“We started out as a dairy. We will always be a dairy,” said Kies Orr, 27, who co-owns and operates Fort Hill Farms in Thompson where she has 210 milking cows and just under 500 cows total.
Orr is a fourth generation farmer but before her parents fully bought the dairy farm from her grandparents, they bought land adjacent to the dairy farm and started a nursery.
“My mother does lavender. My mother does plants. She has over 72 gardens that you can walk through and she’s gotten into offering exercise classes and giving nature walks. She’s trying to diversify her own business,” Orr said. “That’s the big thing nowadays — being sustainable and diversified — it’s the only way to survive.”
Diversification is the buzzword for farmers, especially young farmers, who must continually find new revenue streams to keep their farms afloat now and for the next generation.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture for Connecticut reported an 8 percent decrease in the number of farms from 2012, from about 6,000 to 5,521. In 2017, those farms comprised 381,539 acres, a 13 percent decrease from 2012. The average size farm in 2017 was 69 acres, down from 72 acres in 2012, dropping from a high of 85 acres in 2002.
For Jake Lipton, 26, of Pleasant View Farms in Somers, a fourth-generation farmer, keeping the family farm was a priority.
Lipton and his brother, Louis, run the farm, which produces horse bedding, premium hay, feed and grain products. Founded in 1918 by Lipton’s great-grandfather, the farm was a dairy, milking 500 to 600 cows, until 1987 when Lipton’s father and grandfather were chosen for the Whole Herd Buyout Program, a federal program intended to reduce the nation’s milk surplus.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture for Connecticut reported an 8 percent decrease in the number of farms from 2012, from about 6,000 to 5,521.
In 2017, those farms comprised 381,539 acres, a 13 percent decrease from 2012.
The average size farm in 2017 was 69 acres, down from 72 acres in 2012, dropping from a high of 85 acres in 2002.
“The farm sat idle for quite a while,” Lipton said. “My father started some other businesses on the side and just basically maintained the farm and rented the land out.”
In high school, Lipton joined a vocational ag program. He and his brother started growing grain crops that they began to market and sell crops directly to customers.
“That changed things quite a bit for us because it put us on the map. People were coming here from different directions to get hay and whatnot for their horses,” said Lipton, who earned a degree at the ag college of SUNY Cobleskill in 2015.
Around 2013, Louis Lipton began to grow non-GMO grains that he sold at feed stores. The two were working closely with the Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers Association in Manchester but the enterprise went out of business in 2016, leaving many people without a place to buy feed supplies, Lipton said.
“We had worked with them a lot because we would make grinder feeds here on the farm and then bring those to the co-op and they would finish it into a pelletized feed. We would either take the feed and bag it or they would distribute it for us in bulk to their customers,” said Lipton. “It really helped us grow what we were doing with that market. When they went out of business, we had some options to think about because that was starting to grow for us and we didn’t want to just drop it, we wanted to keep it growing. So we decided to buy their whole fleet of equipment and we put in a feed store here on the farm and a whole bunch of different grain bins.”
Lipton said now the farm has more than 20 different complete feeds for all classes of livestock.
“We have a walk-in store on the farm and people come in and out daily to get bulk feed, hay and bedding for their animals. And we also have a very large delivery base,” he said. “Things really changed dramatically for us — in 2015 it was only me and my brother and one full-time employee and now we have over 10 full time employees.”
For Brittani Burke, 19, of Burke Ridge Farm in Ellington, diversification is a few years off, but she has plans. She owns 175 cows, 25 sows and 30 ewes, and is part way through her college degree. In the future, she envisions a wedding and event venue with a restaurant that will market and serve products from her farm and as well as other farmers’.
“I’ll have it open several days a week or have events at the restaurant to serve the farmers’ products to help not only my (farm) but the other farmers around me and really advocate for getting our products out there,” she said.
A fifth generation farmer on the family’s current farm and a 10th generation farmer overall, Burke has won numerous awards, including a national Future Farmers of America (FFA) silver award in Proficiency in Diversified LIvestock Production, the Connecticut State Star Farmer for 2020, and the Northeast Regional title at the Big E.
“We try and hit the ground running in March or April and basically don’t look up, and then in January every year we kind of assess how the year went and think about what we want to do differently,” said Taylor, who is in his mid-thirties. “I don’t know if I would call it a good or bad year but it was the timing of COVID that was a challenge because we were just starting our season, and all of a sudden, everything’s thrown into uncertainty.”
“Farming in New England is hard because you have to find a way to make it work. It’s very hard to make agriculture economically feasible because, at least for livestock, the markets are fewer and less lucrative so you really kind of have to make your own niche market,” she said.
For Aaron Taylor, a co-owner of Four Root Farm in East Haddam, innovation arose as a result of COVID-19. The farm grows certified organic vegetables and flowers. He said he and his partners spend hours creating a crop plan in January and once the season starts, there’s not a lot of room to pivot.
“We try and hit the ground running in March or April and basically don’t look up, and then in January every year we kind of assess how the year went and think about what we want to do differently,” said Taylor, who is in his mid-thirties. “I don’t know if I would call it a good or bad year but it was the timing of COVID was that was a challenge because we were just starting our season, and all of a sudden, everything’s thrown into uncertainty.”
Because of the pandemic, the farm quickly moved its entire business online for a while and now provides online pre-ordering as an option for customers.
“So we built an online store platform and we were taking exclusively pre-orders for pickup (at the farm) or at our customer market locations. As things in Connecticut started to improve and open up a little bit — I don’t remember if it was June or July — our farmers markets went back to normal. But we continue to take pre-orders and we have a large group of customers who order from us every week,” he said.
Ultimately, sales were up this year and other small farms have had similar results, he said.
“I think it’s a positive thing that in this moment, people are turning to their local economies and local farmers and trying to figure out where they can get fresh and healthy foods. I think that’s like a glimmer of hope in the midst of all of this,” he said.
Availability of agricultural land
According to the 2017 census, of the 9,526 farm producers in Connecticut, 3,046 are 65 and older, 5,554 are 35 to 64 years old and 926 are under 35.
“That’s one of the big concerns is that there are a lot of older generation farmers who are going to end up retiring and where’s that land going to go?” said Burke “Up here with the housing market being so big, I really don’t know what the future of agriculture is going to be.”
Lipton said that availability of land presents a huge barrier to entry for first generation farmers, but it’s also a problem for him because although his family owns 300 acres, the farm rents 1,200 acres of farmland across about 10 towns.
“We’re renting land in Somers, Ellington, Enfield, East Windsor, South Windsor, Windsor Locks, Vernon. We sometimes drive our tractors 30 or 40 minutes or more to get to some of these fields,” he said. “Land is kind of few and far between. That’s why I wish we had 1000 acres right under our nose that was just next door to us. We’re not in the Midwest, you know.”
It takes years of building relationships and connections to rent agricultural land, he said.
“You have to know people, you have to know farmers, you have to know people in the towns and farmers that are retired that are renting their land,” he said. “That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are with a lot of the land that we rent. Not many people are open to renting their land to Joe Blow off the street if it’s someone they don’t know.”
“We’re renting land in Somers, Ellington, Enfield, East Windsor, South Windsor, Windsor Locks, Vernon. We sometimes drive our tractors 30 or 40 minutes or more to get to some of these fields,” he said.
Farmers often work until they can’t work anymore, said Lipton, and they sell off pieces of land or the development rights because they need money for retirement. But selling the development rights reduces the value of the land, he said.
“It’s worth a fraction of what it would be if it was prime building land. It’s just very difficult because maybe 30 years ago I feel like farmers were in a better position to buy land. I feel like now there’s so much demand for development. It’s hard for us to compete unless it’s land that the development rights have already been sold on,” he said.
Orr said it was important to start supporting the next generation of farmers and to preserve agricultural land.
“Anytime I’m asking somebody if they have a farm, I always ask, is there another generation coming through? And when they say, no, there’s not another generation, I feel like I just got shot in the heart,” she said. “When all of a sudden you got 10 house lots going up on prime ag land, how is that going to help the future? You just took all that farmland from that local farmer. We can’t bring that land back. Once it’s developed, that’s it.”
“When all of a sudden you got 10 house lots going up on prime ag land, how is that going to help the future? You just took all that farmland from that local farmer. We can’t bring that land back. Once it’s developed, that’s it.”
She said she and her family are in the process of putting agricultural easements onto the farm property.
“It’s in the hopes that my kids will take over the farm, and they will continue to farm and that farmland will stay farmland,” she said.
Taylor said buying land was not easy and it took quite a while to find the right location, but banding together with his three partners allowed them to buy the 13-acres parcel for the farm five years ago.
“None of us had the means to do it on our own but we banded together and were able to get a mortgage as a foursome,” he said.
Farming in the future
Taylor said he was optimistic about the direction of farming in the Northeast as far as building a regional farm and food system “that is more economically viable than it was in the past and that can provide more food that’s healthy for customers and healthy solutions for the planet in how we feed ourselves.”
He said the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the industrial food system and its vulnerability to supply chain disruptions as well as economic and climate change.
“I think it was kind of a warning shot and COVID will not be the last time this happens and not the worst time it will happen, so I’m optimistic that our style of farming and thinking about the economy will both continue to thrive and be more recognized by lay people going forward,” he said. “COVID and climate change are not separate things from each other … Beating COVID is not the end of the story. COVID is, I’m afraid, the beginning of the story. So that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing to kind of help build ourselves a parachute.”
Lipton said that business has grown more than 20 percent each year since 2015 and that he and his brother plan to keep going along the same trajectory.
“COVID and climate change are not separate things from each other,” Taylor said. “Beating COVID is not the end of the story. COVID is, I’m afraid, the beginning of the story. So that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing to kind of help build ourselves a parachute.”
“We provide the essentials for farmers that are raising livestock or animals that need those things to rely on — and you can only have so many irons in the fire,” he said.
For Orr, what’s next is the installation of an anaerobic digester on the farm, which will fulfill a dream of her father, Peter Orr, who passed away in 2018. If all goes as planned, the digester will send electricity onto the grid by the end of the year.
“My father was all about energy. That digester will take in food waste and we’ll add our cow manure. We’ll make electricity and send it off to several surrounding towns,” she said. “Who would have thought food waste and cow manure would make electricity? We love our cows, there’s no doubt about that. It’s not just about the milk anymore.”