Suburban farms seek new ways to stay fertile

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — With muddy boots and dirt caked on his fingers, Tom Pinchbeck knows his way around a greenhouse.

Pinchbeck Roses on the Boston Post Road has been in his family for four generations, after his great-grandfather founded the business in 1929.

As the chairman of the Guilford Agricultural Commission, Pinchbeck also knows many of the ins and outs of the town’s farming regulations. The commission has been meeting for a little more than a year on ways to encourage and protect agriculture in the town.

After a group of farmers and other residents formed a steering committee, the Board of Selectmen established the state’s first municipal agricultural commission in August 2006. Commissioners and farm owners said the group has made progress so far, but still has its work cut out for it in a town where residential development may threaten agricultural practices.

“It’s harder for younger farmers who don’t have a farm that they might be able to inherit or something — it’s difficult for them to get into farming because of the limited land,” Pinchbeck said. “Guilford started out as an agricultural town and it still is, but we’re at the point now where we need to sort of acknowledge that formally and to help continue and move agriculture along.”

Recently, the commission announced one of its first major initiatives, a collaboration with the American Farmland Trust to review inconsistencies in local farming rules and regulations. The group got a $15,500 Agriculture Viability Grant from the state Department of Agriculture to conduct the survey.

Pinchbeck said that offices and commissions in Guilford often have varying rules on farming and agriculture, which can create problems for farmers. For example, he said, the planning and zoning department and tax assessor’s offices have different definitions of the word “agriculture.”

“We felt like (doing the review) was an important step one for us to help establish where we stand right now in the town,” he said. “There’s a lot of places where we think we could be of help and a lot of commissions are looking for advice from us.”

Environmental Town Planner Leslie Kane said the farming operations in Guilford run from small farm stands to large-scale commercial operations. Everyone on the commission is involved in farming, Kane said, and the group has “made really good progress” so far in reaching out to other farmers in town.

“The fact that we do have so many farms is really important to maintaining Guilford’s character,” she said. “(We wanted to) make sure that there was a group that when there were farm issues that came up, whether they were zoning questions, conflicts with zoning regulations, or whether it was neighbor issues, that farmers had somewhere to go for people to support them.”

Pinchbeck said that the commission has tried to be as inclusive as possible with different agricultural practices.

“Intentionally, we’ve kept our definition from our perspective very open for anybody who’s interested,” he said. “There’s a lot of part-timers; a lot of people might have a full-time job somewhere and then they farm or maybe their wife works and they farm. It seems like more and more farmers need to have some sort of income from the outside or health benefits.”

Barbara Hammarlund and her husband, John, are part-time farmers who hope to transition to full time eventually. Both grew up working on farms and were part of the steering committee to form the agricultural commission, and John Hammarlund is now an alternate on the commission.

They grow hay and raise a small herd of beef cattle on about 100 acres that they rent and own, Barbara Hammarlund said. The hot weather this year has been a challenge for second-cut hay farmers, and Hammarlund — who attends most of the commission’s meetings — said she hopes the group can look into grants or other forms of funding available to smaller operations.

“To try and farm full time, it doesn’t really work,” she said. “It takes a while to build up the clientele on your farm and everything else, and you just can’t make enough these days to pay all the bills and everything.”

In 2006, about 2,700 acres of land in Guilford fell under a tax category for farms, according to the tax assessor’s office. That number, which represents about 9 percent of the total land in Guilford, was up slightly from about 2,300 acres in 2001. The U.S. Census of Agriculture showed that the number of farms in New Haven County as a whole declined by 14 percent between 1997 and 2002, the most recent year for which data was available.

One of the Guilford Agricultural Commission’s goals is to create a comprehensive inventory of the town’s farms.

In addition to taking an overall look at Guilford’s farm regulations, the agricultural commission is tackling some of the more seemingly minor issues — like who the police department should call when it gets complaints about loose livestock. Other sources of conflict with nonfarming residents can include tractors driving on main roads and cars parking haphazardly at farm stands.

Guilford’s role as the first town in the state to establish an agricultural commission has attracted attention from different groups. Earlier this month, a biannual bicycle ride called the Tour des Farms visited 14 farms in Guilford.

John Guszkowski, chairman of the Eastern Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Council, which started the tour about five years ago, said the goal is to promote local farms and their products. More than 120 riders started at the Guilford Fairgrounds and took either a 10-, 19-, 28-, or 62-mile loop to different farms, where they were able to buy products that a truck brought back to the fairgrounds for them.

“Guilford having established this agricultural commission sort of gave a good opportunity to highlight them,” Guszkowski said.

The commission has also been prototype for other towns hoping to set up their own agricultural bodies. North Branford Town Manager Karl Kilduff said that the Town Council recently approved the creation of an agricultural commission, which has not started meeting yet.

“I think Guilford’s action provided a model and a topic of conversation for the council to consider,” Kilduff said.

Pinchbeck said that one of the original goals was to encourage the development of agricultural commissions. The Guilford body was based on one in Carver, Mass.

“I hope some more have started up,” Pinchbeck said. “We were hoping that it would sort of get a little snowball effect and get some other towns interested in this.”

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