According to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the Nutmeg State has 169 active dairy farms, or one for every town in the State. Another source reports that "in 1975 there were 817 dairy farms in Connecticut; 10 years ago there were 289; there are now 158." That breaks down to an average loss of 25 farms a year from 1975 to 1996, and 13 farms a year since then. Add to that that agricultural lands are converting faster to development than any other land cover type - at a statewide rate of close to 30 acres a day by some estimates - and the future of farming as a significant part of our rural economy starts to look very bleak. These are sobering numbers, but they don't tell the full story.
For one thing, as has happened elsewhere there has been substantial consolidation of dairy lands into larger farms with fewer owners in Connecticut. The size of farms measured in agricultural land controlled by the dairy farmers has actually increased, and a great deal of agricultural land is leased for silage production and hay. This leased land should be a concern for both farmers and community members, since there is no guarantee that it will be available in the future for farmers to use unless it is specifically conserved for that purpose. Nor is there a guarantee that there will be farmers in the future willing to lease it. The former case has significant consequences for the dairy farmers, as lands they have leased pass into other hands and have higher value as developable property than in agricultural use. The latter case jeopardizes the property tax abatements that landowners currently enjoy if they have 25 acres or more enrolled under Public Act 490 to maintain existing agricultural use. In many Litchfield Hills Towns, more than half the total land base is listed under P.A. 490 for forest, farm and open space but none of it is permanently protected.
Herd sizes and milk production have increased, although just $1 per gallon of milk goes directly to local producers. A 1999 survey of dairy farms in Connecticut, when the state had 245 dairy farms, found that the average farmer age was 53 and over 86% said it was very hard to find an adequate labor force. 22.4% were enrolled in the Connecticut Farmland Preservation program that makes payments in exchange for permanently restricting development rights. 90% were enrolled under 490 current use abatements. The poll had a 51% response rate. The percentage of respondents who thought they would cease total farm operations within 5 years was 12.3% back then, with 20% indicating they would not be farming themselves in 5 years. Even using the state's figure of 169 active dairy operations today, there was a loss of 76 farms between 1999 and 2006 or about 1/3 of the total. A follow up survey would be quite illuminating, particularly to see whether farmland preservation has helped to slow the rate of farm loss.