As farmers in Connecticut age, market for niche products grows
ORANGE >> James Zeoli got a phone call just before 5 p.m. one recent Wednesday that his farm stand at the Woodmont Farmers Market in Milford was down to only one dozen eggs.
Zeoli said the market set-up had begun the afternoon with 20 dozen eggs for sale, but he quickly sent over 10 dozen more eggs from Shamrock Farm for the final 90 minutes of the market hours.
“People want the product,” Zeoli, who also is the town first selectman, said of locally produced agricultural goods.
“There’s a lot of market out there,” he said.
But the question remains about how the supply of local food will look as farmers age and beginners in the agriculture world take alternate routes to making a living off the land.
At age 57, Zeoli said he is far from being old, but recognizes that he is just below the average age of farmers in Connecticut these days. Census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the average age of state farmers at 58, and a recent report from the American Farmland Trust and Land for Good notes that might not be such a good thing for the future of agriculture in the state.
Writers of the report stressed that there were 10 percent fewer farmers under age 45 reported in 2012 than there were in 2002, suggesting that the overall population of farmers is aging and that the future of these farms may be uncertain without an immediate successor onboard.
According to the report, 92 percent of Connecticut’s farmers over age 65 do not have a younger operator on-site. Those senior farmers managed 123,000 acres of farmland in 2012.
The total population of senior farmers, including those with a younger operator, were responsible for $135 million worth of products sold in 2012, according to the report. By contrast, beginner farmers, noted as those with less than 10 years of experience, accounted for close to one quarter of the state’s farmers and produced collectively $39 million in products.
But, Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said he believes that these statistics don’t paint that bleak a picture of the future of Connecticut agriculture.
Talmage said it’s important to remember that life expectancy is longer than it once was and what should be considered is years left farming, rather than age of the primary operator of the farm. Talmage said there has also been a recent rise in people taking on agriculture as a second career, so they are beginning farms in their 40s or 50s, which also contributes to the average age being higher.
Stephen Swallow, a professor in the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture Health and Natural Resources, said that people picking up farming as a second career is a trend he has seen across New England.
“There are people coming in who are looking to start a farm even though they aren’t from a farm family,” Swallow said. “There’s been a significant growth in the number of farmers.”
Swallow credits some of this growth in the industry with many people being interested in sustainability and local food and thus starting their own, smaller farm operations. There’s been a big growth in the number of backyard farms, he said, and the official definition of a farm from the USDA includes many units under its umbrella that the general public may not classify as a farm.
The USDA defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.”
The “would have been sold” clause allows farm operations to stay on the list in the event of a bad year, and small operations to remain classified as farms even if their sales do not grow to the federally mandated level in one year.
These smaller operations are going after niche markets, Zeoli said, and with great success. Farmers markets across Greater New Haven are packed with vendors who specialize in specific areas, such as goat dairy products, specialty meats or unique vegetables. Some stands focus in on baked goods, honey, or even tea, he said.
Shamrock Farm, a 20-acre operation with a farm stand, grows a wide variety of vegetables and raises chickens for eggs and beef cattle to be sold for meat production. But, the younger operators on the farm have their eyes set on niche products, Zeoli said.
Christian Mortali, a student at the University of Connecticut and farmer at Shamrock Farms, wants to develop a small dairy business on the property to sell local milk and cheeses. Another young, rising farmer at Shamrock Farms, Isabella Oleschuk, is taken with the sheep on the property, and focuses her efforts on sheering high quality wool to be sold later as yarn or knitted hats, scarves, and other garments.
About 2,000 farm operations in Connecticut produced less than $1,000 worth of product in 2012, based on the most recent data available from the USDA, which suggests that close to one-third of Connecticut’s farms are small operations. The 2012 U.S. Census data shows there were about 5,000 farms in the state.
The state Department of Agriculture notes on its website that there are more than 100 farm stands and stores in Connecticut and more than 120 farmers markets. The agency also maintains a “crop availability” listing that allows people to check for best times to seek out certain produce. CitySeed in New Haven also operates farmers markets in the city, alternating local farmers and those from around the state.
In an effort to protect farmland as farmers age and may not be able to support production on their own anymore, the state has begun buying the developing rights from owners to prohibit future building on farmland even if it is no longer operated by farmers. The Agriculture Department announced in a release in June, for instance, that the Oweneco Farm in Lebanon was “preserved forever for agricultural production through the state’s Farmland Preservation Program.” Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said in the release that the farm was the “21st preserved this fiscal year by the state.”
Zeoli is chairman of the state’s Farmland Preservation Advisory Board and said the ultimate goal is to preserve 130,000 acres in the state. So far, the developing rights of 43,000 acres of farmland in the state have been bought through the initiative.
Another factor playing against the traditional farming career, Zeoli said, is that many younger generations in farm families might be looking for more lucrative careers. Not every kid is like him and wants to be a farmer from the age of 5.
While not from a farm family himself, Zeoli credits his success to the support of the Ewens, the family that has owned Shamrock Farm since Colonial times. Zeoli began working on the farm at age 12, and took over farm operations when he graduated from UConn.
He said he’s fortunate to have two jobs he loves, and admits that many farming couples or individuals need second careers for the financial security and better health benefits.
“You can make a living, but you won’t be loaded,” Zeoli said. “You have to love what you do.”