Satellite data suggest there are fewer than 88,000 acres with farm and field cover across 27 towns in Northwest Connecticut. Some of these are undoubtedly neither farms nor land in agricultural production. The Litchfield Hills Greenprint has shown that no more than 11,400 of these acres occur on permanently protected land, or 13% of the total. Some of this protected land is not protected for farming.
The same 27 town area has 150,000 of state designated prime or additional important farmland soils, and 20,000 of these are on permanently conserved land, though not always available for farming. Again, that is hardly better than the percentage of farm and field cover in protected status (13.3%).
There is a statewide goal of 80,000 acres of farmland, permanently protected, and we are 50,000 acres short. we lose 1-2 of our dairy farms across Connecticut every month and at this rate will have none left that are not protected in less than 35 years. Litchfield County and Sherman in Fairfield County together have the highest amount of farmland acres in the state and should provide a large percentage of the protected farmland needed to meet this goal.
There are 357 parcels of land in this region greater than 50 acres with at least 25% farm and field cover and 25% or greater prime or additional important farmland soils. This adds up to 32,000 acres, averaging about 100 acres in size and with an average of 50% farm and field and farmland soils. These farms are clustered in six or eight areas that might have a shot at retaining their character as farm communities and provide the nucleus of a farmland viability effort to keep agriculture part of this landscape. How many of them can we afford to lose before farming becomes not merely imperiled but extirpated in Northwest Connecticut? What will it take to maintain farming as a vital part of our communities and forestall reaping the final farm product: subdivisions?
I believe we need to retain at least 70-75% of the largest, high quality farmland parcels (say 12,000 acres) and another 4,000 acres of farmland that these farmers rent or that are smaller parcels but part of farmland clusters. I believe we have a dozen years in which to achieve this rate of conservation and increased farmland viability. That's 1,250 farmland acres, every year, kept from the auction block and real estate pages, until 2020. Some of these farms will only be permanently protected if a portion of them gets developed. Some will only survive if the lands they lease are conserved. We need large animal vets and meat processing capacity and new markets for new farm products and affordable land for those who want to farm and beside that it means doubling or tripling the rate at which we conserve farmland. That will take new and expanded resources and partnerships to achieve and the will by those who support farmland preservation to make this a priority.
I believe we need to give the same degree of thought and analysis and develop the same regional conservation metrics for forest land and fresh water resources. We need to figure out how we are going to reach minimum viability for conserving these significant assets while also sustaining healthy rural communities, addressing the economic challenges that contribute to the outmigration of young people and working families, and managing the change that is affecting each and every one of the communities of this special region.
That's my day job. Tonight, I'll be talking along these lines at an open space and development forum in Sharon, CT. If we make any headway, I'll let you know.