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Town Explores Forming an Agricultural Commission

Town Explores Forming an Agricultural Commission

Sparked by a fair amount of public interest in supporting a fledgling agricultural revival in Woodbridge, the town is investigating whether or not to form an agricultural commission.  The Board of Selectmen, after hosting a well-attended Farmers Forum in April, referred the issue to the Ordinance Committee.

“It will be the decision of the Ordinance Committee to recommend (or not) to establish an AG Commission,” First Selectman Beth Heller wrote in an email.  The Ordinance Committee serves in an advisory function to the selectmen.  It will propose an ordinance to the selectmen who then, according to statute, have to call a public hearing before they can vote for or reject the proposal.

Close to 50 people attended the forum, which took place in the Center Building cafeteria.  Three guest speakers with a farming background were invited, namely Bill Dellacamera, farm manager at Cecarelli Farm in Northford; Terry Jones of Jones Family Farms in Shelton; and Elisabeth Moore, a director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust.

All three speakers addressed ways in which an agricultural commission may be helpful in re-establishing farming as an economically viable activity.  “Setting up an ag commission is the way to go,” said DellaCamera, who had helped set up such a commission in North Branford.  Serving on the commission are two farmers, one retired volunteer and one town council member.

The commission helped promote farming in the community and beyond.  It published a map and publicized a local “farm trail.”  It helps organize an agricultural fair, complete with tractor pull and petting zoo, an event that helps celebrate local farming.

In addition, the commission in North Branford helped secure grants through the Department of Agriculture for barns on town property.  It also serves as a conduit to the community, he said.  It can provide input to Planning and Zoning, especially when a town is working on its Plan of Conservation and Development.  It can help identify land that should be protected and help broker a resolution between farmers and neighbors, should conflict arise.

“Farming is hard work,” said Terry Jones of Jones Family Farm in Shelton.  In addition to the physical labor, it also requires economic decision-making, investment of dollars and knowledge.  Only two years after his family bought 120 acres that became available down the road from their original location, another 50 acres that abutted the new property was offered for sale.  They could not afford to buy it, but in order to farm their land, they needed a buffer to any residential development.

Shelton Mayor Marc Lauretti, better known for the big commercial developments along Bridgeport Avenue, saw the need for the buffer zone and got a 100-foot conservation easement between the farmland and the development.  His intervention saved not only the farming operation but the subdivision.  “Cooperation is the key to success,” Jones said.  He also lauded Gov. Dan Malloy, saying few governors were more sensitive to agriculture.

In fact, it is the prospect of state financial support which helped bring this forum about.  The town, which recently has signed on to the Sustainable CT program, stands to gain grant money for activities that promote sustainability, and hosting a farmers’ forum is one of the suggested activities, said Sheila McCreven, who as the town’s grant writer coordinates the program locally.

The program was led by Andrea Urbano, an Amity graduate, who returned home after college and became farm manager at Jones Family Farm.  She is not the only millennial trying to advance farming in her hometown.  Leland Torrence Jr. and Will Conway, both in their early 20s, had approached different town commissions previously with the request to form an ag commission.

Paul Decoster, who is in his 80s, spoke for the group of residents who hope to revive farming in town.  “Right now, we are a bedroom community,” he said, but the interest in the younger generation may allow the town to “turn some of it back into working farms.”  He said currently some 150 acres are being farmed by maybe 10-12 people, but there are 600-700 acres that could be farmed.

The town itself holds some 1,200 acres of open space, some of which are leased on a yearly basis by farmers.  However, because the leases are offered only from year to year, farmers typically hay it or plant corn for feed.  To promote actual farming, the leases should be expanded to maybe five years, Decoster said.

Massaro Farm Manager Steve Munno agreed.  As an example, for the misguided one-year lease policy, he mentioned the experience of Ethan Schneider, the farmer who leases the land behind the Darling House.  Schneider was going to put in a well but hesitates to make that investment based on a yearly lease.  “Access to land, access to capital are major barriers” for young farmers, especially in Woodbridge, Munno said.

Another issue that came up during discussion was the struggling farmers market, and what farmers would suggest to change.  The problem for smaller farmers may be the cost of a table; the fact that every town has its own market may limit the number of customers frequenting the local market.

That’s where the proposed commission can help, Decoster said.  It could liaison with the state and federal government; it could promote the needs of the farmers in the community.  “Farmers don’t have a lot of time to do this,” he said.  “They need land, they need money, they need assistance.  We on the committee believe that that is the way to go.”

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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