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,
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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