Connecticut politicians Monday heard both encouraging and discouraging news about the status of farming in the state at a roundtable discussion on Monday.
The good news?
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently passed a bill including $34 million for federal programs to assist beginning farmers. And, added Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky, “It is cool to be a farmer again. We are definitely in an upward spiral.”
The bad news?
U.S. Department of Agriculture Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse, one of Monday’s panelists, said the average age of a farmer in the United States is on the old side at 58. In Connecticut, the average age is actually older — 60.
Monday’s discussion was held at the Hartford Regional Market, at the back of the lot, behind the Hartford Farmers Market area. In attendance were Democratic Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Appropriations Committee that passed the bill supporting new farmers, along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and Rosa DeLauro in addition to Scuse and Reviczsky.
Also in attendance were state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford and state Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven. Together they co-chair the Environment Committee in the General Assembly at the state capitol.
Murphy said one reason why Connecticut farmers are older than the national average is, “We are playing a little bit of catch-up.” He said he believes the attention that the state is currently paying to cultivating young farmers will show benefits down the line.
The statistics seem to back Murphy up.
One in four farm operators in Connecticut are beginning farmers — a 15.1 percent increase from 2007.
Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers under the age of 25 in Connecticut grew by 129 percent, and the number of farmers between the ages 25-34 grew by 40 percent.
Additionally, farming statistics in Connecticut reflect the following:
• There are 1,381 beginning farmers in Connecticut (less than 10 years operating), according to the 2012 Agriculture Census (the latest available statistics);
• 82 beginning farmers are grossing over $50,000 in sales;
• 25 percent of Connecticut’s principal operators are beginning farmers;
• There has been a 29 percent increase in the number of farms principally operated by women;
• Between 2002 and 2012, the number of vegetable farms in Connecticut increased by 61 percent;
But while the trends seem positive, challenges remain.
DeLauro said Connecticut has a rich farm culture.
“But let’s be honest — farmland is expensive in our state. This is an issue near and dear to my heart,” DeLauro said, adding that Congress needs to do more to enact legislation and laws that benefit farmers “not just in the middle of the country.”
Blumenthal added that there is also a mindset that has to be fought here in Connecticut, “That, simply put, more money can be made, and taxes brought into towns, by putting housing developments on land, than by farming it.”
Scuse answered that is why more programs, at the federal and state level, need to be pushed to encourage existing farmers to continue farming and new farmers to go into the farming business.
The Senate bill includes money for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program that’s being run by the University of Connecticut through their extension program. This is the main program that helps new farmers with technical assistance and access to capital.
The Senate bill also include grants to support veteran farmers, funding for a beginning farmer coordinator at the Farm Service Agency, and funding to help beginning farmers implement sustainable agriculture practices.
Scuse said he was “very encouraged to see so many young faces” in the audience at Monday’s discussion.
“The next generation of farmers,” Scuse said, “is going to have to be much more diverse, [and is] going to have to look much more like the United States overall population, with all types of ethnic backgrounds. There are also 1 million women in farming today — and that number is growing.”
One of those young farmers in attendance was Jamie Jones, a member of the sixth generation running the Jones Family Farms in Shelton.
Jones’ family, which has been farming since 1848, owns 400 acres in Shelton, three-quarters of which they farm. He told the politicians that they “need to be careful” when enacting legislation concerning farming in Washington so that they don’t pass laws that “become overly burdensome on farmers.”
He also told the panelists that they need to continue to do more to open up access to funding programs to help younger farmers get started in the business.