Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture doesn't track the number of farms that come and go. But last month, one farmer wrote on social media that she'd seen three farms within a 37 mile radius close -- in a matter of two weeks. And more have shut down since then.
That farmer, Jess Stone, and her husband own and operate Cold Spring Farm in Colchester, Connecticut. She wrote about the economic impact of farms:
In a day and age when the “buy local” movement is thriving and it’s suddenly cool to support farms, no one should be going out of business. And young people should be getting in on both sides. So, us farmers need to get more creative to market our businesses to you AND us local folks who want to see the continuation of local farms must come out in steady droves and pay the cost of this hard work.
Stone recently spoke to Connecticut Public Radio about the realities of farming in this state.
On what she’s experienced as a farmer and how she’s seen other farmers struggle
It’s really unfortunate to see businesses not surviving, no matter what they do. We know that this is part of a natural cycle, that businesses in general tend to come and go.
But I think the work is very hard. The hours are very long. Families are at stake. Oftentimes you are making your priority list and family should be right up there at the top, but sometimes you have to make choices or the farm makes choices for you that prevent that from happening.
There is a high suicide rate among farmers, it’s quite alarming. There’s also a high divorce rate among farmers and it just goes to show that the sacrifices that farmers make is huge, to be able to do what they’re doing.
I think there are a lot of businesses that struggle to do the business end because they’re just not naturally inclined to business or they don’t have the educational background to understand the basic business concepts.
I know there is more training and more education available now but it also creates a burden on the farmer to be able to do the part of the business that they’re good at, which is growing the crops, or feeding the animals, tending to the things that ultimately generate income -- but what happens is the business end gets neglected or isn’t known enough about to produce the results that actually keep them doing it over many, many years.
So you have a system that is not sustainable. It’s a structural and systemic issue, I think, more than a skills issue.
On property values and the financial risks of maintaining farmland
That’s been a challenge from the beginning of time. It often turns out that the best farmland is also the best development land. It’s near the best locations for the markets that they choose to pursue that bring them the income they need to keep the buildings and structures and properties maintained.
That becomes more expensive with the rise in taxes and the same demands, or people with more money in their pockets can afford to just take that money and purchase, who aren’t going to be farming.
On what she would do if she could make big changes to the local farming industry
The short answer is putting the culture back in agriculture. It’s the way I explain it to so many folks who ask what my mission is. It’s been a really big process of essentially building community and connecting people with farms, and connecting, specifically, people to my farm because that’s what I can do. That’s my role. I feel that if we can get people to visit the farm, to see the animals, to see the crops that are being grown, to visit the farmstand, to attend a farm-to-table dinner, those are all things that bring people here and get them to look at us from a different perspective, to realize the importance of farms and how they build community on a local level.
One more very big thing that I think we need to do is start taking a look at all this beautiful open space and preserved land, whether they’re through local land trusts or otherwise, and start allowing new and beginning farmers, and possibly people just with the interest in developing it later on in life, with the ability to access these lands through some kind of lease program, so we can use land that would otherwise take tax dollars to maintain, and have these farmers -- maybe with a set of standards about how the land should be maintained -- leasing.
I think that’s crucial because oftentimes farmers who can’t afford land are reliant on lease deals, which I think landowners have a very big misunderstanding about how farms operate and what they can bring to the field, so to speak. I think sometimes they think it’s a landscaping project and a form of Martha Stewart’s beautiful pages and magazine setups, and that’s just not how farms operate.
A working farm will have areas that are a little bit messy. A working farm is a busy place and there’s not time to cleanup constantly and make it magazine-worthy. That’s just not how it goes. And I think if we start looking at the dedication to land management overall, and all this space that’s costing us as townships to maintain, it’s absolutely crucial that we get farmers there.
Tucker Ives contributed to this report.