CT farmers have a wish list. The new federal Farm Bill could help
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CT farmers have a wish list. The new federal Farm Bill could help

Jan 31, 2024

Susan Mitchell hopped onto her tractor on an overcast day in early May to start the early stages of planting summer squash and zucchini for the third growing season on her farm in Columbia.

She laid three rows of black plastic mulch to help with moisture retention and weed control as two of her workers, Naomi Ford and Sarah Medeiros, assisted from the field. Mitchell said they would later punch holes into the plastic to transplant the plants.

Those crops are two of the many vegetables, herbs and flowers that Mitchell grows on her certified organic farm where people can buy a "share" and directly purchase food from her Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

She shares the land with her partner, Josh Carnes of Ramble Creek Farm, who raises cattle, chicken and breeding pigs and mostly sells at farmers markets. As Mitchell and her team prepped three beds for the vegetables, they worked to a distant soundtrack of mooing cows, eager to more freely roam once Carnes builds a new fence.

As a first-generation farmer, Mitchell transitioned from a high school science teacher to agriculture, which led her to eventually start Cloverleigh Farm in 2014. She ran it on several leased properties before ultimately ending up on four acres of her current farmland in 2021.

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Her journey as a new and beginning farmer — those who have operated a farm for 10 years or less — is reminiscent of the experiences of others across Connecticut who are trying to break into an industry largely dominated by older, experienced farmers and family-run operations. But many of them are still struggling to find land suitable for farming that is also affordable amid a tough real estate market where much of their competition comes from developers.

Farmers like Mitchell want Congress to tackle land access as well as issues like climate resiliency and sustainability in the 2023 Farm Bill, a wide-ranging piece of legislation that authorizes funding for nutrition and agricultural programs. They believe support on that front could help fill the inevitable void as farmers move on or retire.

"A lot of farmers are leaving the field in the next 20 years," Mitchell said. "Who's going to get that land? We want to be able to see that next generation who might not have institutional connections or knowledge" like urban growers, farmers who are Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, and others who have been "historically and systematically disenfranchised."

"Farming is place-based," she added. "If you don't have a place to grow whatever you’re producing, you can't have a business."

The Farm Bill has traditionally been geared more toward major farming states, like in the Midwest, particularly those with massive commodity farms producing crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.

Connecticut and the New England region, meanwhile, have a very different agricultural landscape, climate and topography where farmers largely focus on specialty crops and more diversified produce.

"We have smaller farms compared to the vast majority of the country," said Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. "Any time they work on the Farm Bill, the Northeast is unique, and we really need to have those special considerations for producers that are smaller, entry level."

"We could do a lot more work in supporting new and beginning farmers," she added. "We have more and more farmers from BIPOC communities and underserved communities and urban areas [that] I think are critically important to our food systems, especially in small states like Connecticut."

The Farm Bill is renegotiated every five years, with the latest version enacted in 2018 and current funding levels set to start expiring in September. The legislation mainly consists of the nutrition title, which is slated to take up about 84% in this year's version, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The rest will go toward agriculture and conservation.

Connecticut has more than 5,500 farms that span over 381,000 acres, according to the 2022 state agriculture review from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average size of farms in the state is 69 acres. Farmers in Connecticut skew much older and are overwhelmingly white and male, though there is a growing number of women and people of color joining the field.

The state is home to a wide variation of operations: multi-generational farms on vast acreage, shellfish farms that cultivate oysters and clams, and smaller scale farms with many first-generation producers and BIPOC farmers.

Many farmers in the state are directly serving their communities whether through CSAs or farmers markets, which became more popular during the pandemic and were amplified by rising costs at grocery stores caused by inflation. Other producers focus more on wholesale.

Regardless of the size of the farm or the experience of its owners, farmers in Connecticut agree that more needs to be done to fight the effects of climate change on agriculture and the country's food systems.

But an even more pressing issue for many farmers and lawmakers alike revolves around land acquisition.

Many producers in Connecticut believe it is the "biggest barrier" to farming in the state — having the ability to purchase or lease land and more access to capital. But it is becoming a more universal challenge. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, called land access a "national issue."

The National Young Farmers Coalition is at the center of the push for federal action on land access. Mitchell and dozens of other farmers around the U.S. are rallying behind the One Million Acres campaign, which calls on Congress to authorize $2.5 billion in spending over the next decade in the latest Farm Bill to assist in transferring land to newer generations.

The search for land has been a "personal story" for Will O’Meara of Hungry Reaper Farm.

O’Meara has been running his farm in Morris with his fiancée growing vegetables and flowers since 2020. He is also a Connecticut field agent with Land for Good and a land fellow with the National Young Farmers Alliance.

Since starting their business, they have moved three times and navigated challenges with leasing land and the post-COVID real estate market. He said they still do not own the land they farm on but are working toward purchasing it.

O’Meara has also been rallying behind federal and state-level efforts to preserve more farmland and stop it from being developed and used for purposes other than for agriculture. As of 2020, Connecticut's Farmland Preservation Program has protected more than 45,000 acres with the eventual goal of reaching 130,000 acres, according to the state's Department of Agriculture.

Many farmers say they are competing with major developers or people who want substantial space for vacation homes. If land is priced at agricultural value, it limits who can purchase it since it must typically be sold to qualified farmers.

"In many cases, those buyers are estate and vacation home buyers. Land is leaving agriculture or being used very minimally for agricultural purchase," O’Meara said. "The restriction is that if you have the option to purchase at ag value on farm property, it has to be sold to a qualified farmer."

"It's not a silver bullet by any means," he added. "The price can still be too high for beginning farmers, but it sets a ceiling for how high these things can go."

Matthew Went, who owns River Ridge Farm and Market, went through a similar experience. Went and his wife operate a four-season farm that is in its second growing season on their current space in Portland.

The couple's journey to owning farmland came after a difficult experience with leasing land. They used Connecticut FarmLink, which acts as a "matchmaking" service to help connect potential buyers interested in purchasing farmland with landowners. They are now seeking to register their farm under the farmland preservation program to ensure it is only used for agricultural purposes.

"It's a mixture of doing a better job on the farmland we have and then stopping the loss of farmland, whether through bad practices or economic forces," Went said. "It's extra challenging to not come from that and not inherit anything and really start from nothing."

To help farmers purchase property and land, government agencies like the Farm Service Agency seek to help newer and younger farmers get pre-approved for loans to better compete in a hyper-competitive real estate market as well as to help with operating expenses and equipment. While it provides them with more of an advantage, farmers say getting FSA loans still takes longer than getting ones through conventional lenders, which could significantly slow down the process.

Mitchell said she would like to see adjustments in the Farm Bill that would "make it more hospitable to startup farms."

"Farmers have to deal with the timeline of FSA, which is not the same timeline a seller might have or a commercial and traditional bank lender," Mitchell said. "They get out-competed."

Advocates for increasing access to land believe it could benefit new farmers, particularly farmers of color, break into a challenging industry that is predominantly white, male and older.

Of the 9,526 producers in Connecticut, 59% were male, 90% were 35 or older and more than 98% were white, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Liz Guerra of SEAmarron Farmstead in Danbury got her start in agriculture in 2020. Her and her husband, Héctor Gerardo, were community organizers in New York City before they moved to Fairfield County, though he maintains his job at a nonprofit seeking to among other things address food insecurity.

Guerra, who is president of the New CT Farmer Alliance, noted that they "don't look like typical farmers." Her family is from Ecuador and her husband is Afro-Dominican.

For BIPOC farmers in Connecticut, it is about "changing the image of farming."

That is the mantra of Richard Myers and Shawn Joseph, who started their own urban farm in 2017 after meeting at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Myers said they were the only two Black students in their program.

Myers said they got into the agriculture and food space through their grandmothers as well as their Haitian and Jamaican roots. They focus on growing "culturally appropriate crops" reflective of the Caribbean and Latin cultures of their community that are difficult to find at stores: lemongrass, Jamaican sorrel for juices, red okra that is found in South Africa, Caribbean spinach known as callaloo and a variety of herbs.

"Growing and having fresh produce, especially produce that is familiar to the culture of our neighborhood, was extremely important," Joseph said. "We felt the need to fill that void."

"To us, we see it for what it is – a path to self-sufficiency. Part of our mantra and slogan is changing the image of farming. So there are farmers of color, and urban farming is possible, and it doesn't need to be tied to a negative connotation" like slavery, he added.

By starting an urban farm in their community, the pair hope to provide goods to fill the voids in food deserts.

Land access is as much of a hurdle for urban farmers, though the duo behind Park City Harvest in Trumbull argued that the issue comes up more frequently when talking about rural parts of the state.

"There has been a large focus on BIPOC farmers and urban farmers, yet nothing has been done to assist them," Joseph said.

The Farm Bill is currently in the constituent feedback stage before negotiations start in earnest and bill text becomes available. Unlike most pieces of legislation, the sweeping package is traditionally bipartisan, though certain issues get more politicized on party lines as well as regionally.

One of the biggest fights is typically over the nutrition title of the bill, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

Some early versions of legislation drafted by House Republicans for funding for fiscal year 2024 show spending cuts for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would go back to 2006 levels. Some Connecticut members believe that is likely the reason for why the process is moving slowly and could extend into 2024.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, is the only Connecticut member on the House Agriculture Committee. She is also the ranking member of the Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture subcommittee.

"In my committee, we’re talking about large corporate farmers, about global impact, and we really have to be more intentional about making sure that small farmers are not left behind," Hayes said in an interview.

For Hayes, the nutrition component of the Farm Bill is key, especially after Congress passed a debt limit bill adding more work requirements for the SNAP program. She is also focused on access to capital, climate change mitigation and research on drought resistance. Hayes added that the federal government can do more to support farmers who are already making the transition to integrate new environmental practices.

"I have really been surprised to hear how many small farmers in Connecticut have already begun to make these changes on their own," she said. "But the thing I hear overwhelmingly is how expensive it is to switch to solar … or all of the different things they’re trying to do to mitigate the impacts of climate change. It's expensive for them to start up."

Hayes said the issue of rural broadband and connectivity tends to get more overlooked in the Farm Bill. It is an even greater challenge for the Northwest corner of Connecticut, which she said lacks the infrastructure for needed upgrades. The 2018 version of the bill included a boost to the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program as well as more of a focus on access for underserved communities.

Courtney also remains heavily involved in advocating for agricultural policy since leaving the Agriculture Committee in 2015. He said he was the first member from Connecticut to serve on that panel in 100 years when he joined in 2011.

The congressman believes there could be bipartisan interest in addressing land access in the Farm Bill since it is an emerging issue across the country.

"That's why I do think that there will be action in this Farm Bill to address this issue, because it really isn't just a sort of Northeast, high-cost-of-living kind of issue now," Courtney said in an interview.

He is also still pushing the Young Farmer Success Act, a bipartisan bill allowing farmers and ranchers who work at least 35 hours a week to be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Courtney has previously introduced this as a standalone bill. It is unclear if it will make it into the Farm Bill — it might be left to another committee with education jurisdiction. He noted that the issue around student loans is essentially on pause until the Supreme Court rules this summer on President Joe Biden's student loan debt forgiveness plan.

The Farm Bill has been a majority priority for others in Connecticut's congressional delegation.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has held several listening sessions across the state to hear about constituents’ priorities for the bill. In early March, he held a roundtable discussion with a group of farmers and Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt in Windham.

"I think the Farm Bill is going to be really tough this time around," Murphy said at the time. "To be honest, the new House majority is questioning the wisdom of that foundation and are suggesting that the only way they’ll agree to extend the ag programs is through a massive contraction of nutritional benefits for families, and that is a very troubling starting point."

But there is also GOP alignment with Democrats on a number of other agriculture-specific issues, like conservation.

"Our Farm Bill conservation programs and the conservation delivery system is a proven model and is critical for addressing the many natural resource concerns before farmers, ranchers and landowners," Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., said at a recent hearing. He is chairman of the Agriculture Committee's Conservation, Research, and Biotechnology Subcommittee.

With the potential for political stalemates over certain issues, officials in Connecticut recognize that some areas of concern may need to be addressed at the state level.

"If we can't do it through the federal policy process," Hurlburt said at Murphy's listening session in March, "maybe we can work on it at [the state] level too."

While land access is a more pressing issue for newer farmers and those with no familial ties to the industry, climate change is a major priority across all types of farms in Connecticut, regardless of size or years in the business.

Farmers are heavily prioritizing what the agriculture industry calls "climate-smart" practices. One part of the agricultural sector, the U.S. dairy industry, set a goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Connecticut farmers are looking for ways to minimize soil disturbance, sequester carbon and generally help farmers adapt to a changing climate and who may be confronted with natural disasters.

Farmer Janna Siller said she wants to see these existing federal programs geared more to the types of farms in Connecticut and the region by "both increasing the pool of resources and making them more relevant to farms that exist in the Northeast." Siller is the farm director for Adamah in Falls Village, which is at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

Unlike the commodity farms in other parts of the country, Keith Bishop of Bishop's Orchards wants more support for specialty crops and research "to support how local Northeast farmers can try new crops," especially with varying weather patterns. Because of a cold snap in February, farmers like Bishop lost out on many of their peach blossoms.

Bishop is the fifth generation of his family to work on Bishop's Orchards 300-acre farm in Guilford, which has a popular orchard, market, winery and outdoor event space. His family has owned the business since 1871 with three of his children working full time as he prepares to retire. They currently have around 130 employees but will go up to 200 for the fall apple season.

"Those are the challenges of what commodity-based farming needs and what the rest of the country needs," said Bishop, who is the vice president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. "What are the ways in which farmers can adapt to other crops that then provide as much income?"

While farmers like Bishop want more of a focus on renewable energy, they do not want solar panels installed on prime farmland. For Bishop's Orchards, the business has solar panels installed on the roof of the market.

Farmers like Went of River Ridge Farm are already incorporating certain practices into their routines and operations to protect farmland and soil. River Ridge is a no-till farm "to avoid soil disturbance" and plants cover crops to further protect bare soil. He currently has winter rye planted on his fields.

Went said there should be more infrastructure in place and financial incentives to motivate farmers to mitigate climate change and focus on easier practices like planting cover crops.

Others see the types of crops they grow as ways to enhance climate-smart practices, specifically around hemp.

Guerra and Gerardo of SEAmarron harvest fruits and vegetables in addition to a growing focus on hemp. She pointed to research on the benefits of hemp showing that it is carbon neutral and good for soil mitigation.

"We want to see Connecticut become a leader in hemp and hemp production for the Northeast, East Coast and country," Guerra said.

She sees an opportunity in the 2023 Farm Bill to boost hemp production, since the same federal legislation legalized hemp in 2018. Since then, Guerra said, the industry dramatically expanded, specifically around CBD products. She instead wants to zero in on industrial hemp for things like hemp concrete to help insulate houses.

But Guerra noted the lack of infrastructure to help break down hemp and convert it into multiple uses. She believes there is room in the Farm Bill to expand research on the plant and get more farmers involved.

"We’re hoping now in this 2023 Farm Bill that there's actually money that's very loudly and boldly allocated for hemp," Guerra said. "Right now, it lives in these research institutions, and so how do we take that transition from here's a research institution, now let's bring out the farmers and let's do something with that?"

Connecticut farmers are largely happy with existing federal and state agricultural programs. But they are pleading for replenished funding since popular programs and grants are running out of money. They would also like to see additional reforms to increase program eligibility.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress last year with only Democratic votes, gave a boost to the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants or guaranteed loan financing to eligible agricultural producers and rural small businesses. REAP invested nearly $6 million in Connecticut between 2018 and 2022.

Through the Inflation Reduction Act, REAP has $1 billion to award grants to farmers for renewable energy systems and energy efficient projects through fiscal year 2024.

Farmers in Connecticut want additional funding for REAP and other agricultural grants and programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). It is part of the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service and helps farmers with conservation needs. The program has a payment cap of $450,000 until the 2018 Farm Bill runs out.

But dairy farmers like James Jacquier, who goes by the name Cricket, contend that the $450,000 limit "is a very small amount of money" to help with major projects like manure storage. He helps run Laurelbrook Farm, a dairy farm in East Canaan that is part of the cooperative of family farms that acts as a supplier to Cabot Creamery.

New and beginning farmers struggle the most with access to federal funding, according to Nichols of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. She suggested finding "different parameters for some entry-level funding."

Farmers noted that land access can also be a hurdle to qualifying for certain federal programs, with some requiring farmers to have a lease for a certain amount of years. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – which provides technical and financial assistance for conservation projects – is not an immediate option for new farmers "until an agricultural operation has been established and crops, food or fiber have been successfully produced."

But farmers on bigger and family-run operations say they have their own challenges on the funding front. For the REAP program, some may not be eligible if a certain percentage of their revenue comes from related businesses not directly involving agriculture. According to the USDA, at least 50% of a producer's gross income must derive from agricultural operations.

Other farmers want reforms, including a push for more accurate pricing and protections that reflect current milk production. Connecticut has about 100 dairy farms, which make up a significant portion of the state's agricultural profile.

Jacquier of Laurelbrook Farm is part of the third generation of dairy farmers but noted that the fourth generation is helping to run the family business as well.

For dairy farmers, they want risk management to play a role in this year's federal legislation, including an enhancement of the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program that was in the 2018 Farm Bill. The program gives protections to producers when the margin between milk prices and average feed costs goes below a specified amount.

Jacquier said it should be updated "to recognize and more accurately reflect where a producer's production level is at today versus maybe where it was five years ago."

"Risk management is key in the next Farm Bill to really continue on the good things that we have today especially around the DMC program," Jacquier said.

Dairy producers are also engaged in the modernization of the Federal Milk Marketing Orders system to create more accurate pricing formulas. The National Milk Producers Federation recently submitted its "comprehensive proposal" to the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a request for a hearing. If the changes are not implemented, Jacquier said they would seek some federal action.

"If any one of those components falls short," he said, "we’re going to look to the Farm Bill to help us achieve our goals."

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The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

Lisa Hagen is CT Mirror and CT Public's shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state's congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal's Hotline. She is a New Jersey native and graduate of Boston University.

Land access and farmland preservation ‘Changing the image of farming’ What CT lawmakers are pushing for on behalf of farmers Climate resiliency and sustainability More funding and reforms for existing programs