When it comes to supporting agriculture in Connecticut, state and local authorities aren’t always on the same page.
As the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development is ramping up its support of farmers and the agriculture industry, some towns are making it hard for farms and farmers’ markets to get off the ground and to survive. Coventry Regional Farmers Market (CRFM), a high-profile market, which supports many farmers in the region, has been asked by the town’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission to conduct an expensive traffic study before they move their market to a new location in town.
The P&Z, after much public debate to keep the CRFM in town, gave the non-profit the necessary zoning permit this week to relocate to its new location on Spring Street. But there is still the question of whether the non-profit, largely run by volunteers, will have to produce a $25,000 traffic study.
The market’s application now goes to Connecticut’s State Traffic Commission. If the market requires more than 200 parking spaces, the statues require a traffic study, says David Sawicki, executive director of the State Traffic Commission. The study would have to be conducted by a licensed engineer in Connecticut and depending on the application’s complexity, it could take about a month to process, he says.
Other towns, such as Fairfield, have made it impossible to get a farm started. The proposal to create an organic farm by the Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm faced opposition from town boards, creating delays and project burnout. This group was also asked to do an expensive bird study as part of leasing the land. And there was no assurance local boards, including the Conservation Commission, would give the go ahead to processed to the next step and obtain other approvals. After 15 months of trying to get the farm off the ground, the project was tabled so the new First Selectman could review Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm’s proposal to lease town land.
While these types of scenarios are being played out on the local level, the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development is moving forward to support the state’s agriculture industry. The Council has been restructured to be more effective, from 30 to 15 members, says Steven K. Reviczky, chairman of the Council and Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture.
“Our mission is to boost consumer spending on locally-grown food from one percent to five percent by 2020,” says Reviczky.
“To start, I hope we can go after low hanging fruit, focusing on institutions, including schools and hospitals. In getting more locally grown food into institutions, this could help grow agriculture in the state. Consumers are way out ahead of this and want locally grown food,” he says.
According to a study by the University of Connecticut, the state’s agriculture industry generates $3.5 billion in revenue, which also include garden centers. The agricultural industry creates about 20,000 jobs in the state.
Some of the state’s initiatives include earmarking $5 million toward bringing more land into farm production. The state’s farm, food and jobs also allows for direct-to-consumer sale of poultry and acidified foods such as pickles and relish.
“This is driven from the top and we’re looking at connections that can help us reach our goals, including connections with the private sector and educational institutions,” Reviczky says.
On February 2, a meeting open to the public, the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development, will be meeting with Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, to learn how the state of Vermont accelerated the development of its green economy.
Vermont established the Fund in 1995 to help grow the agriculture and green industry with early-stage grants, technical assistance and loans to entrepreneurs, businesses, farmers and others interested in developing jobs and markets in the green economy. “We want to take advantage of what has been successful,” says Reviczky.
As the state moves forward in growing the agriculture industry, state and town officials will have to find ways to improve the infrastructure, says Melissa Spear, executive director of Common Ground, an environmental education center and urban farm located in New Haven, Connecticut. Spear and her team have been working with various organizations across the state to get more food to schools and in urban and low-income areas. She’s also been working with Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development.
“We need to identify the challenges and obstacles in the current food system,” says Spear. “There’s a role for the state, private sector, non-profits and others to play.”
One gap is the state’s lack of a unified distribution system, she explains. “There’s a lack of aggregators and distributors which makes more work and extra cost for food producers.”
In addition, policies have to be created to help small farmers, she says. The federal government tends to favor large food producers with subsidies, and while there may be private grants to help offset the cost incurred by small farmers, this model is not sustainable in the long run, she adds.
While these challenges are formidable, they aren’t insurmountable, she says. “There’s an amazing group of passionate people behind this movement who are trying to make farming a viable economic force in the state.”
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