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Farming again becomes fashionable

Written by Chipp Reid

Article from the Stratford Star

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The looks on customers’ faces at Silverman’s Orchard and Farm Market in Easton said it all. Whether it was a just-ripe, peach-inspired smile of an adult or the plum-juice laden smile of a small boy, one thing was obvious: Nothing can beat farm-fresh produce.

“People love to go to a farm,” said Irv Silverman, owner of Silverman’s Orchard. “It’s a destination and a place to be happy. They see the trees and the fruit, and it just blows their minds.”

Farming is big business once again in Connecticut, whether it’s a small artisan farm producing honey in downtown Milford or a 400-acre spread in Shelton growing everything from Christmas trees to grapes for wine.

The fastest growing sector of farming is the small “hobby farm.” Although the Connecticut Department of Agriculture had no firm numbers on the amount of small farms sprouting up around the state, department spokesman Linda Pieotrowicz said eastern Fairfield and western New Haven counties are popular places for the part-time agro-businessman or woman.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact people are concerned about where their food is coming from and how much it costs,” she said. “Freshness and quality is also important. There are a lot more [small farms] in play.”

Farmers — those still working traditional, full-time, year-round spreads — call their small-scale counterparts “hobby farmers.” It isn’t an insult. It’s simply their way of differentiating the size of the operation.

“I’d love to see even more of the hobby farms,” said Irv Snow of Snow’s Dairy Farm in Oxford. “I know they’re popping up all over the place because we provide a lot of the soil they use. We’ve delivered to farms in Trumbull, Easton — all over the place. It’s becoming extremely popular.”

Hobby farms are essentially big gardens that produce enough in terms of revenue to qualify as a farm. The state income threshold is $2,500, said Ron Olson of the state Agriculture Department. Individual towns, such as Easton, however, have their own income requirements as well, usually much higher than the state standard. Still, Snow said many homeowners with two or more acres are realizing not only the economic benefit to small-scale farming, but the joy of working the land.

“A lot of people who once sprayed chemicals all over their lawns are beginning to learn the working of their land,” said Snow, a fifth-generation farmer. “They turn an acre or so into a small farm and grow vegetables or whatever. These small farms are a real benefit to all us.”

A growing industry

Farming is a $2.2 billion industry in Connecticut. State growers produce everything from tobacco (once Connecticut’s biggest crop) to trees and plants to shellfish, vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs and milk. The Housatonic River region is home to a growing number of farms, big and small. The largest is the Jones Family Farm and Winery in Shelton, which covers 400 acres. Farm co-owner Terry Jones, however, said in farming, size doesn’t matter.

“I really don’t think in terms of which farm is biggest,” Jones said. “There are lots of small farms, and I think that’s really a good thing. Anything that gets people thinking about farms is a good thing.”

The Jones farm offers everything from pick-your-own blueberries, raspberries and strawberries to a massive variety of winter vegetables, pumpkins and Christmas trees. Each year, Jones said, the family tries to introduce something new to the farm. This year it’s new varieties of squash. The important thing, he said, was to give customers what they want.

“We’re not just selling produce but the experience of being on a farm,” said Jones Farm marketing manager Keith Padin. “The looks on people’s faces is priceless.”

Just as important as the experience is the state’s backing of locally produced food. Buying produce at farms carries numerous benefits, from quality control to environmental.

“When someone buys vegetables from me, he knows what he’s getting. He can see it right here on the farm,” said Fred Monahan, owner of Stone Garden Farm in Shelton. “Plus in today’s economy, shipping costs are a big thing. There’s no transportation costs when you buy something right at a farm.”

Transportation costs are something most farmers eliminate by selling their produce retail on site. It’s also just about the only way farmers can make ends meet. Whether it’s farm stands on their land or farmers’ markets throughout the region, locally grown food is up for sale, although not in big chain grocery stores.

“The only way a farmer can make it today is retail. There’s just no future in wholesale anymore,” said Monahan. “We have to be able to set our own prices, and we’re pretty competitive, I think, with the stores.”

The availability of fresh produce is what draws many people to local farms. Kristen Shortell and Cheryl Rinaldi, customers at Rich’s Dairy Farm in Oxford, said they preferred shopping at farms for their fruit and vegetables.

“It’s just so much better,” said Rinaldi, an Oxford resident. “The taste and the quality – you can’t beat it, and the prices really are close to what you see in the grocery stores. I would rather go to a farm than a grocery store any time.”

Rich’s Dairy Farm not only sells whole, fresh milk but opened an ice cream stand that proved to be wildly popular. The ice cream draws in customers, who then see the other products the farm offers.

“We still make milk here. We’re still a dairy farm, but we had to diversify,” said Dave Rich. “I think people would rather have fresh fruits and vegetables than something that was shipped in from California or somewhere else, and a lot of people are starting to learn that raw milk is actually very good for you.”

Raw milk is non-pasteurized and non-homogenized, Rich said. The process so many people believe helps make milk safe actually kills enzymes that help the human body break it down, he said.

“When you get homogenized and pasteurized milk, that process is already done, but it’s better when your body does it,” he said. “Our milk is very healthy. It has more vitamins than store milk and it’s better for you.”

Diversification

Although locally grown is popular, farmers continue to face problems, and not just from land-hungry developers. The cost of everything farmers need to grow food continues to rise, forcing many farmers to diversify or completely change what they produce.

Snow’s Dairy Farm in Easton now produces eggs and Highland beef cattle rather than milk. The farm is also a collection point for leaves and other yard debris which owner Irv Snow uses to make compost. He sells his composted topsoil to “landscapers, other farmers and homeowners. It’s black gold.”

“People absolutely love our soil because it is so rich,” Snow said. “The composting saved the farm. A lot of farms have to diversify just to survive.”

Ron Turmel has a beef and pork farm in Oxford, although, like so many other farmers, he had to turn to other crops to survive and now produces hay for local farmers. He reduced what was once a herd of 27 beef cattle to just four and sold off his pigs to fellow farmer Charlie Rowland.

“It’s just too expensive, and you need too much land [to properly raise cattle],” Turmel said. “We still keep some animals here, but it’s not like what it used to be. It seems like we’re on the downhill side of farming now.”

Rising costs coupled with high land values often make it seem lucrative for farmers to sell off their property to developers. Some do. However, Rich said most farmers would prefer to continue farming, even if it means losing money each year.

“Sell off some land, and it’s a one-time thing,” he said. “What do you do then? Sit around and watch someone build a house where you used to plant? We do this because we love doing it.”

It’s the same for nearly every farmer in the region.

“In life you have to find something that makes you happy,” Snow said. “I’m grown, but I still get to play in the sand box. What’s better than that?”

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