Rep. Hayes engages with regional leaders on farm bill priorities

From left, Marty Lindenmayer, first selectman in Kent, Jahana Hayes (D), congresswoman for Connecticut’s 5th district, and Gordon Ridgway, first selectman in Cornwall and local farmer, met in February to discuss agriculture priorities and challenges. Hayes sits on the House Agricultural Committee.

Janna Siller

Rep. Hayes engages with regional leaders on farm bill priorities

MORRIS — Farmers and leaders from across northwest Connecticut gathered at the end of February for a rare opportunity to be together in the same room.

The event was organized by the Farmer’s Table, a program of local nonprofit Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities, and took place at South Farms.

Cornwall farmer Gordon Ridgway, who is the town’s first selectman, took a break from a peak maple syrup production day to attend.

“There were farmers there that I’ve known for 30 years and people I just met. We all face overlapping issues, especially with the extreme weather of the past couple years. Farmers by nature are always busy doing things, so it’s nice to be able to talk and bounce ideas off each other. It’s also nice to have a party once in a while with good, locally prepared food,” Ridgway said.

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-5) joined the evening. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, she is particularly influential on issues related to food and farming, especially through the farm bill reauthorization process that is currently taking place:

“It’s great to be here because I get to talk to busy farmers who don’t often leave the farm or have time for these kinds of conversations. I’m hearing about what’s important to them so I can make sure it’s in line with what I’m advocating for in the farm bill.”

Hayes described herself as uniquely positioned on the House Agriculture Committee because the farmers she represents are smaller-scale producers serving their local communities. According to the recently released 2022 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average size of Connecticut farms is 74 acres, while the average size of farms across the U.S. is 446 acres.

Hayes spoke of her efforts to make farm bill-authorized programs, like federal crop insurance and conservation funding, work better for the New England-style farm. She also emphasized the importance of protecting funds dedicated for climate-smart agriculture by 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which some members of the committee seek to reallocate.

Farmer Dan Carr, who attended the event, agrees about the importance of the climate-smart farming practices incentivized by IRA funding. He works with a wide variety of farmers as the outreach and technical assistance manager for the nonprofit Berkshire Agricultural Ventures. Demand is high among the farmers he works with, many of whom use the conservation programs to support their financial viability while deploying practices that minimize greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon and help their farms adapt to the changing climate.

Carr said that he and his wife, Marleen van Gulick, are working on a project to use conservation funding at their own livestock and beekeeping operation. At Beavertides Farm in Falls Village, Carr and Van Gulick rotate their animals frequently through fresh pasture to improve soil health and allow manure, and its associated greenhouse gasses, to cycle through the soil. Conservation funding would allow them to invest in permanent fencing that would make the system less labor intensive and thus, Carr hopes, the farm more financially stable.

Hayes hopes there is time to get a farm bill passed between now and Sept. 30, when the funding that was extended through a continuing resolution last year expires:

“I think that GT Thompson, who is the chair of the committee, is a straight shooter and a good guy. He wants a farm bill, so hopefully we can work together to get something done. We’re going to make sure that, in the meantime, none of the funding sunsets or lapses while we’re working on these things.”

From macrotopics like the farm bill and climate change, the attention of the evening’s attendees also turned to the task of connecting northwest Connecticut farmers with customers. “People know there are farms in the area,” said Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities board member and Farmer’s Table liaison Sunday Fisher, “but they don’t know the incredible people behind the farms, the farmers.”

She and the Farmer’s Table co-chair Victoria Rowan addressed the assembled crowd of more than 50 farmers. They introduced a new online platform that the organization is launching with interactive maps and an events calendar using the CivicLift framework designed by Evan Dobbs. Phase one of the website will be to provide a comprehensive listing of Litchfield County farms for the public, while phase two will provide a mechanism for local farmers to communicate with one another.

Fisher explained that all of the nonprofit’s Farmer’s Table activities — the evening at South Farms, the new website, the popular summer harvest dinner fundraiser, the farmer survey it is conducting, its funding of local food delivered to at-risk populations — are aimed at the same goal: to support the sustainability of the Litchfield County farmers.

The 2022 Census of Agriculture lists the county as having the state’s highest number of farms (1,005) and the most land in agriculture (85,205 acres).

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