we’ve had more economic incentives through property taxes for towns to develop farmland where the land becomes improved, you put structures on it, you put businesses or homes on it, and you have a more significant tax base that generates more revenue for the town.  So, there’s actually been a disincentive from a town tax policy point of view to preserve farmland. 

We know now, looking back, that we lost a great deal of farmland and agricultural land that should have been preserved.  Luckily we did step in, a few decades ago to begin a program of preserving farmland.  But, even though we have made good faith efforts, Connecticut continues to lose farm land at a faster rate than any other state in the country. 

It’s very important that we pay attention to agriculture, because I think in recent years agriculture has not been given the credit that it’s due in the state of Connecticut – either as an economic force that contributes $2 billion dollars to the state economy or as a cultural force that connects us with our history and our heritage. 

So, we put together a task force of legislators and citizens, advocates in the agricultural community, to come up with ideas to help preserve our farmland and do a better job of that in the future, and to do the important work of ensuring that agriculture is economically viable in the future.  The two have to go hand in hand for the preservation of agriculture.

Staunching the loss of farmland to developers

Farmland preservation funding has been dependent upon the state allocating a certain amount of bond money each year. Sometimes that’s been forthcoming, sometimes it’s not been.  As a result, there has not been a consistent policy or program to preserve the farms.  We’ve actually lost the opportunity to preserve farms because we could not get the funding to close the deal.  We’ve had farmers willing to put their land into trust, to sell the development rights, and yet the state has not been able to come forward with the funds in a timely manner to do that.  As a result, they’ve had to sell off to developers.  That’s a tremendous loss for the state. 

This year we were able to successfully pass legislation that, for the first time, has put together a pay-as-you-go system.  A fee on certain land documents recorded, will contribute about $6 million to $7 million each year for farmland preservation, and another $6 million to $7 million to open space preservation, so that we can have a steady, reliable funding source every single year. 

Our goal is to have not only the stable year-to-year funding we’ve achieved with this year’s legislation but also to continue with bonding that can provide $10 million or more per year.  If we can live up to both of those commitments, then I’m confident we’ll be able to preserve the farmland that’s necessary in Connecticut.

I can say that if we were to be able to put together $15 million to $20 million a year for farmland preservation on an annual basis and live up to that, that would be a commitment unlike any we’ve seen in the state of Connecticut.   It might not meet all of our dreams and expectations, but it would take us far down the road to preserving the farms that we must preserve at this point.

We need to do a much better job of helping agriculture in terms of marketing so it’s economically viable.  And, then, connecting that to town planning and municipal planning so that when municipal planners drive by corn fields they don’t see just vacant land for development but understand it’s an economic resource for the town. 

Developing state policy

We need to change state policy; we need change town policy. I was first selectman of a town before becoming state senator and I remember the last real estate boom in the 1980s when I was a selectman.  We were looking at changing our planning and zoning laws. And, there was tremendous resistance to any change that would encourage cluster housing, for example, and preserve open space –  just because we’ve never done it like that before. 

I think we need to move to more creative development strategies so that we don’t have continued Levittown development that just chew up acreage and really don’t provide the type of communities where people are connected, which have worked so well in decades past. 

We have to have an economic policy that realizes that when it comes to business and industrial development, let’s put it in concentrated areas connected to transportation infrastructure.  Right now we’ve embarked on a policy that encourages sprawl development, chases business and industry out of our urban areas that are traditionally connected to that transportation infrastructure out into the suburbs, out into the rural areas where it’s not unusual now to find factories or office parks. 

That’s the wrong way to go, and especially with the energy crunch that we’re facing right now, the transportation crisis that we have in Southwestern Connecticut that’s ready to come to other parts of the state.  We have to be much smarter in those types of development. 

All of that speaks to being smarter about preserving farm land and open space.  If we can take the steps that we need to take to have the economic development concentrated in those areas . . . . I mean, they had this figured out 150 years ago.  You know, you concentrate your factories, your business centers. You locate them near those hubs for transportation at the time. It was either on a river or the railroads coming in.  Today it would be major interstate connections. But, we need to revitalize those rail connections for both passenger and freight. If we do that, then it’s much easier to have the sensible kind of development that will preserve farmland and open space, with less pressure from sprawl and pushing our development into rural areas. 

Helping farmers go to market

We also know that in order to have viable agriculture, we’ve got to connect agriculture to markets.  We’ve got to do a much better job of marketing, whether it’s horticulture, which has done very well, or our traditional farm or other agricultural products. 

Let’s take advantage of the fact that we’re smack dab in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of the United States. We’ve got New York City to the south, Boston and Providence.  Also the New England market and the greater New York/New Jersey markets.  We’re right here in the middle of all that with a lot of population, a lot of tremendous restaurants and a great opportunity for connecting agriculture to the markets.  We haven’t done a very good job of doing that in the past.  We’ve left farmers on their own to make their own connections.  I think with a revitalized department of agriculture, we can make progress to that end in the future. 

We understand the importance of the tax credits and tax policies we have on the books right now that provide benefits for farmers.  We understand not to backslide there on any tax reforms in the future.  At the same time, we know that agriculture is a tough, tough business.  When you depend on the weather – whether you have a wet season or a dry season or whatever – to make ends meet, it’s a little unpredictable.

What we can do is help farmers – not only connecting them to the markets in terms of the outreach in the Connecticut growing programs and those types of marketing efforts – but we can help connect farmers to other farmers so that they can become the entrepreneurs. 

I’m thinking of an example in Eastern Connecticut, something called The Farmer’s Cow, which is a consortium of dairy farmers who were taking a look at the price they were being paid for milk by wholesalers and realizing that they were never going to get ahead.  They were not going to be able to survive if they went down that path for the foreseeable future. 

So, what they decided, “We need to get together. We need to figure out how we can cut out that middle man, how we can become the entrepreneurs.  And, they’re in the process of establishing a Connecticut brand of milk that will spell out to consumers that these are the farms, right here in Connecticut, where this milk came from.  And, I think what they will find is what we already know from certain surveys: The public wants to buy locally grown products.  People will even pay a little bit more, sometimes a lot more for products that they know are local and are higher in quality.  That’s also been proven by surveys that we’ve taken.

We can help facilitate those types of efforts and relationships.  In terms of economic policy, when a consortium of farmers comes together like that, we ought to take them as seriously as an economic force and as a business enterprise as we would any other group of business folks coming in with a bricks-and-mortar proposal.

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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