On a hot day not long ago I visited Jeff Cone at his River Plain Dairy in Lebanon, a cluster of red barns beside a white clapboard house shaded with tall sugar maples and surrounded by fields. “Farming is
long, hard work,” the earnest, soft spoken 36 year-old acknowledged while some of his fifty black and white Holsteins lowed nearby, “but I know the land, the cows, and myself, and know what I can ask of each. I’m here to enjoy life.” Once common throughout Connecticut, dairymen and farms like Cone’s are increasingly rare in this long and thickly settled state.
Cows pasturing in a rock studded field and rolling hills planted with hay and corn to feed them are among our most cherished landscapes. But for generations such scenes have been disappearing. While Connecticut supports diverse agriculture from plant nurseries to maple syrup, dairies have become iconic because they use more than half the state’s active farmland in a traditional manner.
These farms are not just pictures in a picture window or a satisfying view from behind a windshield. They are businesses that put money into the economy, provide fresh, healthful food, and are a way of life enriching our culture. Farms also connect us to a deep past even from before we earned the nickname “Provisions State” for the food and fiber provided to George Washington’s army.
Where once there were thousands, by some accounts Connecticut had 240 dairy farms at the turn of the twenty-first century and is now down to about 150. Regional competitive inequities, development pressure, and the difficulties of intergenerational transfers are among the reasons.
Yet despite all odds, some agricultural hot spots proudly defy trends and common perceptions. Among them is Cone’s Lebanon, whose historic mile-long green continues to be cut for hay, the last Connecticut common in agriculture. But success is no happy accident.
From a basement office awash in maps and reports, Lebanon planner Phil Chester acknowledges the town’s advantage being enough off the beaten path during the last couple construction waves, as well as its large size containing sufficient good land and surviving farms. But the real difference has been an extraordinary community consensus spearheaded by public spirited citizens who, by 2008, had made the primary purpose of zoning “the promotion and protection of existing agricultural uses.” Supporting this approach, the town budgeted money to save farmland, established 100 foot buffers between farms and residential uses, passed a “right to farm” ordinance to fend off nuisance complaints, and mandated conservation subdivisions requiring 50% open space. Even town entrance signs tout history and agriculture, which are inextricably entwined in this community where Revolutionary War governor Jonathan Trumbull was pivotal in getting food to the troops.
This pro-farm consensus grew organically in a town that has long valued its roots, according to First Selectman Joyce Okunuk. As late twentieth century development pressures increased, community interest in agriculture was carefully nurtured by, among other things, hiring a town planner skilled in farm protection, reaching out to property owners, a conference on the value of land preservation, a farmland succession planning seminar, and public education on the economic value of agriculture. Citizens in Lebanon came to understand that “you can’t develop your way to lower taxes,” Chester says.
At 10,000 acres of active farmland, Lebanon is the state’s leader. Over 4,000 acres have been preserved with federal, state, local, and private money from groups like the Connecticut Farmland Trust. The town’s plan calls for protection of another 2,000 acres in ten years.
Although Lebanon has lost several active dairy farms over the past decade, the cropland continues to support larger herds at remaining farms. Lincoln Chesmer of Graywall Farm, which milks about 450 cows, says good corn land is getting scarce so he rents property two towns away. He finds Lebanon officials receptive to farmers’ needs and helpful with complaints.
At Square A Farm, Shawn McGillicuddy milks 200 cows on a hilltop that’s been in his family a century. A stout, muscular man, he enjoys the variety of farm life. Agreeing that town government has been helpful, he smiles wryly and adds, “besides, we’ve got a group of guys too stubborn to quit.”
Lebanon doesn’t stop at preserving farms, it actively supports and promotes agriculture, Okonuk observes. Regardless of whether that’s a goal to which others aspire, Lebanon’s success demonstrates that municipalities have the power to shape their character. They need the leadership and grassroots will to make it happen.