Experts: Here's how to preserve Litchfield's farming culture

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

LITCHFIELD — Farms are not cookie cutter. They’re unique, and many have changed over the last few years, according to local farmer Harvey Hubbell.

Hubbell, owner of Chanticleer Acres, was one of the speakers at Saturday’s second Litchfield Farmers Forum, held at Litchfield’s Wisdom Retreat and Conference Center House. About 30 attended the two-hour event in person, and others watched on Zoom. The first Farmers Forum was held in December.

The goal of the forum was to help keep farming an essential part of Litchfield’s future. Topics discussed included agriculture, food security, and farming's contribution to Litchfield's rural character.

Zoning regulations

Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Pond Bureau Association, spoke about the impact of zoning regulations on farming.

“No matter what you do on your farm, there are certain aspects that are going to be susceptible to local zoning regulations,” Nichols said.

In Connecticut, there are 169 municipalities, and all have their own set of zoning regulations, which can regulate activities on farms, according to Nichols.

She added most farms are in residential zones, as opposed to commercial or industrial zones — where more activity can take place.

The town’s plan of conservation and development outlines what farming activity is allowed in each zone.

“The regulations should be reasonable,” she said. “They should be somewhat flexible. The permitting process should be affordable.”

In turn, Nichols said municipalities should get input from the farming community about their plans.

“What do they want to do on their farms now, and five years or 10 from now as the farm grows and develops?” Nichols asked.

After getting that information, municipalities should decide how farmers can achieve those goals.

Non-farmers, youth

Non-farmers should learn about Litchfield’s farming community, according to farm owner Stephanie Weaver, who referenced the history of larger farms.

She said migrant workers would help harvest the apples or tobacco growing on the larger farms. “We got very used to visitors to farms that helped in the process of harvesting,” Weaver said. “Allow people to visit farms and involve them in the process of harvesting. Wouldn’t that be a fun thing and go and just participate for a week on harvest somewhere?”

She added there should be a way to incorporate in the town’s zoning regulations to allow non-farmers to be part of a farm on a visiting basis, “and make them a viable part of our plan of development.”

John Markelon, who is on the executive board of the Litchfield Land Trust, spoke about what he said are vast differences in young people’s experience with farming.

“There seems to be a schism between young people who are book smart and those that are hands-on. That has always been a problem with me,” he said.

“It can be more integrated for the future of our kids to have those experiences. I see a lot of promise as well as cost savings for our communities if we can move in that collaborative direction.”

Matthew Thomas, a culinary arts teacher and chef at Forman School in Litchfield, said the community should take more pride in its agriculture and make wiser food choices.

“What people are mostly eating around here is gas station pizza off the back of a truck that travels 2,000 miles,” he said. “Where’s the pride in this town and in your culture? Where is your cuisine? Let’s start creating it as a small community.”

He encourages teaching each generation to cultivate the land and create a cuisine that “can make a beautiful culture continue to grow.”

Karen Kalenauskas, president of the Litchfield County Farm Bureau, said local farmers can benefit by becoming bureau members.

“People who are farming and who are not farm bureau members are not represented. They are not in the game,” she said. “They don’t know what’s being offered this year through the legislators, through the senators.”

Next steps

Going forward, with regard to best farming practices and guidelines, Nichols said Litchfield doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

“You’re not starting from square one,” she said. “This is going on all over the state, so you can certainly look at regulations that have already been adopted in other towns — that gives you a good place to start.”

She added it’s important to trust that local farmers will make decisions in the town’s best interest, since the farmers are also residents of their town.

“Often times, the non-farming community has this fear of the unknown. Lay that to rest,” she said. She added they wouldn’t want to do anything that would negatively impact the relationship they have with their community and neighbors.

For more information as well as updates on a third Farmers Forum, visit Litchfield CT Farmers Forum on Facebook.

sfox@milfordmirror.com