According to U.S. Census data, there are nearly 5,000 farms in little old Connecticut. That sounds pretty good. Except the demographics suck.
The average age for farmers here is 57.6 years. The largest single farming age-category is 65 and older. There are just 76 Connecticut farmers between 25 and 34 years old.
"We have to start changing that," insists Nichki Carangelo, "otherwise there won't be anybody left [to farm]."
Carangelo is one of a new wave of Connecticut farmers hoping to revolutionize the face and dynamics of growing food in this densely populated, mega-urbanized, prohibitively land-expensive state of ours.
She's 25 years old. She and her life-partner, Laszlo Lazar, dream of having their own farm some day. But they have no idea how they could possibly come up with the money to bid for agricultural land in a place where a 20-acre family farm in Madison can run you $1.3 million.
"Right now, there's no way we could afford to buy anything here in Connecticut," says Carangelo. "We're so priced out of the market that it's insane."
The indirect route Carangelo has mapped out to achieve her farming dream involves aging farmers willing to become mentors and lease arrangements where labor can help replace cold, hard cash.
Kathryn Redford, 27, is another of these new-wave agriculturalists. But she's taking a very different approach: Redford is growing mealworms and other insects to feed both animals and humans. And she's doing it in her New Haven apartment.
Other new-generation farmer wannabes are hoping to pool their talents and resources into cooperatives. There's also talk of "incubator farms" on state land where new farmers could get experience and support on start-up plots.
No matter which of these strange new agricultural roads is taken, the going is never easy.
"It's a steep, uphill climb" for young farmers, says Susan Willis, one of Carangelo's mentors and partners. She owns Bitta-Blue Farm in Killingworth, a six-acre operation that Willis has been working for 35 years. "I don't see how any [would-be farmers] manage to get a good start."
Willis, who is 65, works side-by-side with her young protégé on her intensively farmed vegetable-and-dairy-goat operation. In return for labor, Carangelo gets half the profits from the veggies grown at Bitta Blue.
In addition to the huge challenges of high-cost land, new farmers in this region are also up against an industrialized food system that has basically frozen most local farmers out, Willis says.
The farming census statistics show how much Connecticut's agricultural landscape has changed. The number of farms has risen (from about 3,500 three decades ago to nearly 5,000), but the size of farms has dropped from an average of 130 acres to 83 over that same time period. And the total amount of land under cultivation has plunged by more than 50,000 acres — a decline of about 11 percent from what it was in 1978.
There are some favorable winds blowing for Connecticut's new breed of small, organically oriented farmers. Willis says the Internet has made it easier for farmers to directly connect with consumers, and rising interest in locally grown, healthy foods at restaurants and farmers' markets is helping.
Carangelo, a Waterbury native, is counting on that new "locavore" demand for high-quality, organic food. She's also counting on people like Willis and Kelly Goddard and Kingsley Goddard for assistance and farming expertise.
The Goddards own the 20-acre Barberry Hill Farm in Madison, where Carangelo and Lazar are renting a 10-acre back pasture where they raise "pastured" chickens for meat. (Carangelo's website explains that pastured chickens actually get to peck and feed in fields. "Free-range" usually means birds have some sort of access to the outdoors, but rarely get to hunt for bugs and seeds and stuff in a real farm pasture.)
"They don't charge us any money," Carangelo says of the Goddards. "In exchange, we do work on their farm."
While Carangelo splits her days between Killingworth and Madison, Lazar helps out when he's not working part time on a third farm in Cheshire.
The chickens they're raising in Madison start out as chicks they bring in from hatcheries in Missouri and Pennsylvania. They plan on raising five batches of 75-80 birds each, putting them out to pasture, doing their own slaughtering, and selling directly to people at the farm.