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Losing Ground: Connecticut’s Small Farms Face an Uncertain Future

Rows of apple trees line a hill rising gently over strawberry and blueberry beds. Bright patches of pumpkins dot the immaculate grounds of Rose’s Berry Farm, a staple of Glastonbury, Connecticut since 1908. Once a small 20-acre fruit farm with no reputation, it is now, at 100 acres, recognized as Connecticut’s largest blueberry farm.

The farm, which supplies much of the fresh produce served in Yale’s dining halls, is a beloved stop on Yale Farm Tours, a program coordinated by Yale Dining Services to show students where their food comes from. Among Yale students and New Haveners, Rose’s Berry Farm is famous for its Sunday morning tradition, “Breakfast with a View.” Customers wait up to two hours to eat freshly baked Belgian waffles on an expansive deck overlooking dozens of acres of blueberry bushes and pear and apple trees. After breakfast, the visitors pick their own berries, and children from neighboring schools enjoy the playground.

From the outside, the farm seems to be thriving. People come and go, and Sandi Rose, the sole manager since her husband Henry’s death in 2009, never stops moving. Business should be good—great, even—but it’s not. It hasn’t been good for a while.

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In Connecticut, family farms are struggling to keep up with changing times. Members of an aging population, small farmers face a global market that demands levels of efficiency and production they are not equipped to meet. New regulations and a dwindling American agricultural labor force have motivated some to employ foreign workers through federal programs like the H-2A visa program, despite the high associated costs. Locally, the power of corporate distributors hasn’t just made business less convenient—it has changed the way small farmers operate. Rose’s farm is close to bankrupt.

I haven’t made money in the last three years,” Rose told The Politic. “I’m barely making enough to break even and open the next year.”

After more than 100 years in business, Rose sold half her farm to the town of Glastonbury in early June for 1.9 million dollars. The land included blueberry bushes, apple trees, and a raspberry patch.

A condition of the sale was that the town would continue to use the land for agriculture. Glastonbury Town Manager Richard J. Johnson agreed; he plans to work with nearby orchard managers and farmers to harvest the crops.

“I didn’t want the land to stop being farmland,” Rose said. “It was important that I honor Henry’s legacy.”

Rose, 64, knows that the rest 0f her farm is running out of time. Neither of her children will take her place, leaving her 14-year old grandson as the last possible successor.

“I don’t want my grandson to have to take the farm on,” Rose said. “I want him to have the choice of whether he wants to farm or not.”

The problem of succession plagues farms across the state. According to a report from the American Farmland Trust and Land for Good, more than 90 percent of Connecticut’s senior farmers (65 and older) do not have a young farm operator (under 45) working with them.

Among younger farmers, business seems to be better. Federal data shows that, on average, farmers under 45 netted 7,000 dollars more in 2017 than in 2016, while older farmers lost 13,000 dollars. Some have speculated that younger farmers have avoided competition by investing in niche products, but there’s no definitive answer as to why they are faring better than their elders.

But the number of young farmers in Connecticut is dwindling—a serious concern, given that seniors constitute a third of all farmers in the state. Farmers under the age of 44 comprise just 12 percent of farmers in Connecticut. The average age of Connecticut farmers, census data shows, is 58.

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Vital parts of American agriculture, family farms speckle the U.S. from coast to coast. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated that 96 percent of all farms in the country were family-owned. Most of them—roughly 90 percent—qualified as small farms, grossing less than 250,000 dollars annually in all food sales.

Under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, the FDA has the power to regulate how food is picked, packaged, and processed. After the law passed, small farms were allowed more time than their larger counterparts to comply with the FDA’s regulations—with the ultimate goal that all farms, large and small, would follow the same practices, under the same regulations.

Called a “sliding-scale” approach, the model appears to privilege small farms. In actuality, though, the policy burdens them by holding them to the same standards as large farms, even though it is unfeasible for them to operate in the same way because they have fewer resources.

For example, all farms will be required to use disposable, biodegradable shipping containers, which are too expensive for small farms to buy regularly. Under the new regulations, farmers must revamp their tracking systems to electronically document sales—but most small farms lack the equipment and the workforce required to update their systems.

The deadline is looming: Large farms had to comply with most of the requirements by January 2017, whereas most small farms had to comply by January 2018. Very small farms—under 20 acres of cropland—have until January 2019.

The sliding-scale approach was adopted in order to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” policy. An attempt to account for resource disparity among farmers, the law still holds all farmers to an almost identical set of protocols, ostensibly to ensure food safety.

But in Connecticut, one longtime food safety advocate has been hurt by the legislation. Doug Bussa, owner of Bussa Orchards, presides over 40 acres of fruit trees and manages under 200,000 dollars in gross sales per year. Bussa is Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certified, which means he volunteered to have USDA officials inspect his farm’s packaging, handling, and storing for safety. Before FSMA, GAP certification was a badge of honor.

Bussa expected the FSMA regulations to be a smooth transition; after all, he and the USDA had agreed the farm was small and safe. But in 2017, the regulations almost drove his farm to bankruptcy.

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Bussa Orchards is primarily a wholesale farm, with 90 percent of its product sold directly to big distributors. Freshpoint, one of the largest wholesale distributors in Connecticut, is Bussa’s biggest buyer.

The Freshpoint warehouse complex is a 15-minute drive from the farm. Bussa used to pack up his apples in his pickup truck and drive there, but he can’t do that anymore. The FDA does not allow produce to be transported even short distances without refrigeration. Bussa was forced to buy a refrigerated truck for 50,000 dollars to deliver his produce to Freshpoint.

“These rules don’t make sense for me,” he said. “If you’re going across country or out-of-state, that makes sense. But I’m going right down the road.”

Bussa hasn’t thought much about being competitive in the market. It doesn’t help that some regulations are changing or still aren’t established, as is the case with agricultural water, or water used for farming. The FDA issued a proposal in February of 2018, but it has not been finalized. Bussa would like to adapt accordingly, but he can’t afford to make changes that he may have to reverse.

“It’s hard being a little guy,” he said. “You’re small but expected to do the same thing as a larger grower, but with less resources. You just can’t absorb that type of cost.”

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In the U.S., farms aren’t just scrambling for funds. Too few Americans are willing to work long hours for the wages small farmers like Rose and Bussa can pay. As a result, more and more farmers are turning to guest workers to plant and harvest, according to federal data from the U.S. Office of Foreign Labor.

During the first three months of 2017, the Department of Labor approved applications to fill 69,272 farm jobs with workers on H-2A visas—documents that allow non-citizens to fill temporary agricultural jobs in the U.S.—marking an increase of 36 percent from 2016.

The H-2A visa program has been growing rapidly in recent years, as farmers struggle to recruit enough domestic workers to keep their farms running. Their dependence on H-2A has come with controversy. Advocates for American farm workers, such as Farmworker Justice, have condemned farmers who use the program for outsourcing domestic jobs and refusing to pay higher wages to American workers.

Unlike many Midwestern states, where H-2A is popular, Connecticut has shown a shrinking dependence on guest workers. According to a 2013 report from the Connecticut Department of Labor, the New England Farm Workers Council estimated there were 7,000 guest workers in the state; three years later, the estimate dropped to just under 6,000.

High overhead expenses and standards designed to prevent exploitation of guest workers, such as a requirement that employers provide free transportation, are simply unfeasible for many small farmers in New England. Christina Teter, the owner of Mountain Orchard LLC in Granville, Massachusetts, estimated that overhead costs for one guest worker can range from 1,100 to 1,200 dollars, depending on the year, to pay for the visa, taxes, and paperwork done through the Department of Labor. Bussa reported similar expenses.

Mountain Orchard is a 52-acre farm that sells half of its produce wholesale and half to stores, farm stands, and the local college, Westfield State University. Though Mountain Orchard is located in Massachusetts, its fate is tied to the Connecticut market. (Teter deals exclusively with Connecticut-based Freshpoint for wholesale.) Less than ten miles beyond the state border, Mountain Orchard has been dubbed “local” by Connecticut sellers.

Once the guest workers arrive, it only becomes harder to control labor expenses, Teter said. Under the Department of Labor’s “50-percent rule,” during the first half of a contract period with foreign workers on H-2A, a farmer must hire any U.S. worker that asks for a job, provided the worker is able and qualified. Even if the farm is fully staffed, the farmer is bound by law to hire the American applicant.

But farmers risk losing money when they choose to hire American workers, Teter said. And if they lose money that way, they are less likely to have enough funds to switch to H-2A. Farmers employing U.S. workers often set aside extra money to pay unqualified employees for jobs poorly done, Teter said. It’s a lose-lose for the farmers—but it allows the Department of Labor to say that Americans still want agricultural jobs.

To Rose, the 50-percent rule is degrading. It makes the work of farmers and pickers seem easy, she said, when in actuality, the work takes practice and grit.

“The premise of the H-2A is that you are requesting ‘unskilled’ labor, but that’s just not true,” Rose said. “Picking various crops at a fast rate a certain way requires skill, but [the Department of Labor] doesn’t want to recognize that because it makes Americans seem lazy.”

Both Teter and Bussa continue to employ H-2A workers because foreign workers are a guaranteed labor force, despite the high costs. At both of their farms, labor-related costs account for half of all expenses.

Others have turned to undocumented workers, who will often work for lower wages. Across the country, undocumented immigrants working on American farms have reported wage theft and unhygienic living conditions. But threats of deportation and economic need often keep them at their jobs, according to studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some farmers in Connecticut who have been reported for exploitation have turned to undocumented workers, too—perpetuating a cycle of immigrant worker abuse.

Connecticut farmers and workers alike worry what will happen to them in the coming years with Trump’s strong anti-immigration stance, said Rose, many of whose employees are Hispanic. Even documented workers worry that they will be picked up by ICE because of the color of their skin or deported because of sudden changes in legislation.

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William DellaCamera, 38, is part of the new wave of farmers trying to make the market work for them. But corporate ownership of distributors has left DellaCamera with little power.

DellaCamera manages a 140-acre fruit and vegetable farm called Cecarelli Farms in Northford, Connecticut. Using a mixed-crop model, Cecarelli operates without a core cash crop, instead farming plots of different kinds of produce, from strawberries to cauliflower to potatoes. Although the farm is 140 acres, only 80 acres have been active since a recent scale-back.

The farm is known throughout the state for being on the cutting edge of innovation while also modeling natural, traditional farming practices. Before his death last January, former manager Nelson Cecarelli developed and popularized a deep-zone tilling technique in which seeds are planted at greater depths to reduce erosion and carbon dioxide emissions. Now, more than 40 farms across the state use his technique.

Despite Cecarelli Farms’ success, DellaCamera noted that one of the biggest challenges facing farms like his is the loss of local distributors. Connecticut used to have multiple family-owned distributors working alongside family farms, but not anymore. Before Freshpoint existed, Fowler & Huntting Company Inc., a third-generation distributor in Hartford, provided personalized services to local farmers.

Founded in 1865, the company was run by the Yandow family. In 1994, Bill Yandow sold Fowler & Huntting to his four nephews, Kenneth, William, David, and Thomas. David Yandow was responsible for buying from local farms and soon developed close relationships with the farmers.

When Nelson Cecarelli, the former manager of Cecarelli Farms, had extra produce, he could depend on David Yandow to take it off his hands, DellaCamera said. Yandow never turned Cecarelli down; he always found a way to accommodate his friends.

According to DellaCamera, dynamics between Fowler & Huntting and local farmers changed when Sysco Corporation, the parent company of Freshpoint, bought out Fowler & Huntting in 2006. The company adopted a more corporate model and stopped going the extra mile. Yandow wasn’t buying extra produce like he used to.

Freshpoint is now the largest distributor of food in the state of Connecticut and controls much of the movement of local produce in the Greater Hartford area. Some farmers, like Stewart “Chip” Beckett of Beckett Farms, believe Freshpoint has too strong of a pull, especially in Hartford. Beckett cited the lack of major competitors and Freshpoint’s plans to expand as evidence.

DellaCamera and Beckett both resent corporate power’s influence on Connecticut farming, but they will continue to sell wholesale to Freshpoint. They have no choice, DellaCamera said: A Big Y supermarket will buy a box of squash for 10 dollars—double the amount Freshpoint will pay—but Big Y will only buy 25 boxes. Freshpoint will take 100.

To make money, DellaCamera has to balance direct retail to local stores with wholesale to Freshpoint. But Freshpoint isn’t the only distributor in the state. Why does DellaCamera keep going back?

“Freshpoint is the most consistent distributor,” he said. “I know that once I drop off my produce, I’ll have my check in 12 days.”

He has tried smaller distributors across the state, but they have proved less reliable. Sometimes the distributor’s check would take 30 or 60 days to arrive, only for it to bounce. It wasn’t worth the trouble of sacrificing money and valuable time to find another distributor.

“I can’t make it without them,” DellaCamera said of Freshpoint. If he ended his relationship with Freshpoint without a high-volume buyer to rely on, he worries future crop shortages would bankrupt him. “I need to keep my foot in the door.”

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Rose, Bussa, Teter, DellaCamera, and Beckett all know David Yandow, now the vice president of Freshpoint Connecticut, personally.

“The farmers are worried we’ve become too corporate,” Yandow said. “That’s a legitimate concern. I want them to remember that I spent most of my life advocating for local produce and built Freshpoint around local.”

A month ago, Yandow took Rose out to dinner to learn about the sale of her farm and to offer help. He went boating with Will last summer. Farmers agree that Yandow genuinely cares about them and tries to help them whenever he can.

“We’re trying to be as a fair as possible to the farmers,” Yandow said. Freshpoint’s website is plastered with advertisements about local food and the company’s slogan, “local flavor.” Under the “Meet the Farmer” tab, website visitors can read short biographies about all the farmers who partner with Freshpoint. Yandow brought the passion he developed for local food at Fowler & Huntting to his work at Freshpoint. But no amount of advertising has softened the bottom line: money.

“Everybody wants a million dollars for their produce,” Yandow said. “I get it, but pricing isn’t really up to me or Freshpoint. The market dictates the price.”

Identifying a single market that’s setting prices can be tricky. U.S. agriculture has globalized, Yandow explained. In 2016, the Department of Agriculture estimated that more than half of all fruit and a third of all vegetables were imported, with much of the produce coming from heavy-hitting Latin America and Canada. Small American farms compete with big American farms, but both compete with international powerhouses.

“We try to remind our buyers that the produce is local,” Yandow said. “But that doesn’t matter if the market is flooded and there are cheaper options out there.”

Knowing local small farmers are fighting an uphill battle, Yandow had a special dock built at the Hartford company headquarters specifically for local farmers. There, they can bypass the usual lines and unload their product without a long wait. But Yandow’s efforts haven’t been enough. Small farms keep losing money.

Earlier this year, both Freshpoint and Sardilli Produce & Dairy Co., a milk and dairy distributor, submitted proposals to build new distribution centers in Hartford’s South Meadows, according to the Capital Region Development Authority. In June, Sardilli withdrew its application, leaving Freshpoint to win the bid, according to the Hartford Courant.

Yandow hopes that the expansion, which would add 125 jobs, will help him better support local small farmers. He hopes to acquire a flash freezer that would hold farmers’ leftover produce for a season. That way, even if a year’s crop were poor, farmers would have a consistent source of income.

Still, Yandow is concerned about the future of small farms. He knows that the market price is just one factor in what keeps a farm open; the rest, he said, is out of his hands.

“I don’t know if they’re going to be around for long,” he said. “Right now, some of them are just waiting to see if this year is going to be good enough to open up next year.”

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With the 2012 Farmland Restoration Program, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has tried to revitalize the state’s agriculture. For the past six years, the program has provided matching monetary support to farmers to reclaim fallow farmland and restore it. Farms can qualify to receive up to 20,000 dollars, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.

Though it’s difficult to predict the future of small farming, there’s a resilient group of Connecticut farmers who don’t plan on giving up anytime soon.

In spite of all the obstacles—regulations that benefit large farms, funds, workers, a global market—Doug Bussa believes that small farming will continue to exist as long as familiar faces like Yandow keep working at places like Freshpoint. Personnel turnover could spell disaster, but for now, Bussa’s not too worried. Sandi Rose doesn’t think small farming is going to fade away, either. But farmers will have to evolve. She believes small farms will continue to exist because they’re adaptable.

“Farming is going to be different in the future,” Rose said. “It might not be the farming we’re used to. But we’ll change to match.”